A Small Boat, a Vast Sea and a Desperate Escape From Russia

A series of knocks rattled his apartment door one day last fall, and Maksim peered through the peephole to see two soldiers in uniform. They were military enlistment officers, he knew, expanding the vast conscription effort for the war in Ukraine to Russia’s remote Far East.

The 44-year-old fisherman kept in motionless silence until the officers moved along. Knowing they would be back, Maksim went that night to the home of a friend, Sergei, who had received an unwelcome visit of his own. Together, they pored over maps at Sergei’s kitchen table, trying to find a way to flee the country and a war where thousands of young Russian men were dying. Sergei then offered a plan that, at first, seemed unfathomable.

“I propose that we travel by sea,” Sergei said.

The idea was the start of a daring and daunting journey in which the two men set off in a small fishing boat with a 60-horsepower motor to travel hundreds of miles over several days — past Russian border guards and through the treacherous Bering Sea — to win asylum on U.S. shores. It was a desperate quest for freedom, and one that did not go according to plan.

For months, thousands of Russian men with similar misgivings have been fleeing the country, driving across the border, taking trains into Europe, or securing flights overseas. Some of those escaping military service traveled by plane to Latin America, then northward, with more than 35,000 Russians arriving last year to seek asylum at U.S. borders.

Maksim and Sergei, who asked that their last names not be published to protect their families, did not have the money or luxury for such a journey, nor did they have much support. In the town of Egvekinot, wedged between the mountains and the Bering Sea on the edge of the Arctic Circle, it seemed most everyone was a supporter of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, even as the prolonged war in Ukraine had called more local men into service for a conflict thousands of miles away.

Sergei indicates on a map where he and Maksim traveled on their journey. Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

With the aid of VPNs that allowed them to bypass internet censorship and find news beyond the nationalist propaganda coming out of Moscow, Sergei and Maksim had grown to reject the Kremlin’s narrative about the war. They would not willingly join what they saw as an unjustified invasion, launched by a government they so vehemently opposed.

But Maksim was not so sure they could survive a trip from Egvekinot to the Alaska mainland. Then, as they examined maps further, they noticed St. Lawrence Island, part of Alaska, right in the middle of the Bering Sea. The journey to get there would not be nearly as far. On their phones, satellite images showed that the island was home to a village and an airstrip.

“We can do that,” Maksim agreed.

He had a boat, about 16 feet long, the kind of vessel best suited for fishing in the tame waters of Kresta Bay. This journey would take them far beyond that, some 300 miles across Russian coastline, then deeper into turbulent seas. It was their best option, they decided, so long as the fall weather, often frigid so far north, stayed calm — and so long as the Russian border patrol did not spot them.

The risks were clear. There was a possibility they might not survive. But to them, it was a chance worth taking.

The State of the War

  • In the East: Russian forces are wrestling for control of villages near the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, which has become a flashpoint in a battle that Moscow views as crucial for its push to seize the Donbas region.
  • In Kharkiv: Residents have slowly trickled back into Ukraine’s second-largest city after Ukrainian forces expelled the Russian military. But signs of the war — and the chance that it might return — are everywhere.
  • Military Aid: After weeks of tense negotiations, Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine. But the tanks won’t be the silver bullet that allows Kyiv to win the war.
  • Corruption Scandal: Amid allegations of government corruption, several top Ukrainian officials were fired. The ouster has renewed questions about how Ukraine’s leaders are addressing concerns over aid.

A ‘fishing’ trip

The men had little time to spare.

With the sun sitting ever lower on the horizon, temperatures were steadily dropping and would soon be well below freezing, too cold for them to survive a crossing by sea. They were already eyeing storms that could capsize their boat. The military enlistment teams, meanwhile, were still roaming through town.

By the end of the day one Monday in September, the men had a plan to depart by the end of the week, as soon as the weather offered a window of calm. They pooled their money to purchase several hundred liters of fuel, filling orange drums that pushed the boat’s dark-green hull deeper into the water.

They gathered clothes and camping gear, coffee and cigarettes. They packed water, chicken, eggs, sausage, bread and potatoes. They charged their GPS unit and phones to help navigate the route.

Maksim’s parents and siblings — Indigenous Chukchi — were vacationing away from home when he and Sergei decided to leave, and hoping to keep their escape a secret, he opted not to share his plans with them. Sergei, 51, would be leaving behind friends and a transportation business. Elsewhere in Russia were his mother and two daughters.

The men were anxious, but then they got a jolt of optimism after seeing a video on the Telegram messaging platform. At a news conference that week, a reporter had asked the press secretary at the White House about the U.S. policy for handling people who fled Russia.

Before they left, the men kept their plans a secret, even from their families. Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

“Anyone seeking refuge for persecution, regardless of their nationality, may apply for asylum in the United States and have their claim adjudicated on a case-by-case basis,” the spokeswoman, Karine Jean-Pierre, responded.

By Thursday, with only wisps of clouds in the sky, the men gathered at the pebbled shoreline. They told friends they were going “fishing,” then pushed off into the water, unsure whether they would ever be back, and also unsure whether they would find a new home.

Boat troubles and border guards

The first leg of the route was a familiar one, just a couple 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 themselves and the boat, they departed again in the morning, following the coast eastward for more than 100 miles. With the seas tranquil, they pressed on, but their progress was hampered by the boat, which kept stalling every couple of hours, forcing them to troubleshoot the motor and adjust fuel lines, sowing worry about how the vessel would hold up for the remainder of the trip.

They arrived at the community of Enmelen by 5 p.m., renting rooms from locals. But they faced a new problem: A storm system had arrived, with winds whipping down the treeless hillsides and foaming the seas below. When they awoke the next morning, it was still too rough. So was the next day.

But the storm finally passed, and the men set out once again, trailing the squalls to the east. The disturbed seas were much choppier than they had been, with crashing waves spraying over Sergei’s side of the boat. The small windshield did little to protect them from the elements.

Before long, water filled the base of the boat, the bilge pump grinding in a constant whir as it tried to keep up.

They were also wary about the towns ahead, on the eastern edge of the Chukchi Peninsula, where many Russian border guards were stationed. The men had turned their cellphones to airplane mode, hoping not to be tracked. They kept their satellite phone off. As they approached areas with more population, they veered into deeper waters, hoping that staying two kilometers offshore would be enough.

The boat that Sergei and Maksim took.

They argued about the best strategy: Maksim wanted to take an even wider berth to avoid detection. Sergei, already drenched and less confident, tried to stop him. He wanted to stay in calmer waters.

With the sun setting, they began searching for a place out of the elements where they could pull up their boat. They found a cove, dropped anchor and tied up to a boulder on shore. There, they discovered an abandoned shack, its paint peeled and boards decaying. They set up a tent inside.

Into the Bering Sea

The following morning, Maksim awoke early, trekking up a hillside with a pair of binoculars to look for border patrol activity and gauge whether the weather was clear enough to proceed to the most difficult part of the voyage: crossing the Bering Sea.

He worked his way back down to their campsite to report.

“The sea is calm,” he said.

They cooked up some chicken, made tea and then set off, using their GPS unit to point them toward St. Lawrence Island.

As they accelerated away from the Russian coast, Maksim kept scanning behind them, looking for helicopters or patrol boats. His boat surely did not have the speed to outrun them.

They had about 50 miles to go, passing by walruses and watching as an orca followed them for part of the crossing. Then the waves started to rise again, tossing the boat through swells, as if they were riding a motorcycle through the mountains.

Sometimes it would feel as if they were in a ditch, with water rising up on both sides of them. When going up swells, the boat’s motor would buzz, strained to the edge of its capacity. Wave crests broke over the hull, dousing them.

In a photo provided by Sergei, a view of St. Lawrence Island as the men approached U.S. soil.

Then, at the peak of one of the swells, Sergei stood up and shouted: “The island!”

“Where?” called Maksim. He could not see long distances as well.

“You’re heading right toward it,” Sergei replied.

The island was bathed in the orange glow of twilight. A group of villagers on all-terrain vehicles had spotted them and was zipping out to the shore.

Maksim turned to Sergei: “They’re not going to shoot us, are they?”

An elusive freedom

Maksim put the boat into full throttle as he approached the shore, then cut the engine as they sloshed up onto U.S. soil for the first time.

As the men climbed out of the boat, they opened up translation apps on their phones, typing out a message for those coming to greet them: “We don’t want the war. We want political asylum.”

Maksim in a homeland security detention center in Tacoma, Wash. Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Word soon spread through the community of Gambell, Alaska, home to about 600 people, nearly all Alaska Natives. As some used a tractor to pull the boat above the tide line, others brought the men to the local police station. Food began to arrive from all over town: pizza, sausages, peanut butter, soup, tea.

The men told the growing crowd about their journey and their desire for freedom, and people there spoke of the generational connections of Indigenous communities that span the Bering Sea, including the Chukchi people like Maksim. One person in Gambell reported having a grandfather born on the Russian side. Many had other relatives.

Someone told them it was “a shame” that the border had ever been created; people would go back and forth across the sea all the time “before they made these maps.”

But the following day, the world of borders returned. To their surprise, U.S. immigration officers arrived from the mainland, and flew Sergei and Maksim off to what would be three months in an immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Wash.

It was only 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 Russia. They were safe in the United States — for now.

They have started sharing their story, speaking to The New York Times through an interpreter. Interviews in Alaska and Washington State, along with GPS-stamped photos, corroborate much of their account.

Like most of the Russians who have begun arriving at America’s doors, they have received no firm assurances that they can stay. Asylum petitions can take a year or more to process. Winning them means being able to prove the threat they faced in Russia — something their lawyers in the United States feel confident enough about.

In the meantime, they have tried to sort out what a new life in the United States might mean. They signed up for English classes, and Sergei put out feelers on a new business venture. Maksim has started talking about going back to Alaska to retrieve the boat he left there, the one that saved them.

Released from a detention facility this month, the men are still not sure whether they will be allowed to stay in the United States. Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times
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