09 May Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 7: Border Station “Chop”
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Going through the Customs
We arrived at the border station Chop the next morning, April 21. The station was empty, the door to the customs locked until ten in the evening, an hour before the train to Bratislava was scheduled to depart.
Forerunners had equipped us with advice as precise as a recipe. Dima fished out the emigrant-endorsed luggage handler, codenamed Zoob (tooth) for his half-empty mouth. For thirty rubles he would load suitcases onto a cart the moment customs released them, jog to the car number shown on the ticket, and persuade the engineer to dilly-dally with the whistle if Syuta could not walk fast.
Then we searched out Sveta, the queen of the gigantic room on the second floor filled with twin beds. Off the books, a bed and hot water for tea rented for ten rubles a day. She closed her eyes on the luggage taking up most of the free space.
We left Syuta and the girls in two beds and, flush with the remnants of Soviet currency, trekked to the grocery store. Stocked amazingly well, it carried even cervelat salami, the deficit of the highest magnitude. And there was no queue outside.
We took turns at the door to the customs to ensure the first place in line. First in the line of emigrants, that is. Reputable passengers—officials, military, and vacationers, if any—deserved priority. The more of them the less time for us.
The afternoon trains unloaded a knot of conscripts and a young emigrant couple with one suitcase, avoska with alcohol, and a camera with an impressive detachable lens.
At ten, the conscripts filed in. We followed at ten-thirty. I dressed to impress, in my Hungarian-made blue-and-gray-checked pant suit and the pair of freshly resoled black pumps bought at the wedding salon Kashtan almost nine years before.
Ceiling lights illuminated the room like a banquet hall. Zoob pointed us out to a man in a railroad uniform, hopefully arranging the dilly-dallying.
The light startled Polina who slept on my shoulder. I set her down in the middle of the floor. Eyes still shut, fingers digging into her stuffed poodle, she erupted in monotonous bawling. Emily was holding on for dear life to her round tin box full of colorful fragments of broken bottles she had picked up on our walks; she loved their sparkle in the sun or under bright lights.
Every family has its unique novel-worthy memory of Chop. Ours is one of the simpler ones.
We held our breath in anticipation of all the instruments of torture documented in letters like a child does in anticipation of a prick of the vaccination needle but none were unsheathed: no belongings thrown on the floor, no gyne dig for diamonds in the presence of a male officer, no proctology exam, no tearing up of children’s soft toys, no insults.
(The customs search meant to emphasize that the motherland would foil any attempts by traitors to plunder its coffers. But it served to convince the hesitant family members that they had made the right decision.
To a large degree, the Chop experience, sadistic or benevolent, depended not only on an individual officer’s latent cruelty but on what the departing ex-citizens did for a living. A butcher, dental technician, jeweler ignited the hunter instinct. A teacher, doctor, or engineer ignited boredom.)
Two very short and one very tall officer waited behind a metal table stretching the length of the room. “What’s your occupation?” they asked. Given the choice they would have waved us through to get rid of Polina’s scream.
Dima placed the suitcases on the table. He kept the one with the X-rays close at hand. An older officer strolled out of an inconspicuous office. “Today is April 21! And you’re not embarrassed?” He sounded disgusted. We stared in panic. “Tomorrow is Lenin’s birthday! Couldn’t you wait for a couple days?” We lowered our heads – it was prudent to display guilt.
In slow motion, he examined our documents; flipped through our address book to determine it had no domestic contacts; checked restricted items; and weighed our silver: Rakhil’s tablespoons, bábushka’s dessert spoon, and Khanka’s teaspoon, baby fork, and the thumb-size shot glass.
With a practiced move, he transferred two bottles of alcohol—purposely above the limit—under the table. His eyes ran over our hands, ears, and wrists for jewelry.
Out of the blue, his eyes assumed a gotcha expression, his back arched – the bits of glass sparkled in the tin box that Emily chose that moment to open. She approached his beckoning finger, obediently relinquishing her most prized possession. I said that it was just glass. He sneered and scurried to the office with the evidence.
Polina was still bawling. Emily whimpered; a red stripe out of her nostril transformed into a stream of her first, and last, nosebleed. I laid her on a metal bench across from the table, feverishly pushing Polina’s emergency tights underneath to force her head lower.
The officer sheepishly returned the tin box and brusquely ordered Dima to turn out his pockets. A few kopecks fell to the floor. “Smuggling out Soviet currency?” he hissed. The uncovered misdeed compensated for the faux pas with the glass. He confiscated the coins and disappeared.
Dima pushed the suitcase with the X-rays toward the tall officer who assumed the gotcha expression of his superior when he saw the film.
“Wait, I need to talk to you,” Dima said, his body language that of trust and intimacy. Referring to Dr. Yesakiya’s statement and the book, he recapped Emily’s medical issues.
The officer narrowed his eyes, “How do I know this is not a picture of something military?” Dima said with disarming certainty, “But you would know, you are an intelligent man.”
Stupefied by the compliment, the officer squared his shoulders. We saw gears grinding in his head then he threw the X-rays back into the suitcase as if letting through a batch of Kalashnikovs. Dima later explained his choice: “I figured that a tall guy might be more lenient.”
Typically, the customs messed up emigrants’ belongings making it impossible to re-pack on time. Frantic traitors darted out onto the platform with stuff hanging out of their suitcases.
Alerted by letters, people sewed thick-linen sacks to fit the content of each suitcase. They were easier to fill and push into the suitcase after the search.
We must have presented an above-average sorry case: the officers barely went through the motions. Ten minutes before departure we cleared customs without using the sacks.
Zoob went beyond what thirty rubles bought: he handed the suitcases to Dima through the train window, an easier way than dragging them over the steps. The train did not have to dilly-dally.
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