The Bribery Express

Konstantin Salomatin

Published on 27/08/14

© Kon­stantin Salomatin

There are three ways Cent­ral Asian guest work­ers travel to Rus­sia, the mag­net that draws mil­lions of Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks each year. The most expens­ive is by plane. Train is less pricey. Bus is cheaper still, but it’s also the slow­est and most prone to scams from begin­ning to end.

In Khu­jand, Tajikistan, I approached an agent named Said to enquire about bus tick­ets to Moscow. For 7,000 rubles (about $203), he prom­ised a big, com­fort­able bus that would take only four days and depart no mat­ter if it was full or not.
Noth­ing Said told me turned out to be true. At the appoin­ted time one morn­ing, I met a group of six people in the city cen­ter. Said showed up to tell us the bus was wait­ing in a sub­urb. Once there, we dis­covered there was no bus, but two minivans. Said then said the bus was wait­ing just over the Kyrgyz bor­der, about 30 kilo­met­ers away, in Isfana.
The minivans passed a remote bor­der check­point. When the bor­der guards from Tajikistan saw my Rus­sian pass­port, they declared the bor­der closed to third-country nation­als. Know­ing I had no other option and that I could not prove them wrong, they milked me for 500 rubles ($15) to let me pass.

I star­ted to learn about my fel­low trav­el­ers, mostly Tajiks and Kyrgyz from the Ferghana Val­ley. There was Ali, 40, who gradu­ated with an eco­nom­ics degree just as the Soviet Union was col­lapsing, and who has traveled to Rus­sia each sum­mer for the past 10 years to work on con­struc­tion sites. Then there was Farkhad, 43, who had left his wife and four chil­dren to work con­struc­tion in Moscow. He was tak­ing the bus because he couldn’t get a train ticket from Khu­jand without pay­ing a middle­man an exor­bit­ant fee. There was also Gul­nisa, 46, a bespec­tacled Uygur from Kyrgyz­stan who trained as a sur­gical nurse but can­not find a job that will sup­port her fam­ily. She had got­ten a gig in a Japan­ese res­taur­ant in Ryazan and was try­ing to get Rus­sian cit­izen­ship.
In addi­tion, I met Argash, 79, from Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, who was going to see the grave of his father who was killed dur­ing World War II near Moscow. He was tak­ing the bus because it is easier than trans­it­ing Uzbek­istan, where bor­der guards are notori­ously dif­fi­cult.
Before they even left home, every­one on the bus, it seemed, had a story about a shake­down. And more misery waited just down the road: Most have worked pre­vi­ously in Rus­sia and swap mixed reports on how the Rus­sian police treat them.

After six days, we limped into Moscow’s Kazan Rail­way Sta­tion at 2 a.m. I had spent 1,200 rubles on bribes, was cheated 3,000 rubles for the ticket, and spent two days longer on the road than promised.

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