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A small ship, a vast sea and a desperate escape from Russia


In September, two men left Russia in the hope that a boat could take them to asylum on American soil. Their quest for freedom did not go as planned.

One day last fall, a series of knocks rattled the door of his apartment, and Maksim peered through the peephole to see two uniformed soldiers.

They were military enlistment

officers ,

he knew, seeking to extend the vast recruiting effort for the war from the Ukraine to Russia's far east.

The 44-year-old fisherman remained motionless and silent until the officers left.

Sergei, one of two Russian citizens seeking asylum in the United States, shows where he and his partner, Maksim, traveled on their five-day voyage across the Bering Sea in a 15-foot speedboat, in Tacoma, Washington, on January 19, 2023. (Grant Hindsley/The New York Times)

Knowing that they would return, Maksim went that night to the house of a friend, Sergei, who had received an unwanted visitor.

Together they studied maps at Sergei's kitchen table, trying to find a

way to flee the country

and a war in which thousands of young Russians were dying.

Sergei then offered a plan that, at first, seemed unfeasible.

“I propose that

we travel by sea

, ”Sergei proposed.

The idea was the beginning of a daring and daunting journey in which the two men set out in a small fishing boat with a 60-horsepower engine to cover hundreds of miles over several days—passing Russian border guards and traversing treacherous seas. of Bering—to gain asylum on the shores of the United States.

It was a

desperate search

for freedom that didn't go as planned.

For months, thousands of Russian men with similar misgivings have been fleeing the country:

Maksim, left, and Sergey, two Russian citizens seeking asylum after a five-day boat trip across the Bering Sea, in downtown Tacoma, Wash. (Grant Hindsley/The New York Times)

they cross the border by car, take trains to Europe or get flights abroad.

Some of those escaping military service flew to Latin America and then north, bringing more than

35,000 Russians

to US borders last year seeking asylum.

Maksim and Sergei, who asked that their last names not be published to protect their families, did not have the money or luxuries for such a trip, nor did they have much support.

Maksim, a Russian national seeking asylum in the United States, talks about his flight from Russia at a national security detention center in Tacoma, Washington, on Dec. 22, 2022. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

In the town of Egvekinot, sandwiched between the mountains and the Bering Sea on the edge of the Arctic Circle, it seemed almost everyone was a supporter of Russian President

Vladimir Putin

, even as the protracted war in Ukraine had called for more men than ever before. the town at the service of a conflict that was taking place thousands of kilometers away.

With the help of virtual private networks (VPNs) that allowed them to bypass internet censorship and find news beyond nationalist propaganda coming from Moscow, Sergei and Maksim had come to reject the Kremlin's version of the war.

They were unwilling to join what they considered an

unwarranted invasion

, launched by a government they so vehemently opposed.

However, Maksim wasn't so sure they could survive a journey from Egvekinot to mainland Alaska.

Then, looking further into the maps, they noticed the island of St. Lawrence, part of Alaska, right in the middle of the Bering Sea.

The journey there would not be that long.

On their phones, satellite images showed the island was home to a town and an airstrip.

“We can do it,” Maksim agreed.

He had a 15-

foot-long boat

, the type of vessel best suited for fishing the calm waters of Kresta Bay.

This voyage would take them much further: nearly 300 miles along the Russian coast, and then into rougher seas.

They decided this was their best option, as long as the often frigid autumn weather so far north remained calm, and as long as the Russian border patrol didn't spot them.

The risks were clear.

It was possible that they would

not survive.

But for them it was a risk worth taking.

A 'fishing' trip The men had little time left.

With the sun lowering on the horizon, the temperatures kept dropping and soon they would be well below freezing, too cold to survive a sea voyage.

Storms were already looming that could rock their boat.

And the military draft teams were still hanging around the city.

By the end of the day, a Monday in September, the men had a plan to leave at the end of the week, as soon as the weather offered a calm period.

They pooled their money to buy several hundred liters of fuel and filled orange jerrycans that pushed the dark green hull of the ship into deeper water.

They gathered clothing and camping equipment, coffee and cigarettes.

They packed water, chicken, eggs, sausages, bread, and potatoes.

They loaded up the GPS unit and their phones to navigate the route.

Maksim's indigenous Chukchi parents and siblings were vacationing away from home when he and Sergei decided to leave, and hoping to keep their escape a secret, he chose

not to share his plans with them.

Sergei, 51, left behind friends and a transport business.

In Russia were his mother and two daughters.

The men were nervous, but then received a jolt of optimism after watching a video on the Telegram messaging platform.

At a press conference that week, a reporter had asked the White House press secretary about US policy toward people fleeing Russia.

“Anyone seeking refuge from persecution, regardless of nationality, can apply for asylum in the United States and their claim will be

judged on an individual basis

,” spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre responded.

On Thursday, with only a few clouds in the sky, the men gathered on the shingle shore.

They told their friends they were going “fishing” and then headed out into the water, not knowing if they would ever return or find a new home.

Problems with the boat and border guards

The first leg of the route was familiar: just a couple of hours across the bay to Konergino, where Maksim was born and where they could stay with some of his friends.

After spending the night and refueling, they set out again in the morning, following the coast to the east for more than 100 miles.

With the sea calm, they pressed on, but their progress was hampered by the boat, which stalled every two hours, forcing them to repair the engine and adjust the fuel lines.

They began to worry that the boat

would not hold

the rest of the trip.

They arrived in the community of Enmelen at 5:00 p.m. and rented rooms from the locals.

But they faced a new problem: a storm system had arrived, with winds battering the treeless slopes and churning the sea.

When they woke up the next morning, the sea was still too rough.

The same thing happened the next day.

But the storm finally passed, and the men set out again, following the trail of the squalls to the east.

The rough seas were much choppier than before, and waves were spraying against the side of Sergei's ship.

The small windshield barely protected them from the elements.

Before long, water filled the base of the boat and the bilge pump was humming constantly as it tried to keep up.

They were also wary of the cities further on, on the eastern tip of the Chukchi Peninsula, where many Russian border guards were stationed.

The men had put their cellphones on airplane mode, hoping not to be tracked.

They kept their satellite phone turned off.

As they approached more populated areas, they ventured into deeper water, hoping that just staying 2 kilometers offshore would be enough.

They discussed the best strategy:

Maksim wanted to get further away to avoid detection.

Sergei, already drenched and less confident, tried to stop him.

He wanted to stay in

calmer waters.

Since the sun was about to hide, they began to look for a place away from the elements where they could moor the boat.

They found a cove, dropped anchor, and tied themselves to a rock on the shore.

There they discovered an abandoned cabin, with peeling paint and deteriorated boards.

They set up a tent inside.

In the Bering Sea Maksim woke early the next morning and climbed up a hillside with binoculars to see if there were any border patrols and if the weather was clear enough to proceed to the most difficult part of the journey:

crossing .

the Bering Sea.

He went down to the camp to inform his companion.

"The sea is calm," he warned.

They cooked some chicken, made tea, and set off;

They pointed their GPS unit at the

island of San Lorenzo.

As they moved away from the Russian coast, Maksim kept looking back for helicopters or patrol boats.

Their ship certainly did not have enough speed to outrun them.

With about 80 kilometers to go, they passed walruses and saw an orca follow them for part of the journey.

Then the tide began to rise again;

the ship lurched in the swells, as if they were riding a motorbike through the mountains.

Sometimes it seemed as if they were in a ditch, as the water rose on both sides.

As the swells rose, the boat's engine hummed, pushed to the limit of its capacity.

The crests of the waves broke over the hull, drenching them.

Then, at the peak of one of the tidal waves, Sergei got up and shouted:

"The island!".

“Where?” Maksim yelled.

He didn't see that far either.

“You go straight for her,” Sergei replied.

The island was bathed in the orange glow of twilight.

A group of villagers in jeeps had seen them and were coming to shore.

Maxim turned to Sergei:

"They're not going to shoot us, are they?"

an elusive freedom

Maksim gave the boat full throttle as it neared shore, then cut the engine when they first reached US soil.

When the men got out of the boat, they opened the translation applications on their cell phones and wrote a message for those who came to receive them:

“We don't want war.

We want political asylum."

Word soon spread through the Gambell, Alaska community, home to nearly 600 people, nearly all Alaska Natives.

While some used a tractor to haul the boat above the tide line, others took the men to the local police station.


Food began to arrive from all over the city: pizza, hot dogs, peanut butter, soup, tea.

The men told the growing crowd of their journey and their desire for freedom, and people there spoke of the generational connections of the indigenous communities that line the Bering Sea, including members of the Chukchi people like Maksim.

One person from Gambell claimed to have a grandfather born on the Russian side.

Many had other relatives.

Someone told them that it was "a shame" that the border had been created;

people came and went by sea all the time "before they made these maps."

But the next day, the world of borders returned.

US immigration officials arrived from the mainland and flew Sergei and Maksim to what would be three months in an

immigration detention

center in Tacoma, Washington.

It wasn't until this month that the two men were released, and they began contacting family and friends to let them know they were alive.

They had fled from Russia.

They were safe in America, for now.

They have started sharing their story and spoke to The

New York Times

through an interpreter.

Interviews in Alaska and Washington state, along with GPS photos, corroborate much of his account.

Like most of the Russians who have begun to arrive at the gates of the United States, they have received no firm guarantees that they will be able to stay.

Asylum claims can take a year or more to process.

Getting it approved means being able to prove the threat they faced in Russia, something their US lawyers feel pretty confident they can prove.

While they wait, they try to understand what a new life in America means.

They have enrolled in English classes, and Sergei has been toying with the possibility of starting a new business.

Maksim has started talking about going back to Alaska to get back the ship he left there, the one that saved them.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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Source: clarin

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