The two Russian men from Chukotka arrived in a 16-foot fishing boat in the St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell in October, hoping to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine.
They spent three months in detention, then bailed out earlier this month in Washington state, and that’s where Charlie McCann, a feature writer for The Economist’s long-form magazine “1843” caught up with them.
McCann has written a detailed account of why – and how – the men escaped Russia to seek asylum and new lives in the United States. In her story, she also describes two men with lives familiar to many Alaskans.
Charlie McCann: Yeah, their names are Sergei and Maksim, and they are from a very small town in Chukotka province called Egvekinot, which is right on the coast, a coastal town. And Sergei and Maksim have known each other since they were teenagers. They met through their parents, who work together in the local fishing industry. And Maksim himself became a fisherman, catching mainly what he calls red fish, salmon. And Sergei is a trucker who runs his own haulage company.
Casey Grove: It sounds like things became fairly strained as Russia had invaded Ukraine, and, you know, it seems like kind of a mystery to us what was sort of going on with Russian people in Russia at that time. What was their experience like?
CM: Yeah, that’s a great point, and that’s why it was so fascinating to speak with them about their views on what was happening at the time. I mean, they are very much opposed to the war in Ukraine. Both of them said to me that, you know, “Why are we there? What is the point of this war? So many people are dying,” and they both use that word “evil.” They said, you know, this is evil. Sergei in particular, he’s very outspoken. He has basically been an irritant to the Russian government for quite some time. He was talking about how a lot of money was earmarked for road construction in Chukotka, you know, a province that really desperately needs roads, and yet the roads weren’t being built.
And so he would sort of rail against local corruption to anyone who would who would listen to him, frankly. He tells me that he was arrested in June and detained for a couple of days. Once he was detained by the government and warned in this way, he decided, “I’ve got to leave, I’ve got to leave this country.” And then a month later, conscription began. Military officers began knocking on the doors of men in his town, trying to haul them off to Ukraine. And so Sergei and Maksim both got that knock on the door and knew exactly who it was, because the whole town had been sort of buzzing with the news of the mobilization. Neither of them answered that knock on the door, because if they had, they would have been sent packing to the front. And I think it was it was that knock on the door that made Sergei realize, “Now is the time.”
CG: Well, you know, I guess we know that they made it, at this point. But tell me about their journey. I mean, what was that like, how did they survive crossing the Bering Sea?
CM: It was nerve-racking for so many reasons, right? So they they set off going down the Chukotka Peninsula. And so they’re worried about being discovered, you know, found out by the people in these towns. They always stuck to the same story, which was that they were looking for dead walrus so that they could remove the tusks and sell them. And then, of course, they were constantly terrified of being found out by the border patrol. This is a really heavily militarized part of Russia, towns kind of crawling with border patrol. And then the other huge concern, of course, was just dealing with the sea.
The first day or two was smooth sailing, but they encountered storms. There was one particularly terrifying moment on their fifth and final day of this voyage. And can you imagine? These are two men who have left everything behind in Russia. They left their lives behind, everything they know, everyone they know, to strike out and try to make new lives in America, if only they can make it there. And by this point, they are so close. They’re, I think, they’re only about 20 miles from Alaska. And then Sergei, he sees these enormous waves. They start to feel the wind. They see the water’s getting choppier. They pull out their weather app, and they see the cyclone is right there, they’re heading right for it. They didn’t even think about returning to shore. This might be their last chance to make it to the U.S., and so they just persisted. You know, the water got rougher and rougher. There was a moment when Sergei said it felt as if they were in between two walls of water. The waves were that big. Both of them getting sprayed by the water. The bilge pump is working overtime. And yet they survived, because Maksim spent so much of his life on the water. He’s really an adept boatsman, and he just managed to ensure that they sort of skirted the cyclone. They’re never pulled in too far, into the eye of the storm. And somehow they made it.
CG: Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, they showed up in Alaska, and this is St. Lawrence Island, the little village of Gambell. How were they welcomed? And then how did that welcoming party sort of change pretty quickly?
CM: Yeah, well, they said it was at first a little bit tense, kind of understandably so, because they’re wearing their camo jackets. And apparently, a bunch of locals had gathered on the beach to check out what was going on, and apparently they wondered, “Are these guys Russian soldiers?” But Sergei and Maksim quickly explained the situation. They were communicating via Google Translate, and said, “No, no, no, we’re not, we’re definitely not Russian soldiers. We’re actually here because we’re trying to escape the Russian military. We’re here to declare asylum.” And at that point, they were welcomed by the locals. They fed them and I think Sergei and Maksim apparently tried to return the favor. They had brought so much food with them that there was kind of a bit of an exchange of food. And at some point, the local police force was was involved. Some police officers came up, and I think they were taken to the police station where they spent the night. And at some point, (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) got involved as well. But I think they were helicoptered out of Gambell by the Coast Guard and deposited in Anchorage where ICE took over.
CG: I got the impression, too, that they were obviously very happy to have made the crossing alive, and to make it to the United States and to try to start this new life here. But things are a little different now than they were when people were defecting from the Soviet Union, right? And so tell me about the rest of their journey, to the point where you actually had a chance to talk to them, because they spent quite a bit of time in detention, right?
CM: Yeah, they were very surprised. I think they were probably expecting some bureaucracy, of course, but they weren’t expecting what happened. And what happened was, they were taken into ICE custody, and they were flown from Anchorage to Tacoma, Washington, where they were put in a detention facility, and where they are kept for months and months. And they say that they had very little idea of what was happening to them. And the situation was this: Asylum seekers who arrive on American soil without permission to be in the country, because they haven’t, you know, got the appropriate visa or whatever, they are detained. This has now been the case for a couple of decades. And they will basically be detained until they’re able to post bail.
They were detained for three months, in conditions which sound pretty miserable. They were in one very large room with about 70 other detainees. The food was pretty miserable. They said it was rice and beans and beans and rice, pretty much the whole time. And you know, they weren’t allowed outside. I think they were allowed outside for maybe like an hour a day or something into the yard. And it was difficult, I think, because of those conditions, but also because the uncertainty of their situation, not knowing how long they would be in there, and not knowing how they would get out. And of course, the language barrier was difficult, as well. So I asked them how they coped with the situation. And they said that it was sheer escapism. They managed to get some Russian language books, so they were doing a lot of reading. Sergei said he read 19 books, and they were reading, I guess fittingly, Russian classics. You know, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin. Eventually, they were able to post bail, and they were let out earlier this month.
CG: Wow, yeah. So they they bail out, and then you flew out to Washington to talk to them. What was that like? And I guess also, I mean, what did they say about their hopes for the future?
CM: When I met them, Sergei had been out for all of five days. And Maksim was released just the day before. They were really acclimating both to being in the U.S but also to being free after this three-month ordeal. You know, Sergei talked about catching up with the news, catching up with what was happening in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Maksim was very quiet, very reserved, possibly because, you know, he’d just been let out of what felt like jail. And so he may well have been sort of overwhelmed. But I think they’re just, yeah, they’re basically kind of getting their feet on the ground. A volunteer who’s helping them was looking for a bike so they can get around.
I think Sergei, he has a little bit of English, and I think he’s probably trying to improve it. They’re out now right? So they’re super hopeful about the future, and they’re trying to make plans. You know, Sergei, he’s a really dynamic energetic guy. And he basically is thinking about the next steps and thinking about what jobs he might do in the U.S. You know, he was saying that he had noticed how much plastic trash and aluminum cans he’d seen around around Tacoma. He was thinking it’d be great to get a, you know, like a deposit-recycling scheme going. Maksim, again, he’d only been out for a day. So I think he’s still kind of collecting himself. But I asked him, “What do you think you might want to do?” And he said that he is hoping to be reunited with his fishing boat.
CG: A true fisherman!
CG: They also said something about wanting to come back to Alaska.
CM: Sergei said, “Look, we’re people of the north, where we’re used to the Arctic climate.” And so their thought initially had been that they would return to Anchorage. I think Maksim still felt that he would. And Sergei, you know, being a real entrepreneurial type, was thinking maybe Anchorage but that also he would see, you know, he would go wherever, sort of supply and demand, as he put, it would take him.