Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Life as a Spy (FSB interrogation)

So if you haven't been following the tale of my journey back to Georgia from my sojourn in the Northern Caucasus, first I was convinced to stay an extra day in Vladikavkaz by a cool little Ossetian wrestler and the promise of a wedding, then got stuck in the taxi from hell when I finally did make my way back across the border...

This border crossing (right)- alternately called Verkhny Lars (Russian) or Dariali (Georgian), is an interesting one, and fairly unusual for tourists to cross. Most people that travel to Georgia don't plan on going north to Russia- particularly not via this long, slow, complicated crossing. Tourists to the Northern Caucasus aren't that rare, but usually they fly in from Moscow. To see an American crossing the border into the Northern Caucasus by car is quite extraordinary. Thus, the border patrol agents were particularly enthusiastic in my questioning.

On the way to Russia, a cute little blonde woman in plain clothes (sign of FSB) came and asked us questions while we sat in the car. It was clear that we were a rag-tag group of walkers who had just piled into a random car to get through the border, which is why I think they questioned us. It's not illegal, but maybe unusual enough to warrant individual questioning. I think if they had realized I was American sooner they probably would have pulled me out of the car, but I kept it on the DL so we got to stay seated. She was just so curious about my life! And thought I was so interesting! She chatted with me like an old girlfriend catching up and I played the part. Gushing about how interested I am in Russia and the former Soviet Union, how I'm traveling to practice my Russian, and NOT how I was working for the Parliament of Georgia...

here is a forbidden shot I took of the border entry to Russia

 The way back into Georgia was not quite as simple. 
 
basically me

So it's Monday morning, and as the sun moves higher across the sky my seat mate's fleshy arm gets stickier by the minute, and the Ossetian Kim Kardashian-wannabe in the front seat raises the octave of her screeches. 

The border crossing process is as such: drive up to the line of cars (I think we waited about 30 minutes), eventually reach the little station where passengers disembark and shuffle through the passport check window, get back in the car on the other side of the station, drive through no-man's land to the Georgian border station, passengers disembark, go inside, and get their passports checked and stamped, get back in your car on the other side, drive to your destination!

It was around step 3 where things got interesting. When I reached the passport check window, the guy took one look at my passport and picked up the phone,
"Just a minute, someone will come"
"Okay..."
The phone rings, rings, no answer. 
"We'll wait a minute." 
He waved the next few people through, and tried the phone again. About 5 minutes later, a small young man in jeans and a white and green polo rounds the corner. 
"Please come with me," he says in stuttering English, I suggest we speak Russian, because I need the practice, and he gratefully agrees. The FSB agent (I'm like 95% sure he was FSB- Russia's internal intelligence service) led me up three flights of stairs to a cramped office. The one floor-level window was covered up with black tarp and duct tape. I sank into a springless couch, and my agent opened an enormous notebook full of pencil scribbles. As I answered his questions, he took notes- I saw he had written "Florida," my place of birth, which I found particularly odd since he had already made a copy of my passport. There was a big copier in the room, but no computer. I wonder if they ever transfer the notes to an electronic database. I wonder if they share information about the individuals unique or unlucky enough to receive this special treatment...
I can totally do that

He asked me the basic questions- what I'm studying, why I was in Russia, why I was in Georgia. He asked me about my family- was my dad a police officer? 

Then he closed the notebook. I guess the official interrogation was over, but then he asked, "so tell me the truth, what's America really like? I see it on TV and in the movies, but I don't believe it."
He wanted me to tell him it's all lies- that America is a land of evil, suffering, and unhappiness rather than the playful bounty the media portrays. While of course, it's not all like on TV, I couldn't tell him what he wanted to hear. Of course there is poverty, there is frivolity and selfishness and vanity, but that's not particular to America by any stretch. For the most part, life in America is really good- especially compared to the modest, rural, regulated life I knew this guy was living.
He told me he dreamed of traveling the world, but he couldn't because of his job (another hint he was FSB- they're not allowed to leave the country). I asked why he would pick a job that basically cut him off from his dream, 
"I'm a patriot," he said
"Well I'm a patriot too! I love my country, my homeland, but that doesn't mean I should never leave it. I can serve my country in many ways."
He was beginning to get defensive, "Russia is a big country, there is still lots to see here. I will ask for my next assignment to be stationed in the Far East, or maybe Arkhangelsk." 
Our eyes met in contemplative silence, our world views locked in fundamental opposition. 
My kind of spy
Suddenly the door banged open and four or five laughing boys in blue border guard uniforms tumbled into the room. When they saw me, they froze in silence- I guess my FSB agent didn't often have guests. I flashed them my flirtiest and most American smile, and they relaxed. My agent gave them my passport and they passed it around, incredulous that I needed a visa to go to Azerbaijan. My agent instructed them to escort me back to my taxi, and we parted unceremoniously. I wish I could talk to that agent again, I wish I could find him and talk more about our lives, our divergent paths...but I don't even remember his first name. He's probably been reassigned by now. He wouldn't want to be found anyway. 

In the stairwell with the boys in blue we ran into their boss and they all saluted. At the back of the gaggle I had the impulse to imitate their formality and gave a little mini-salute, referring to my AFROTC days. 
I'm potentially a total bad ass
My taxi driver and fellow passengers were indeed quite pissed at the delay I had caused, but I was angry at them too for being major jerk-faces, so I did not care and resumed my "holier than thou," crossed arms, pursed lips, pretending I'm not sweating like a pig attitude for the remainder of the trip to Kazbegi.
 
people waiting inside the welcoming, air conditioned,
WI-fi enabled Georgian border facility
Unfortunately I didn't risk taking any pictures of the Russian crossing station- they were very strict and I was already being carefully watched. My taxi driver actually came to check on me as the FSB agent led me away (not out of concern for me, but out of concern that the other passengers would get angry having to wait). When the FSB agent saw my taxi driver with his cellphone out he started shouting at him, pointing to the liberally distributed "no cellphones" signs, and actually took the phone out of his hand to check his call log...

Part 1: The Wedding I didn't Attend
Part 2: The Shared Taxi from Hell


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