KLAIPEDA, Lithuania—For the briefest of instants the Russian border guard’s placid face betrayed his surprise as we produced our blue US passports. His eyes momentarily widened as he read the gold lettering on our worn travel documents.
I imagine Americans rarely cross at Mamonovo, a rural border crossing that’s a gateway to Kaliningrad, an exclave wedged between NATO members Lithuania and Poland and doesn’t touch the rest of Mother Russia.
A day earlier, NATO forces had launched the largest military maneuvers in the Baltic since the end of the Cold War. The US press was full of breathless accounts of how Kaliningrad, a former German territory annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, is a potential flashpoint between Putin’s Russia and the so-called Free World.
But we’d decided long ago we wouldn’t let militaristic cock-waving scuttle our plans to visit historic East Prussian seaside resorts along the Curonian Spit, a breathtaking natural sand bar that stretches about 60 miles in an arc from above the former German city Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) into Lithuania to the port city of Klaipeda (née Memel).
At the border, hushed words were exchanged between officials and we were told to please wait by the side. Our spirits sank. We had arranged a rideshare lift from Gdansk and didn’t want to entangle our fellow passengers with our own bureaucratic misfortune.
After waiting nearly a half hour a young officer told us the reason for the delay: a crack team of FSB interrogators was en route from Kaliningrad city to speak with us.
About an hour passed.
Two preppie types in mismatched suits, barely old enough to drink in the United States, came sauntering toward us.
“Those are probably our guys,” my wife said.
“Those guys?” They looked like a couple of Mormon missionaries that had misplaced their lapel’s name tags. Not a chance!
I was wrong. They ushered us into their border post’s inner sanctum. The one with the dusty brown penny loafers spoke broken English. The one with the heavy gold Seiko watch jotted down notes in a black ledger. On the desk an FSB computer displayed Windows XP’s stock background of a bucolic Sonoma County hillside.
Had Edward Snowden’s revelations taught them nothing about basic cybersecurity?
The questions were standard fare: Who were we? Where did we live? Where did we work? Why did we want to visit Kaliningrad?
The truth, that we were American newlyweds whose honeymoon near the Russian Federation’s strategic exclave happened to coincide with NATO’s most elaborate saber rattling in decades, seemed to invite skepticism and suspicion.
But unlike previous visits to Russia there actually was nothing to conceal. Unlike visits during Putin’s re-election campaign in 2012 or last year’s Victory Day parade in Moscow, I didn’t plan on any reporting.
I was off the clock! But how could I explain that my lovely wife would be with me to enforce this media blackout?
Their sinister operatives could take the week off. If I tried to work on my honeymoon I’d be a dead man.
The questions continued. It was pretty standard stuff. Where did we live? Germany. We worked for Deutsche Welle. What’s Deutsche Welle? A website. Oh you’re IT specialists… Yeah, something like that. Where will you stay? Can we have the telephone number? The address? Phone calls were made. Our interrogation was interrupted when every single ballpoint pen ceased functioning so I helpfully supplied one of my own.
My wife waited patiently, her third trimester protruding in the family way. “Is your wife normal?” the blonde officer asked. “Is she normal?” I parroted the question, looking at her. It seemed a fair point to consider.
We explained the birds and the bees; we are expecting our first child in the fall.
It was at this point that the two officers seemed to accept that perhaps we had fallen victim to a crooked travel agent or were some sort of Sovietphiles. We were congratulated on our expected child and warmly welcomed to the Russian Federation.
Back on the road, we entered Kaliningrad. It’s a modern city that showcases all of the worst of post-war architecture and planning atop the destruction of the grand Prussian city of Königsberg.
The medieval center of culture was flattened by British bombers and the Red Army’s artillery during the Great Patriotic War. That said, there have been efforts to preserve and celebrate the few buildings that survived. The central island of Kneiphof – once the heart of the city – is now a sculpture park and only the partially restored cathedral survives.
Modern Kaliningrad is a small city but treacherous for pedestrians as wide boulevards eviscerate the downtown core leaving little doubt that the car is king. The unfinished House of Soviets – a building that looks like the love child between a colorless apartment block and a grain elevator – sits atop the demolished Medieval fortress that once loomed over the center of the city.
We waited outside a Soviet-era apartment block for the landlady to bring the keys. A green playground in front was lightly populated with couples taking walks, people returning from work and a few dozy drunks coming to and from a nearby strip mall.
One figure stood out. A blonde man in his early 30s accompanied by a mutt with some Pomeranian pedigree sniffing furtively stood awkwardly behind some shrubbery.
“There’s our tail,” I remarked facetiously.
But wait – that man wasn’t going anywhere. He kept peering in our direction and ignoring the dog. When he did interact with the short-legged creature it was awkwardly – at one point he picked up the poor creature then seemed to think better of it and dropped it from a height of more than three feet, the dog landing hard on its four short legs.
“That’s not his dog,” my wife said acidly. “You don’t drop a dog like that!”
She was right.
I looked closer. He wore shiny policeman shoes, slacks and had a fresh haircut. But his shirt, a plaid blue cotton job that was dirtier than the rest of the ensemble, is what gave him away.
The landlady arrived with the keys and he promptly ambled away.
We apologized for our late arrival, explaining our hiccups at the border.
“I know, they called me,” she said looking none too happy with having a phone call from the FSB.
We spent the next two days exploring the city by foot – which must have been torture for any spooks trying to tail us – though we never saw our blonde friend or any other suspicious characters again. People were friendly, charmed by our almost complete ignorance of the Russian language and for the most part happy to receive visitors from the outside. An NPR report – one of the few from the US media that bothered to speak to ordinary people – does a fair job at summarizing how most people here aren’t concerned about Cold War-style brinkmanship.
If things were to get hot in this region it’d be the doing of our deranged world leaders and bloodthirsty military industrial complex rather than any deep-seated nationalism or imperial ambitions within local society.
The Curonian Spit lived up to its reputation of a bastion of largely unspoilt sand dunes hemmed in by lush conifer forests. We spent two days in a restored German mansion in the former town of Rossitten – now Rybachy – and explored the lagoons and surrounding woodlands.
On our way out we took a bus to the last town on the Russian side and then waited patiently for a car with Lithuanian plates to spirit us over the border. Russia and Lithuania were both part of the Soviet Union and there were no formalities before the breakup of the USSR.
We got a lift with Demjan – a laid-back Lithuanian from Klaipeda in a flashy Audi A8 sedan who had spent the long holiday weekend in Kaliningrad with his girlfriend. He lamented the visa regime and border hassle that separates the two countries.
Whereas in the west we think of the Eastern Bloc’s downfall as a watershed for liberalization, here it has had the opposite effect. Now that Lithuania is in the European Union and passport-free Schengen area there is a visa regime between the two countries that makes travel between the two side of the Curonian Spit expensive (visas cost nearly $200 a year – a king’s ransom for ordinary folk) and cumbersome as border guards insist on checking documents and cargo which can back traffic up for hours.
At the border we were again pulled aside for secondary inspection. This time the resident FSB agents spoke enough English to handle us and we went through a similar routine. Demjan took the 30-minute delay in stride and let us off in the first town, Nida.
Back from behind the Iron Curtain it was culture shock where, rather than being met with bemusement and suspicion, we are swimming in the current of EU – mostly German – tourists, cameras slung around their necks, where tri-lingual Lithuanian hostelry owners make the most of the three months of warm weather to horde fistfuls of euros until the season dries up.