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A brief encounter now a haunting memory

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

In the mid-1990s, along with an adventurous companion named Kitty Boniske, I traveled by train from Moscow to Vladikavkaz, a beautiful city in the Caucasus Mountains. We were participating in a newspaper exchange arranged through Sister Cities. An intrepid traveler, Kitty wanted to take a 36-hour train ride rather than fly from Moscow to our destination. Besides being fearless, she’d been to Russia before and had hosted a Russian student while he attended Warren-Wilson College.

He was now back in Moscow and did his best to dissuade us from taking the train, but Kitty and I were eager to see the Russian countryside. In the end, he took charge of getting us to the right platform in the monstrous Moscow train station, where there were no signs in English, and he spent a considerable amount of time talking to the Russian woman

who was in charge of our sleeping car. Kitty later speculated that money changed hands.

We spent what daylight we had glued to the windows as we passed through a land that felt like a third-world country, despite having recently been the world’s other superpower. We saw what appeared to be huge rusting industrial complexes, old women in headscarves tending gardens beside the tracks, and people in every train station hustling clothing and other items out of duffle bags.

When darkness fell, we changed into night clothes and were lulled to sleep by the rumbling train. Sometime after midnight we awoke when the train stopped. Before long someone banged on the door of our compartment. I reached out and slid it open. A tall young man in uniform filled the space. Another man in uniform stood behind him.

The young officer proceeded to say a whole bunch of words rather loudly and emphatically in what I assumed was Russian. I explained that we didn’t speak Russian. He said a bunch more words. I explained again that we didn’t speak Russian. Kitty said, “Joy, he doesn’t understand loud English either.”

The second time through, we had grasped three words, “Ukraine Exit Visa,” and figured out that he was asking for a document we did not have. Repressing a mild attack of panic, I took my reporter’s notebook and drew a couple of stick figures. I pointed to one and then to myself. I pointed to the other and then to him. He grinned and nodded. Between the two figures’ outstretched arms I drew a circle, wrote the word VISA, and drew a slash through it, hoping he would understand. He frowned and conferred with his colleague.

Kitty suggested that I offer him money, since that was how things got done in Russia. I drew two more stick figures, he nodded and grinned again. This time, I drew a dollar sign between their outstretched arms.

His smile turned to a scowl. “Nyet! Nyet!” he said angrily. He turned and conferred with his colleague again. He looked back at us, shrugged his shoulders, and walked on down the aisle. Kitty and I looked at each other and I slowly closed the door. Until the train pulled out some time later, we sat wondering if we would be taken off and detained. We would later learn, through our own experience, that bribing officials was part of daily life in Russia. But this was Ukraine.

Ever geographically challenged, I hadn’t known the train passed through Ukraine and I suspect Kitty didn’t either. This would have been soon after Ukraine declared its independence when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. I think about that experience at the Ukrainian/Russian border every time I read Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” his justification for invading a sovereign nation.

One day recently a story about a Ukrainian soldier in his 50s killed in the fighting left me wondering about the fate of that young soldier who would be about that age now. On the day I read that story, my husband and I were heading home to the mountains from the North Carolina coast. As we crossed the Neuse River Bridge, the view of New Bern laid out before us caused me to think what a lovely city it is. North Carolina’s second oldest town after Bath, New Bern lies on a spit of land at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. It is home to Tryon Palace, North Carolina’s first capitol, and beautiful Christ Church, established in 1715, whose spire can be seen rising above the town.

On that fine morning as the blue river and the green riverfront park created a splendid vista, I tried to imagine it being bombed as Ukrainian cities have been, and the engineering feat that is the Neuse River Bridge being smashed into the river. I can’t fully comprehend what the Ukrainian people feel as they watch their homeland being destroyed and their loved ones killed. But my heart aches for them, and for a young Ukrainian soldier that I met a long time ago who had a sense of humor and of honor.

Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville, N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary.

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