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Arrested for tourism in Russia’s far north

Inta is among the bleakest and least attractive towns I’ve ever visited. Needing rest and supplies, we hitched a lift to town from the mountains with some rangers from Yugyd Va National Park. Their off-road snow truck had 5ft high wheels. As we jolted through the coal-dusted outskirts of the town, the vista was an unplanned, unloved jumble of crumbling concrete. The dreary-faced buildings and snow-banked roads were threaded through with a complicated tangle of rusting water pipes; once a jaunty yellow, now flaking tubes of rust red. In the Russian north, all pipes run above ground for ease of access when they inevitably crack in the unspeakable cold of winter. The winter, however, seemed to be drawing in. Compared to the mountains, Inta was balmy. Much of the snow on the roads had melted to reveal a hopscotch of potholes.

We walked through the centre, stumbling under the weight of our bags, looking for an affordable guesthouse. The town square sports an aged, silver Lenin atop a red plinth. Right hand tucked casually in cloak pocket and left clasping an unidentifiable object, presumably of some great revolutionary significance; an industrial tool, perhaps, or a list of agitators that could do with dying. The statue strides ardently towards his vision of a fairer Russia. Nearby, a rotting row of derelict wooden houses harks back to the origins of Inta. A few years after Lenin’s death, his walrus-faced successor needed coal to fuel the new, industrial Russia rising from the flames of revolution. He began exploiting the far north.

Stalin in Inta, northern Russia

Inta’s first inhabitants arrived by foot after a long journey first by sea, then by riverboat, and finally by foot. They carved clearings into the forest and used the felled trees to build shelter. They then built a railroad connecting Inta to the rest of Russia. They didn’t build a road. There still isn’t one. Then they started mining. The coal mines were hellish in summer. Dark, dangerous and sweltering. In winter they were equally hellish, but warm in comparison to the fierce conditions on the surface. Inta lies on the Arctic circle. Minus gifty degrees Celsius is not unknown. These industrious settlers weren’t exactly there by choice. They worked at gunpoint. They were a ragtag assortment of criminals and political prisoners; one small speck in the sprawling Gulag archipelago that reached from the Finnish border to the Pacific coast. Inta was a place peopled by prisoners and guards, a place people wanted to get away from.

Despite the Gulag closing in the 1950s, little has changed if I’m brutally honest. The town has 30,000 people: gruff men working the mines and unsmiling women working everywhere else. Children seemed in short supply. The inhabitants talk of the cities they’d rather live in and the cherished few times they’ve visited other parts of Russia.

As with all remote Russian cities, tourists are exceedingly rare in Inta. The authorities aren’t used to dealing with foreigners. The prevailing attitude is one of suspicion – a hangover from the Soviet era when the war of ideology was still being waged. Why the hell have they come here? Why on earth would they want to? We all want to leave. What are they after? There must be something they’re not telling us. Are they spies?

The police first came to visit us in our guesthouse. Three of them. They closely scrutinised and photocopied every single page of our passports. What they might want with Congolese visas and Indian exit stamps, I’ve no idea. We later received a message that we should report to the police station as they wanted to copy our passports again. When we arrived, we found Olga, the impressively cold head of police. There was also Yelena, an English teacher, called in for translation. She was friendly and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to practice her language skills.

Through Yelena we answered Olga’s endless questions about where we’d been in Russia, the exact dates we’d been there and how we got from there to the next place. This took an hour or so. She then became interested in our visas. The longest available Russian tourist visa is only 30 days. Therefore, we had obtained business visas for our visit. This is standard practice for travel in Russia. Olga wanted to know why we had business visas. We gave our pre-agreed story of scouting out a route for a potential commercial ski expedition for the respective (imaginary) tour operators we worked for. Olga’s questions became more and more obsessed with minute detail and she was tapping away at a document on her keyboard. She finally printed and placed it before us with a pen.

“Just sign here,” said Yelena while Olga thrust a painted fingernail at the bottom of the sheet.
“What is this document?” I asked.
“Just a declaration.”
“But what does it declare?”
“That you have broken the law and will be attending your court hearing tomorrow.”
“I beg your pardon! What law have we broken?”
“It says here: law 114-F3, created on 15th August 1996. ‘Travelling for purposes other than that stated on your visa.’ You came to Russia for commercial purposes but have been committing tourism.” The law was clearly to prevent people carrying out business while on a tourist visa, not vice versa.
“And what will happen if we are found guilty?

Yelena asked Olga who replied swiftly and simply. The translation came back: “a fine or deportation.” We were made to sign but scribbled in English on the document that we denied the charges.

Declaration of guilt, Russia

We reported to the police station at 8.40 the following morning. With nothing but a nod, Olga led us for five minutes to the court. Her high heels wobbled unsteadily on the slush-covered pavement. We had the right to a lawyer but decided there was no point. Why complicate things further. Plead innocence and politely point out the absurdity of the charge was our loose plan. We were trying to see the funning side of the whole farcical situation. Outwardly, we felt fairly confident that it was less serious than it seemed. On the one hand, “committing tourism” isn’t exactly theft or murder. They wouldn’t really deport us would they? But, on the other hand, the very existence of Inta was a testament to the Russian justice system’s lackadaisical relationship with the concept of justice. Privately, we both worried that they might deport us. That would be curtains for the expedition.

Yelena arrived while we waited on a bench in a pastel green corridor. Olga sat apart, thumbing through Instagram on her phone. We were ushered into the court. A 10x10m room with a dock at its centre, a long desk to the right with several microphones, and a judge’s bench stood before three high-backed office chairs. The Russian coat of arms (a two-headed eagle holding a scepter and orb) adorned the wall alongside a droopy Russian flag. In the windowsill was bare brickwork with lazily splotched clumps of cement. It was sunny outside and the windows were closed. The room’s warmth was reflected by the sleepiness of the stenographer sitting behind her computer.

When the black-robed judge swept in, we resentfully stood and bowed as we’d been instructed. I was tried first. The case was gone over. The same questions were asked. Through Yelena, I stated our innocence. I explained that it was necessary for us to run this recce prior to sending commercial tour groups. We needed to ascertain if the Komi Republic (the region of Russia we were in) was ready for tourism, and if it would provide a welcoming, hassle-free environment for foreign visitors. Olga and the judge, a woman in her 40s, looked at each other and snorted when that was translated. A witness was called. To our surprise, in shuffled Yura, one of the park rangers who’d driven us to Inta. He confirmed that he had indeed seen the accused in Yugyd-Va National Park on the dates specified. He was then excused. His presence was a pointless pretense of legitimacy for the trial.

Crap court, Inta, Northern Russia

After forty minutes of these proceedings, the judge withdrew for deliberation. Olga returned to Instagram and Yelena chatted to us politely. After an hour the judge returned and pronounced the accused guilty. The verdict: I should pay a fine of 2,500 rubles (about £35). I was asked if I wanted to appeal. With both relief and irritation, I accepted the penalty and signed the papers. Then it was Callie’s turn. The court was just embarking on the same lengthy series of questions that I’d faced when Callie broke in and said her circumstances were the same and that she’d accept the same penalty. Thirty minutes later, we had paid up and were free to continue our illicit journey. The light fine seemed to be a convenience merely to avoid having to find us innocent. What had been achieved seemed little more than Olga and the judiciary saving face for wasting everybody’s time.

We gladly left Inta the following morning and returned to the harsh simplicity of the mountains.

Live updates from Charlie on his Arctic adventure on his expedition website. Information about donating to his chosen charity can be found here. Perhaps the best reason of all to visit his website is to buy a signed copy of Charlie’s new book, Through Sand and Snow.

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