Two Russian men from Chukotka arrived in the St. Lawrence island village of Gambel in October in a 16-foot fishing boat, hoping to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine.
He spent three months in custody, then was released earlier this month in Washington state. It was here that Charlie McCann, feature writer for The Economist’s long-form magazine “1843”, met him.
Why did McCann write a detailed description of — and how — the men fled Russia to seek refuge and a new life in the United States. In her story, she also describes two men who are familiar to many Alaskans.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Charlie McCann: Yes, their names are Sergei and Maksim, and they are from a very small town in Chukotka province called Agvekinot, a coastal town on the coast. And Sergei and Maxim have known each other since they were teenagers. They met through his parents, who work together in the local fishing industry. And Maxim himself became a fisherman, mainly catching what he calls red fish, salmon. And Sergei is a trucker who runs his own transportation company.
KC Grove: It seems that as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, things got pretty tense, and, you know, it seems like a mystery to us what was going on with the Russian people in Russia at that point. How was his experience?
Charlie McCann: Yeah, that’s a great thing, and that’s why it was so fascinating to talk to him about his thoughts on what was happening at the time. I mean, they are very opposed to the war in Ukraine. They both told me that, you know, “Why are we there? What’s the point of this war? So many people are dying,” and they both use the word “evil.” He said, you know, it’s evil. Sergei in particular, he is very outspoken. He’s basically been a troublemaker for the Russian government for quite some time now. He was talking about how much money was earmarked for road building in Chukotka, you know, a province that really desperately needs roads, and yet the roads are not being built.
And so he likes to rail against local corruption to anyone who will listen to him openly. He tells me that he was arrested in June and kept in custody for a few days. Once he was detained by the government and thus warned, he decided, “I must go, I must leave this country.” And then a month later the recruitment started. Military officers began knocking on the men’s doors in her town, trying to get them out of Ukraine. And so both Sergei and Maxim felt that knock at the door and knew exactly who it was, because the whole city was buzzing with news of mobilization. Neither of them answered that knock on the door, because if they had, they would have been sent packing to the front. And I think that knock on the door made Sergei realize, “It’s time.”
KC Grove: Well, you know, I think we know they’ve made it at this point. But tell me about his journey. I mean, how was that, how did they survive crossing the Bering Sea?
Charlie McCann: It was nerve-racking for many reasons, wasn’t it? So he left for the Chukotka Peninsula. And so they’re worried about being discovered, you know, discovered by people in these cities. They always stuck to the same story, which was that they were looking for dead walruses so that they could extract the teeth and sell them. And then, of course, they were constantly terrified of being searched by border patrols. It is actually a heavily militarized part of Russia, cities crawling with border patrols. And then the other big concern, of course, was just dealing with the ocean.
The first day or two went smoothly, but they encountered a storm. There was a particularly terrifying moment on their fifth and final day of this trip. What else can you imagine? These are two men who have left everything behind in Russia. They left their lives behind, everything they know, everything they know, to get out and try to make new lives in America, if only they can make it there. And at this point they are so close. I think they’re only 20 miles from Alaska. And then Sergei, he sees these raging waves. They start feeling the wind. They see that the water is rising fast. They pull out their weather app, and they see the cyclone is right there, they’re headed right for it. He did not even think of returning to the shore. This may have been his last chance to go to America, and so he stayed. You know, the water got rougher and rougher. There was a moment when Sergei said that it was as if they had come between two walls of water. The waves were so big. Both are splashing water. Bilge pump is working overtime. And yet they survived, because Maxim spent most of his life on the water. He’s a really skilled sailor, and he just managed to make sure they survived the cyclone. They never get pulled too far into the eye of a storm. And somehow he made it.
KC Grove: Yes, it’s amazing. I mean, they appeared in Alaska, and it’s the little village of Gambel, St. Lawrence Island. How was he received? And then how did that welcoming party change so quickly?
Charlie McCann: Yeah, well, he said it was a little tense at first, it’s understandable, because he’s wearing his camo jacket. And apparently, a bunch of locals had gathered on the beach to see what was going on, and apparently they wondered, “Are these Russian soldiers?” But Sergei and Maxim quickly clarified the situation. They were communicating via Google Translate, and said, “No, no, no, we’re not, we’re definitely not Russian soldiers. We’re actually here because we’re trying to escape from the Russian military.” . We are here to declare asylum.” At the same time, the local people warmly welcomed him. They fed them and I think Sergei and Maxim obviously tried to return the favor. They brought so much food with them that a kind of food exchange took place. And at some point, the local police force was involved. Some police officers came, and I think he was taken to the police station where he spent the night. And at some point, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) got involved as well. But I think they were helicoptered out of Gambel by the Coast Guard and deposited in Anchorage where ICE took over.
KC Grove: I got the impression, too, that they were obviously overjoyed that they survived the crossing, and made it to the United States and tried to start this new life here. But things are a little different now, when people were defecting from the Soviet Union, aren’t they? And so tell me about the rest of his journey, up to the point where you actually got a chance to talk to him because he spent a lot of time in custody, right?
Charlie McCann: Yes, they were very surprised. I think they were probably expecting some bureaucracy, but they weren’t expecting what happened. What else happened, he was taken into ICE custody, and he was flown from Anchorage to Tacoma, Washington, where he was held, and where he was held for months and months. And they say they had little idea what was happening to them. And the situation was this: Asylum seekers who come onto American soil without permission to stay in the country because they, you know, haven’t got the proper visas or whatever, they get detained. This has been the case for a few decades now. And basically they will be held in custody until they are able to post surety.
He was detained for three months, in conditions that sound quite pitiable. They were in a very large room with about 70 other prisoners. The food was quite pathetic. He said it was rice and beans and beans and rice, almost the whole time. And you know, they weren’t allowed to go out. I think he was allowed out in the yard for an hour or so a day. And it was difficult, I think, because of those circumstances, but also because of the uncertainty of their situation, not knowing how long they would be there, and not knowing how they would get out. And of course, the language barrier was tough too. So I asked him how he coped with the situation. And he said it was sheer escapism. He had got some books in Russian, so he was reading a lot. Sergei said that he read 19 books, and he was reading, I think, Russian classics. You know, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin. Eventually, they were able to post bail, and he was released earlier this month.
KC Grove: Wow, yes. So he got out on bail, and then you went to Washington to talk to him. how was that? And I guess also, I mean, what did he say about his hopes for the future?
Charlie McCann: When I met him, Sergei was out for five whole days. And Maxim was released exactly the day before. They were actually getting used to both living in America as well as being free after this ordeal of three months. You know, Sergey talked about catching up with the news, what was happening in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Maksim was very quiet, very reserved, probably because, you know, he had just been released from prison. And so he may well be overwhelmed. But I think they’re just, yeah, they’re basically like getting their feet on the ground. A volunteer who was helping them was looking for a bike so that they could move around.
I think Sergey, he has a little bit of English, and I think he’s probably trying to improve it. Are they out now? So they are very optimistic about the future, and they are trying to make plans. You know, Sergey, he is really a dynamic energetic person. And he’s basically thinking about next steps and thinking about what he can do to work in the U.S. He was saying how much plastic trash and aluminum cans he saw around Tacoma. He was thinking that it would be great to get it like a deposit-recycling scheme. Maxim, again, he just went out for a day. So I guess he’s still gathering himself. But I asked him, “What do you think you want to do?” And he said he is looking forward to being reunited with his fishing boat.
KC Grove: A true fisherman!
Charlie McCann: Absolutely.
KC Grove: He also said something about wanting to come back to Alaska.
Charlie McCann: Sergei said, “Look, we are people from the north, where we are used to the arctic climate.” And so initially his idea was that he would return to Anchorage. I think Maxim still thought he would. And Sergey, you know, being a real entrepreneurial type, maybe Anchorage was thinking, but also he’ll see, you know, he’ll go wherever, like supply and demand, as he said, it’ll take him. Will go