Anatomy of a Bribe
I stink and I’m tired. Even though the three months in Moscow passed quickly, I’m ready to return home. Moving up in line at Sheremetro’s outgoing customs line, I lament Moscow’s rotating water shutdown program. Their antiquated water and sewage systems constantly need refurbishment. Consequently, during the summer months, they have rotating outages to repair the pipes. During my last month, the water in the Batgrationovskaya District, the district I called home, was shut down. No showers and no washing. My scent is ripe, but no different than that of people from similarly affected areas. Now, I stand behind some very fresh smelling, nice looking people. They are too polite to look my way and turn up their nose. Nevertheless, I hear them talking about me. My face flushes.
I move up in line.
I fondly remember the family that housed me on short notice. I convince myself the two hundred dollars I left with the mother is fair compensation for my stay. The eldest son was upset, feeling he ought handle the money, but I believed the mother would use the money more wisely.
My turn, I step to the agent.
I give him my documents. He is young, blonde, blue eyed, and earnest looking, with no facial hair. With an expressionless face, he flips through the pages of the passport. The process is taking too long. Something is amiss. He makes a telephone call.
Moments later two large military guards appear. They too are young. The customs officer hands my passport to one of them.
Nervously, I follow them through the red security door. My heart rate quickens as we leave the familiar terminal and enter its unknown depths. The police, military, and customs agents seem so young, making me feel old for recognizing it. My mind wanders, mostly to divert attention away from a building sense of impending doom.
They escort me down a hall and into a small room. One guard takes my bag and leaves. The other guard searches me and takes my waist pack. His size and his side-arm compel me to comply.
Beyond my own funk the room smells of stale cigarette smoke and vomit. No windows or other doors exist. A single incandescent bulb illuminates the room from above. There is no writing on the doors. I am nervous. At least there is no blood. I call to mind that there is three hours before my flight. This brief comfort fades as I am left alone to contemplate the silence of the room. It is quiet enough to hear my own breathing. The silence indicates to me that people in the terminal would hear nothing that transpires in this small corner of the airport.
Ten minutes. Twenty Minutes. Thirty minutes pass.
The door opens and two men enter. These men are not young. They are clearly my seniors. The first is rotund, muscular, and ill-kept. Aside from uncombed oily hair, I see sweat stains under his unbuttoned tweed jacket. Standing directly across the table from where I sit, I smell him. He smells like I do, but I feel that wisecracks about the water shut downs are not appropriate. I recognize the KGB insignia on the other man’s jacket immediately. Tall and gaunt, he stands in the back of the room slowly nursing an unfiltered cigarette. It’s a smell I’ve come to loathe. The smoke is everywhere in this city, the cafeterias, subways, restaurants, buses, nightclubs, and workplaces. I long for fresh air. But now, I feel my heart palpate and struggle to suppress my urge to pee.
“Pochimu ti pzadayoshi narkotiki v nashei stzanie?”
My large interrogator belts out letting his words and spittle sloppily hit me in the face.
I am in trouble. My Russian is terrible, but I understand the word ‘why’ and ‘narcotics’. My mind races. Had one of my friends snuck a gift into my bag without me knowing? Do I fit a profile?
“Nimnoga Ruskie, Inglezi?”
He sighs, looks me straight in the eyes, and in rusty clunky English asks loudly:
“Why you sell drugs and guns in our country?”
“I’m not…I didn’t…you have made a mistake.”
“Tell me what you do here in Soviet Union?”
He misspeaks. Technically, it is now Russia and has been so for several months, but I choose not to correct him.
“I was working in on Tamov Street for a company.”
“We have no record of you there. Where you live in Moscow?”
“With Ludmydilla and Ivan near Batgrationovskaya Station.”
“What family name? What address? What phone number?”
I don’t know. Everything had been last minute. Fly by night arrangements were made by a friend of a friend. I knew how to get to their flat, and how to navigate the metro. I did not even have their telephone number. They gave me a key, and I never called them. I did not even know the last name of the family with whom I stayed, how pathetic and stupid.
“I can’t pronounce it.”
“Spell. Paper…pencil. You write names of everyone. All contacts, you write now.”
“What did I do? I want to talk to my consulate!”
“Why? You do something wrong? Are you guilty and need protection?”
“No. I am guilty of nothing. Why am I here? Why are you questioning me?”
“Write the names.” He shouted with lost patience, spraying me with bits of his last meal.
Fleeting thoughts of Stalin and McCarthy pass through my head. Thousands of similar interrogations ended poorly for a great many people; I thought myself a better man. I thought that if in a similar situation, I would hold true to liberty and freedom. Maybe the stakes are not high enough, or maybe they are too high. Maybe I am a coward. I write the names of people I met and places I visited. With head held in shame and fear, I push the paper to the interrogator. He takes the list, looks at it, and passes it to his partner, who hovers in the corner like the angel of death. With a huff, my interrogator leaves the room. His partner extinguishes one cigarette and lights another. It is a motion of habit and totally fluid. He does it with no attention to his actions allowing for full focus on me. His eyes never leave me. My anxiety increases.
The room is silent. If I strain I hear the occasional sucking of air as the thin KGB man inhales. Time passes. I sit nervously in my own sweat avoiding looking up at the skinny smoking intense man. Visions of Ivan Devonovich and gulags pass through my head. Authorities in this country have sent many people to the most forbidding places on Earth for petty insults and phantom reasons. Stalin and Kruchev are gone, and the Cold War is on the brink of ending. But I cannot deny that in the last moments of life, regimes as well as people, are capable of extremes. I hate the cold and think the worst. I feel sick.
The interrogator returns with a file.
“You stay at Hotel Ukrainia in May 17 and stayed for five days.”
“Yes. It was…”
“Quiet! Not question. I know, the records say.”
He shows me my signature on the hotel card. I can’t hide my surprise. No only did they obtain records of my accommodation, but more significantly the KGB has a file on me.
“This hotel for diplomats, rich tourists, prostitutes, and Russian mafia. You not a diplomat, you not rich or a woman. You must be helping with illegal activities. You left on May 23. It is now August 27. You not register in any other hotel. Why you hiding?”
He was right about the hotel but wrong about me. Every night in the hotel prostitutes called my room with various seedy come-ons:
“You want Russian woman. Russian sex is best.”
They also slipped business cards, phone, and room numbers under the door. Several scantily clad women waited in the lobby bar. The men moving in and out were well dressed. Large men sported conspicuous bulges under leather jackets. BMWs, Mercedes, Porches, and Fords filled the hotel’s restricted parking lot. They contrasted dramatically against the boxy Volgas that populated nearby streets.
I am scared, and think carefully about my response.
“I have not been hiding. I have been helping the economy.”
“Your papers not say this. There are consequences for committing crimes in our state. Tell me more about your contacts or you will know the consequences.”
He showed his hand. My papers are the problem. My visa must have a mistake on it, some small stupid error committed by some know-nothing uncaring bureaucrat.
“This is a misunderstanding. Please search my bags. You will find nothing of consequence. If you check my file, you will find that my belongings were searched when I entered Russia. I committed no illegal acts while here and want no trouble. There must be some sort of payment I can make to fix the problem with my papers.”
He turns and speaks with his partner. Even though a short distance separates us I cannot hear the conversation. The thin man continues looking at me through wisps of smoke the whole time. My anxiety peaks, but I feel hope.
“You pay three hundred American dollars.”
The anger on his face is gone, but he remains stern and serious. He just happened to request the amount of money in my waist pack plus the sum of cash in various hiding places in my bag. They must have already searched and found it. I do not care. Gulags are not for me and I want to return home.
“Please bring me my things and I will pay.”
He left me again with his partner, whose stare I continue to avoid.
He returns with my luggage. I rummage through and give him two hundred dollars from my waist pack and collect another hundred from random places in my bag and carry-on pack. I notice a few trinkets missing – nothing expensive. Souvenirs I do not need anyway.
He smiles smugly and thumps on the door. The large guard who escorted me to this room reappears filling the doorway. My interrogator whispers something to him and steps back.
I collect my things and return up the hallway and pass through the red door. Comfort fills me as I enter the main terminal by the customs line. Even though noisy conversation surrounds me I am unable to discern a single recognizable word. Families, businessmen, well-dressed women, pilots, stewards, and porters scurry about, all in a rush to get somewhere or to wait in line. The announcement system booms information about flights, parking, and people. It is the general frenzy found at any international airport, and now I find it oddly soothing. The silence of the interrogation room is no more. I look forward to blending in, disappearing in the anonymity of a crowd away from the interrogator and his partner. There is indeed safety in numbers. The guard walks me through a special turnstile at customs, where I talk to no one, and then to my gate.
He talks briefly with the Aeroflot attendant and leaves. I check my passport. No exit stamp, no papers, no receipt for my payment. Too afraid to wander about without the proper exit documentation, I sit and wait. Getting my mind off my urge to use the bathroom helps pass the time. I think of how I’ll spend my two day layover in Amsterdam with the only money I have left – twenty dollars tucked into the bottom of my sock. I know it’s there, but if check now, I’ll lose it for sure.
Antonio Sanchez – thinker, writer, eater. Contact Antonio at antoniowrites at gmail dot com.