MOSCOW — Since the conflict between Ukraine and Russia began over four years ago, the once-brotherly Slavic nations are almost completely cut off from each other. Even though around 2 million Ukrainians still work and live in Russia, there are no direct flights between Kiev and Moscow anymore, and just one overnight train a day that runs between the two capitals, which are less than 1,000 kilometers apart.
Ukraine has started building a wall along its 2,000 km-long border with Russia to protect itself from its northern aggressor. The few border crossings between northern Ukraine and southern Russia are now fortified outposts, bristling with paranoia and mutual suspicion.
Having decided recently to relocate from Kiev to Moscow, I ventured to drive with my car and personal possessions between the two hostile capitals. Friends in both countries warned me against making the journey, and not even my best mates could be coaxed into joining the road trip.
Eventually I set out alone on a sunny September morning, heading north on a four-lane highway lined with fields of sunflowers and corn. Once a major artery, it has since fallen into neglect. But as I come within 50 km of the Russian border, the road empties out, the landscape on either side of the highway as eerily quiet as the Chernobyl exclusion zone. There are almost no cars at the border crossing. A long line of cargo trucks snakes along for a few hundred meters.
While Russia is seen as a hostile aggressor in most of Ukraine, the Russians have always pretended theyre innocent bystanders to the turmoil in east Ukraine.
As a U.S. citizen, I was expecting an easy time at the Ukrainian border. But the grim border guards with their military fatigues and Kalashnikovs hustle me out of the car, and gruffly ask whether Im carrying drugs or explosives. They order me to carry my numerous bags of clothes and household possessions into the shed where theyre subjected to a thorough inspection that lasts over an hour. The overzealous customs official mistakes shards of potato chips on my backseat for traces of explosives, and tests them with some special device.
“Im an American and a friend of Ukraine,” I finally cry out in exasperation.
He rolls his eyes at his colleague.
Perhaps, like at the Ukrainian-Moldovan border crossing a few years back, my appearance makes them mistake me for a possible terrorist or ISIS operative. They seem disappointed at not finding anything, and finally wave me through.
* * *
The Russian border guards are friendlier and happier. While Russia is seen as a hostile aggressor in most of Ukraine, the Russians have always pretended theyre innocent bystanders to the turmoil in east Ukraine. That mood of insouciance is clearly evident on the Russian side of the border.
A woman crosses the border from Russia to Ukraine at Goptivka | Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images
“What do you think of the new iPhone?” asks the first guard who checks my American passport.
The customs official flips through the document with a big smile, and stops at the drawing of a grizzly bear on the Alaska page.
“How do you call that bear in English?” he asks.
“Grizzly,” I respond.
“Grizzly,” he repeats with a smile. “Grizzly,” repeat his colleagues, breaking into a laugh.
The officer who stamps my passport informs me in English with a tone of regret that I have to be interviewed by one of their higher-ups.
“Youre an American driving from Ukraine,” he explains apologetically. “Its not a common occurrence around here.”
The senior guard who interviews me is muscular and serious, with a military crew cut. Youngish and dressed in skinny pants and a snug-fitting, short-sleeved blue shirt, he looks a lot like the Salisbury brothers accused of the Novichok poisoning.
“Why are you going to Russia?” he demands. “What were you doing in Ukraine?”
Afraid to admit that I had been a journalist in Ukraine, I stammer something about wanting to work with crypto companies in Russia.
The answer doesnt satisfy him.
“Youre doing the right thing going to Moscow. We love Ukraine but theres no work there. This war is bleeding the country dry” — Ukrainian construction worker
“Are you married?” he asks. “You have children?”
My answers in the negative dont please him. I wonder for a split second whether Ill be turned away and sent back to Ukraine.
Finally, in a burst of inspiration, I explain that I was a journalist in Russia in the 90s, and show him a copy of my novel, translated into Russian.
That cheers him up immediately. “Aah, youre a writer,” he exclaims with satisfaction.
“Welcome to Russia,” he says, handing me back my passport.
The leader of the lone Ukrainian group traveling to Moscow to work in construction, claps me on the back as I head back to the car.
“Youre doing the right thing going to Moscow,” he says. “We love Ukraine but theres no work there. This war is bleeding the country dry.”
* * *
The Russian side of the border is also deserted. The war has choked off trade and traffic between the two countries; northern Ukraine and the areas of southern Russia near the Ukrainian border are both among the countries poorest regions.
Its already dark and I consider checking into a hotel for the night, but not finding a decent motel near the highway, decide to push on toward Moscow. The road is dark, and my mind flashes scenes from Hitchcocks “Psycho” before me.
Within 300 kilometers of Moscow, everything changes. The narrow road widens into a bright four-lane modern “paid” highway, with a toll of 100 rubles (€1.40). The Central Asian-looking woman wearing a headscarf in the toll booth smiles as she hands me my change, and wishes me a “safe drive” in English. It feels like driving through Germany or another West European nation, not Vladimir Putins autocratic Russia as Id imagined it.
A boy plays in the newly opened Tyufeleva Roshcha Park in Moscow, designed by Dutch landscape architect Jerry van Eyck | Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Belga
There are McDonalds and Burger Kings by the sides of the highway, and bright-lit Lukoil and Shell gas stations. I stop for some petrol and a Big Mac with coffee. The roads get even better closer to the Russian capital, and the four-lane highway turns into an eight-lane expressway as we approach the city. When I finally arrive in central Moscow just past midnight on a Saturday night — having been on the road for over 15 hours — young men blasting pop music from a black SUV lean out the window and shout out a greeting. Im home.
Though its past midnight, cyclists and young girls on electric scooters swish by the street outside my apartment. A few revelers careen on the giant swings that were recently installed outside the metro stop nearest me. Under Moscows popular Mayor Sergey Sobyanin — who was reelected to a second term this September — billions have spent on “Europeanizing” Russias forbidding capital. Roads have been narrowed to create wider pavements; there are new parks, bike lanes, city bikes for rent on almost every street corner. There are beanbags and benches outside many shops and museums; craft beer spots and hipster cafes called “Little White” or “Los Angeles” have mushroomed across the city.
The Russian capital, which was grimy and dangerous in the 1990s when I last lived there, looks spotless. It is cleaner and safer than some European capitals. Unlike Ukraines capital Kiev, which is mostly white, Moscows more like Paris or Berlin, with its fair share of Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Central Asians and other people of color.
As a city, Moscow is still feeling the positive effects of the summers World Cup | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Moscow is also still basking in the happy afterglow of the World Cup, which most Muscovites describe as the “best time” of their lives. Where Kiev dreams of a halcyon, pre-immigrant and prosperous Europe of the 1970s, Moscow feels more like the multicultural Europe of today.
Its tragic that as Moscow becomes more European in character, the Kremlin is still pushing aggressive foreign policy that isolates Russia from the rest of the civilized world.
Muscovites for now are content to stay away from politics as long as they have their craft beers and bike lanes and exotic holidays and the economy is relatively stable. But if sanctions and increased economic pressure on Russia were to permanently destabilize its economy, Putins contract with his citizens could quickly unravel. The Kremlin might then find itself face to face with a “European-style” populist uprising on its hands that could finally wrest power from Putin and his corrupt cronies.
Vijai Maheshwari is the former editor-in-chief of Russian Playboy. He lived in Moscow during the 1990s and has recently returned to the Russian capital.