Before I left The Hague the thought of hitchhiking in the former Soviet Union seemed a bit daunting. But each ride I took brought me a little further east. It didn’t feel like I was doing anything complicated. Catching public transport to Voronezh disrupted this natural progression, but standing by the side highway leading out of the city felt like a logical next step, just as if I hadn’t ‘cheated’ at all.
That did not mean it would be an easy day though. I had 579 kilometers ahead of me, the greatest distance I had attempted to hitchhike in a single day so far. After 40 or so minutes I got a relatively short ride from a truck driver who did me a great favor by arranging a follow-up ride over the two-way radio. As the driver, me and another hitchhiker I had joined forces with earlier sat there waiting for the next ride, the driver asked me to tell him about The Netherlands. Being put on the spot with my limited vocabulary I could not manage to say much beyond, uhm… it’s a small, ehr… clean country with uh… 17 million people… One of the first things I did after arriving in Volgograd was to compile a small set of pictures I have on my phone – I now frequently use them to distract drivers.
A short time after the rendezvous I was having lunch with three Russian truckers at a small roadside rest stop. Trying to figure out the meaning of the jokes these men were making counts as one of my most unusual but most entertaining Russian lessons. But as the men were heading east to Saratov and I was heading south to Volgograd we had to say goodbye a little while later. As I was dropped off I hardly had time to become pessimistic about the time I would be spending waiting, as I was picked up within ten minutes by a guy named Sergey from Rivne, Ukraine.
I’ve written a lot on Ukraine already, but this guy had some unusual stuff to say. He had been born in Volgograd but his mother lived in Crimea. I asked him if he thought his mother was better off with the Russians, which he did – ‘they have more money’ was his pragmatic answer. No attempt at justifying the annexation on historical grounds, just pure pragmatism for his mother’s sake. So I thought, okay, this guy doesn’t mind the Russians meddling, so I’ll talk about something else instead. But, then, a little while later he was chatting on the phone with a buddy from Moscow and calling himself a Banderovets and talking about Russia’s head propaganda honcho. Coincidentally we also passed a train carrying a shitload of tanks (see picture), so I went back to talking about ‘the situation’. Though he was voting for Poroshenko (‘who else can we vote for’) he thought Luhansk and the Donbas would be better off within Russia. Honestly, I had a pretty difficult time trying to figure out this guy’s basic political principles. Which I guess goes to show how complex political viewpoints can be. Or it may just be a sign that I am in way over my head when it comes to discussions on politics in Russian. It’s probably both.