“Mr. Wilkinson do you have any guns or drugs?” Those were the first words that greeted me when I arrived by train at the Medyka – Shehyni border crossing from Poland into Ukraine. Before me stood a crystal blue eyed, blond female dressed in a neatly pressed Ukrainian border guard uniform. She was flanked by two other guards, both male, who looked like they enjoyed scaring the hell out of people for a living. These men were young, muscular and raw. They looked as though they had been chiseled out of granite, not just their muscles, but also their hardened facial features. Their stares burned right through me. This group of three was the human personification of carrot and stick. I knew I was innocent, but I couldn’t help feel a fear of guilt. I collected myself, looked the woman straight in the eyes and stated a firm, “No.” She then moved on to the two other men I was sharing the compartment with. She did not ask them any questions, but just took their passports and headed on down the rail car corridor, collecting everyone’s documents. All the while she was flanked by the two official toughs. As soon as they left our compartment, the men sitting beside me, one a Ukrainian national from Ivano-Frankivsk and the other a Polish businessman, looked at me and said, “good answer.” They gave nervous smiles. It was the first English I had heard them speak since we left Krakow four hours before. I exhaled, tried to relax and began to wait.
Between Rationality & Superstition – Crossing Into Ukraine
I had arrived at the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine on the Krakow to Kiev express. The train had just exited Poland from the city of Przemysl. The Polish border guards had only done an obligatory contraband search of all the compartments on the train car. I was a bit surprised at their speed, there lack of thoroughness. Then again we were leaving Poland. We were leaving the European Union. They say that Poland is in Eastern Europe. Geographically that may be so, but of late it has come to have as much or more in common with Central and Western Europe.
The real dividing line in Eastern Europe today is the border between Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps it is best to say that Poland is of Eastern Europe, but Ukraine IS Eastern Europe. Ukraine is a place where the rule of law is more nebulous, a place where rationality vies with superstition for supremacy. A land that casts more shadows than it shines light. This is a land with an edge, a perpetual tension. Crossing the border I could feel the difference. All these things made it not less, but more alluring. If this land had not existed, I would have wanted to create it.
Fascinating & Frightening – Western Ukraine’s 20th Century
Sitting in the compartment, I began to think about the history of this area’s calamitous 20th century. It began to weigh on my heart. It was so close in the memory, its psychological presence almost felt physical. This was an ill-fated land. It started one hundred years ago as part of Austria-Hungary, then it was occupied by Tsarist Russia, then it was part of Poland, then it was occupied by Germany, then it was the Soviet Union, now it is Ukraine. Whose land is this? Whoever holds it at the moment? It has a fascinating and frightening history. This went through my mind as I waited and waited and waited. All I wanted to do was get across this arbitrary border so I could go to Lviv, only 40 miles to the east of where the train now sat.
Peering out the compartment window into the deep darkness of an autumn night, I could see the border personnel make their way into a nondescript building. It looked to be only half lit and pseudo-official. It looked like the kind of place best to be avoided. The wait continued, as time passed the train car grew more silent. Were there problems? Was I only imagining things? Who was going to be called off the train and in for questioning? If it was me, what would I say? Call the embassy. I had done nothing wrong, why was I even thinking like this. Everything was probably fine, except for me. I knew too much history. I began to think about all those people who had traveled along this same rail line over the past century. It had been a highway of deportation. Poles & Jews trafficked to concentration camps west, almost anyone and everyone to Gulags east.
Unvanished Borders – East of the European Union
The main thing I discovered during what would turn into the longest hour ever, is just what a miracle the European Union’s Schengen Area had created in most of Europe, including parts of the East. There were no border controls between many countries. Enemies and enmities had vanished with democracy and capitalism. Everything was so much easier to the west of where we sat. What lay beyond I wanted to see and experience for myself. If only they would just stamp my passport. The likely holdup was bureaucracy. My compartment mates looked relaxed, except when they looked at me. The American they hardly knew, except for that question about guns and drugs. Were they suspicious or was I paranoid? Maybe they were scared as well, guilt by association. I was at the point of considering almost any absurdity. Most likely, they were probably just ready to get rolling again.
In a little while we saw officers getting back on the train. They walked into each compartment, checking under and over everything. Strangely they did not look into our bags. That was a good sign, a show of trust. I relaxed a little bit after they left. Then the waiting proceeded once again. The air grew hot and stale. I could smell my compartment mates. They didn’t smell bad, but in another hour or so, the situation might grow a bit harder to stomach. The worst part was the silence. Without the dull hum of the train, every sound was magnified. Turning the pages of a magazine could wake the dead. I concentrated on nothing in particular. The Polish guy glanced at me in sympathy and sighed. I cracked a smile. We both gave knowing glances. There was nothing really wrong, other than our impatience.
Kindness & Humanity – Welcome to the Wild East
Then there was motion outside the window. Groups of officers, including several women were walking towards the train. The sound of the door opening was followed by quickening footsteps. Suddenly, standing there before me stood the same blond haired, crystal blue eyed border guard. She gently handed my passport back to me, looked me in the eye and said “Good luck Mr. Wilkinson.” My passport had been stamped. I looked up and for the first time, I no longer noticed her looks, only the kindness and humanity in her voice. In a few minutes the train began to slowly roll into the western Ukraine, into Galicia, into the East.