It Always Starts With a Girl
Back in early 2010 I headed to Ukraine for a month to visit a Ukrainian girl I met in Alaska. Genya and I met during the summer of 2009 at a Russian party at Mirror Lake. We started dating soon after but she had to go back to Ukraine at the end of summer because her visa was expiring. I was about to start my last semester at university. We promised each other we would stay in touch and we did. After I graduated university in December 2009 I started working at the post office as a temp to save up some money to go see her. I left for Ukraine at the end of January 2010.
I had only been to Ukraine once before. In 2006 I spent the summer traveling around Europe and Russia. I took a train from Budapest to Moscow that went through Ukraine. I spent a month in Russia on that trip, definitely enough time to observe the strangeness of Russia and the cultural differences. I was very excited to be going back, especially because my Russian had dramatically improved since 2006. Genya was from western Ukraine, a town called Chernivtsi. Chernivtsi is an interesting place, it is full of culture but also has a unique history. It was part of the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union and since 1991 has been part of the independent Ukraine. All of this history can be seen in the architecture.
Arriving in Ukraine
I arrived in Kiev on a cold night. I forgot about how aggressive the taxi drivers are there. My big backpack may have well been a bullseye. They don't just hassle you, they literally grab you and try to get you in their cab. I eventually got into the city and called Genya to tell her I had arrived and about the taxi drivers at the airport. I got on a train the next day to Chernivtsi. The train ride is about 12 hours, enough time to observe the differences but not enough to get used to it all. When I arrived Genya was there to greet me.
Before I left Alaska I connected with this British fellow who had a hostel in Chernivtsi. I told him I would stay with him. This is where it all started. Soon after arriving, Genya and I went to go meet Paul. Paul was a very interesting character. He was in his 50's and definitely stood out in Ukraine, mostly because he was always smiling. He said he got tired of England and decided to spin a globe and go wherever his finger stopped, it ended up being Ukraine. He sold his house and most of his belongings and headed to Ukraine. He purchased a building where he started the hostel. It was a decent place and very affordable. The best part was it was winter in Ukraine so there were no other guests.
A Night Out
Once I got settled in Genya went home. She told me she would call me in the morning. Before she left, as if she knew what was going to happen, she said, "Jeff be careful, this is not America. Don't be so friendly with everyone here." I kissed her goodbye and told her I would see her in the morning.
Paul invited me out to a local discoteca. Of course I said yes. This place was about as Russian as you could imagine. Hot women everywhere outnumbering the men 3 to 1. The women were dancing while the men stood in the corner smoking - not really paying attention. Food and bottles of vodka littered the tables. I was so excited I forgot Genya's warning. We sat down next to a group of Ukrainians. Of course I introduced myself and offered to buy drinks. They realized right away I was not Ukrainian. One of the guys asked me where I was from. I responded, "Ya Amerikanyetz!" I could not have made myself a bigger target if I tried. We ended up having a good time with the group. After plenty of food, vodka and dancing, the discoteca was closing. It was around 3 am.
As we were all walking out, two of the guys invited me out to another party. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. They had a big white cargo van, the kind with the big sliding door on the side. I asked Paul if he wanted to come along. Paul said, "There is no way I am getting in that van, and neither should you." Looking back I should have listened to Paul. I got in the van and we drove off. In hindsight this was a really bad idea. The van was equipped with a giant loudspeaker and the two of them were yelling into the microphone as we cruised along. They gave me the mic and told me to yell at people in English. Keep in mind these guys did not speak English, all of our conversation was in Russian.
We pulled up to a gas station just outside of the city. They started filling up the van and we all walked inside to get some tea. When we went up to pay for the tea and gas one of the guys looked at me and said, "Davia platit" (pay for it). I thought this was odd but decided to go along with it and then leave them. I paid for everything with the last bit of cash I had on me. We walked outside and I told them it was nice to meet them and I would find my own way back. They looked at me, the kind of look you don't ever want to see, and said, "Kyda ti? Ti c nami" (Where are you going? You are coming with us). At this point I knew I was in trouble.
I tried to get away but they forced me in the van. We were outside of the city enough where it did not make sense to try and get away. That would only escalate things. I did not know what was going to happen next, if I did I would have never got back in. The guy in the passenger seat looks at me and says, "Davai babki i passport" (Give us your money and passport). I explained, best I could, that I spent the last of my cash at the gas station and did not have my passport with me. After a brief discussion with one another, one of them reaches into the glove box and pulls out an old WWII pistol and points it at me. He made it clear that if I did not have any money than I was useless to them. I had never had a gun pointed at me before. My response was surprisingly calm and rational. I told him to put away the gun and we would go to an ATM where I would get them their fucking money. The most they could get was $500 anyway because of my daily limit.
They seemed to be agreeable to this suggestion. As we were driving I took my ID and and credit cards out of my wallet and hid them in my socks so these guys would not find them if they took my wallet. As we were driving I thought about the best way to get out of this. I was scared but also knew I could not show them my fear. We were driving down a dark country road that had sloping sides. I thought seriously about putting my forearm around the driver's neck, grabbing the wheel and forcing the van off the road. I ultimately decided against this because if it did not go perfectly then I was definitely going to get hurt. Giving them the money seemed like the best plan. We headed to an ATM machine.
I left my bank card in my pocket so I could easily take it out when we got to the ATM. Something strange happened as we drove through the night. The guy in the passenger seat started being nice to me. He told me everything would be okay and this was not personal. I was not sure what to make of this. The driver maintained his aggressive attitude and told him to shut up and stop talking to me. It seemed like the classic good cop, bad cop routine. We pulled up to a building with an ATM machine. The van stopped and the passenger opened the back door. I took out my bank card and was holding it in my hands, as they pulled me out of the van I dropped it and it fell in a crack behind the seat. I tried to explain what happened but they thought I was messing with them. Things begin to escalate. I jumped back in the van to try and get it but they were dragging me out. I was able to grab it as I was being pulled out for the second time. I can't imagine what would have happened if I had not grabbed it.
We walked up to the ATM machine. I knew the most they were getting was $500 but I also knew I needed my card. It would have been a real problem getting money from the US if I lost my card. I calmly told them, "Look, I am going to put the card in the machine and then put in my PIN code while you aren't looking. Then you can take your damn money and let me go" (I left out the limit). Surprisingly they agreed to this. I thought it was odd that they agreed so quickly. This is when I realized I was dealing with a couple amateurs. Proper thieves would have demanded the card and the code or told me they would kill me. These two clowns went along with everything I said. After I put the card and PIN in the ATM they pushed me aside. I could still see the screen. The aggressive one was taking the lead. He did not seem to know how an ATM worked. He eventually selected $1,000. I did not say anything but knew the transaction would be denied because it exceeded the limit. When it declined he looked at me and said, "Ti cho blad, gde babki?" (What the fuck, where is the money?). I told him there was money in there and offered to show him. I put the card back in the machine and told them to look away, I then entered my PIN. I selected "balance" and showed them. I only had about $4,000 in my account. The aggressive one looked shocked and said, "Blad, gde babki? Eto shutka?" (Where is the fucking money? Is this a joke?).
It became clear to me that they thought they hit the jackpot when they had an American. They probably thought I was loaded. I explained I just graduated university and don't have much money. They looked at each other and started laughing. The aggressive one said, "Da blad, mi toge tolko okuential universitat" (Fuckin really, we also just graduated university). I suggested we try another ATM machine. I knew after several attempts the card would get blocked. This seemed like a good plan. We went to another ATM machine and repeated the same process. He again tried for $1,000 and it was again denied. I suggested he try $100, that worked. He then tried $1,000 again and it was declined. We went to another machine. He tried $1,000 again, same thing. He then tried $500. They had already got $100 so I knew this would not work. There was a message in English that said "Please contact your financial institution." I knew now that the card was blocked. I told them it was probably a local bank issue and said we should try another machine.
Trying to Escape
It was approaching 5 am as we headed to the next ATM. I knew this was not going to last much longer but also knew I needed to try and get away. If these guys were really going to hurt me they would have by then. We stopped in front of a building with stairs leading up to an ATM machine. The aggressive one accompanied me while the nice one stayed in the van. Oddly enough we had developed a kind of relationship by this point. It's hard to describe but I think we all realized we had a lot more in common than we initially thought. We walked up to the ATM and repeated the process. After I had the card back and he was trying to get the money I saw my chance. I grabbed him and threw him down the stairs and took off running. The guy in the car saw but ran to his friend. I was getting away. There was fresh snow on the street and it was very slippery. I was running down these old streets - turning left and right - having no idea where I was headed. I was happy to have gotten away but there was no where to go, no one was around.
As I was running down a street I saw an old man sitting in a work van. This was it! I ran up to him and tried to explain what happened and told him I needed help. At the time I thought nothing of it but looking back I realize how crazy I must have looked. He told me to fuck off. I tried again to explain what happened but did not know how to say kidnap in Russian and was out of breath. Just then the van appeared at the end of the street. They were heading right for us. I was so out of breath and by the time I thought about running again there they were. They got out, grabbed me, threw me on the pavement and started kicking and punching me. I tried fighting back but I was exhausted. The old man and I looked at each other when I was being beat up by these two. I will never forget his eyes and the look on his face. It was then he realized I really did need help but now it was too late.
They threw me in the back of the van and we drove off. I could not believe I did not get away. Something happens to people when they are in situations like this. Everyone is different but no one knows how they will react until they are put in that position. At first I was very scared, eventually my fear subsided and I felt more anxious than scared. By this point I was angry. I started yelling at them. I said, "Cmotri blad, yestli strilaesh menya togda strila. Yestli net, otpusti menya potomy shto bolsho babki ne polychit blad. Idi na xyi, menya po xyi!" (Look mother fuckers, if you are going to shoot me then do it. If not let me go because you aren't going to get anymore fucking money out of me. Fuck you two, I don't fucking care anymore!). This definitely surprised them. I had not yelled at them before this and had not used foul language. They starred at each other in disbelief. They then started speaking Ukrainian with each other. I did not understand what they were saying. I figured it was either about letting me go or killing me.
The Release, Well Eventually
The van stopped. The nicer one opened the back door and said, "Davai idi" (Get out of here). I got out and was relieved to be let go. But I was also in the middle of no where. It was cold and snowing. I had no money, my ATM card did not work, my phone was dead and my ribs hurt from being kicked. What happened next sounds crazy but it really happened. I asked the nicer one if I could have 100 grivna (about $12) so I could get a taxi. He asked the aggressive one who promptly said no. I told them they took $100 from me and it was cold and I had no idea where I was. The nicer one looked at me with sympathy but it was not his call. I then said, "Horosho, togda vysadit menya v gorodi" (Ok fine, drop me off in the city then). The nice one looked at the aggressive one and said, "Mozhno otpusti ego v gorodi?" (Can we drop him off in the city?). He did not answer right away. After a pause he said, "Blad, horosho no skazhi emy ne govoirt" (Fuck, ok but tell him not to talk). I got back in the van and we drove off.
The ride back in the city took about 20 minutes. It was deadly silent. I would like to think they were pondering about how what they did to me was wrong but I think they were trying to get over the fact they were giving me a ride after kidnapping and robbing me. Once I saw a familiar landmark and knew where I was I felt much better. When all of this started I noticed a Russian Orthodox icon on the dash. The irony was hard to ignore. I decided I was going to tell these fuckers how I felt. I said, "Vi znaete shto Bog evso videt i evso znaet. Shto vi cdelali c mnoi ne pravilno" (You know God sees and knows everything. What you guys did to me is wrong). The aggressive one was visibly angry by this statement and told the nicer one to tell me to shut the fuck up! We had arrived and I knew where I was. The nicer one opened the door and motioned for me to get out. As I was leaving the aggressive one said, "Ya bolsho ne hochu videt tebya. Octobit Ukraina zaftra" (I don't want to see you anymore. Leave Ukraine tomorrow). I immediately responded, "Ya tolko priletal. Ya nikyda ne poydy" (I just got here. I am not going anywhere). I then walked off.
I got back to the hostel around 6 am, Paul was asleep. When I woke up I told him what happened. I think he wanted to say I told you so but just said that he was glad I was okay and to be more careful. Genya was more direct. I went to her place. As soon as she opened the door she said, "Tell me what happened?" It was like she already knew everything. She said I was lucky but was glad it happened because now I would understand what she told me. Later that night I called Wells Fargo to get my card working again. The girl could not believe the story I told her. She initially said the card was going to be canceled for fraud but I explained I had the card and just needed it unblocked. I figured that $100 they got was just a cheap lesson. She believed my story and I think she felt bad because she said normally they cannot refund money unless you make a fraud claim. She said she was going to make an exception and credited me $100.
Since then I have been to Ukraine and Russia many more times. Needless to say I am much more apprehensive when meeting strangers and I am definitely much more reserved than when I am in the U.S. I'm lucky it turned out the way it did, it could have been much worse. I wonder if those two clowns tell the story as much a I do? Somehow I doubt it.