From the Finland Station

Vadim Nikitin

I spent three days this week trying to get out of Russia with my three-year-old son, who was visiting his grandparents in Murmansk for the first time (in retrospect perhaps not the best time to have made such a trip). There were no flights out, but also no spare tickets on any bus going to Helsinki; the train was still running (for Russian and Finnish citizens only) though everyone expects it to stop any day. At Finland Station payments to Russian Railways with Western cards were not working. I had to beg the lady to hold the tickets in the face of a long angry queue as I ran to a nearby Sberbank to withdraw cash.

We managed to get a train but were forced off in Vyborg because Luca is a British passport holder, and had to find another way to the Finnish border with our suitcases. As we were being led off the train by border guards and police, passengers slipped us their phone numbers. The lieutenant-colonel in charge later came and found us at the railway station, apologised for the ‘situation’ and tried to help by showing us where we might be able to catch a passing bus from St Petersburg with an unadvertised spare seat. The bus station overlooks a peeling art deco building with Finnish lettering, a reminder that Vyborg – now the terminal of the Nord Stream gas pipeline – has been a contested city (Finland gave up its claim in 1947). At last a bus with an empty seat came by.

There were queues of buses at the border, being processed by a skeleton crew clearly unaccustomed to anything more than routine weekend and daytrip traffic. The border guards looked confused and embarrassed, every official we met trying their best to be human – a highly unusual phenomenon. There was plenty of snow all around for Luca to build some impressive snowmen. It took just over twelve hours to cover two hundred kilometres.

Who knows when Luca will see his grandparents again? And this is happening in Russia itself, so far from the actual fighting. My mother’s mother and grandmother were Ukrainians who lived through occupation by the Nazis. The idea that Russians have now taken their place – and adopted their tactics – is unbearable to her. I cannot begin to fathom how the Ukrainians are coping.