As we were walking up the stairs to the Lviv train station, two surly policemen looked us up and down, gruffly asked where we were going, and demanded that we showed them our documents. During my entire stay in Russia, I’ve never ever been document checked. But I have to say, Ukraine is a much more mono-colored country than Russia is, and to be fair, our group was pretty rag-tag looking. One of my friends looks Chechen, I’m blatantly Asian/Central Asian, and my other friend is, well, pretty American. And we were all speaking quite loudly in English, so of course we brought attention to ourselves.
We all take out our passports and other traveling documents and hand them to the policemen. Everything was seemingly fine until the policeman checking my documents asked me, “Devushka, where is your stamp? There is no stamp on your immigration card.”
An immigration card. The part that you keep gets stamped. The other half gets taken and filed away somewhere. Overall, it's a really stupid system, since it's a tiny slip of paper that's easily lost or forgotten.
I looked in dismay at my unstamped immigration card — for some reason, they didn’t take away half of my immigration card at the border. With wide eyes and trying to muster the best puppy face I could, I look back to the police officer and said, “I didn’t get a stamp. I don’t know what happened.” Puppy face didn’t work, because the policeman then slightly raised his voice and replied, “Your friend here has a stamp. And your other friend has a stamp. But you don’t have a stamp. What is the deal? What happened?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know what happened. But what do I do now?” I asked.
The police officer sighed and shifted his hat. “You come with me.”
As I followed the policemen up to the platform where our train was going to leave, he kept admonishing me and repeating, “What happened to your stamp? Your friends have a stamp but you don’t have a stamp.” At the top of the platform, he again demanded for my passport, which I gave to him. He sighed again, shifted his stance, and said,
“This is what is going to happen. You pay a shtraf. You will then be put into the system, and everything will be okay at the border.” Alarms start going off in my head. What system!? How are they going to know that I already paid a fine? There are no computers at the border. I’m in deep, deep shit.
“How are they going to know? I need something to show them at the border,” I replied frantically.
“You will be put into the system. You don’t need anything to show,” the police officer answered exasperatedly. Switching into English, he patronizingly asked, “Do you understand?”
Answering in Russian, I stressed that I understood. “But I need something to show,” I pressed. “How will they know?” No matter how many times I stressed that I needed some document to show at the border, the policeman simply responded with the answer that I would be put in the “system.” I had no other choice but to give him my useless, unstamped immigration card and a rather hefty fine, which he instantly pocketed. I hope you choked on the vodka you bought with the money you ripped off me.
I helplessly looked at my friends. “I’m fucked.”
At the Ukrainian-Russian border, I nervously waited as the border control officers patrolled through. He asked for my friend’s documents first, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that he wouldn’t ask for her immigration card. He did. Shit. I gave him my documents, and when he noticed my immigration card was missing, he demanded it from me. I explained that I didn’t have it and that I already paid a fine. He gave me the stink eye. I glared right back.
Now here’s the surprising part. He sat down, pulled out this ratty leather book, and flipped to the end.
“Er..Tron Grah-kay?” Tron Grah-kay? Wait, that’s my name, only terribly Russified! I was put into the “system” after all. I was for sure that I was going to have to pay another hefty fine. Oh Eastern Europe, you’re just full of surprises.