Clack! The red exit stamp in my passport clears the way from the Russian Federation into the European Union. Shortly before midnight I am permitted to exit Russian territory. The young border guard who just wielded the stamp gives me a friendly smile. "Have a good trip home! I guess you can't fly anymore," she says. No, we can't. Not directly, anyway. But we can cross on foot.
We pass through a little barrier, then, beyond it, through a big iron gate and over a bridge surrounded by a mesh fence. A cold night wind escorts me as I drag my two suitcases across the River Narva, which marks the border between the Russian town of Ivangorod and the Estonian city named after the river. It is 162 meters (534.6 feet) of no-man's-land. On the left is a vehicle lane for trucks; on the right, below me, is the dark water. Narva's illuminated medieval castle shines on the opposite bank. Behind me lies a country whose medieval politics have rallied half the world in opposition.
A five-minute walk over the "Bridge of Friendship" takes me not just to the other bank, but to another world. The friendship that once existed between Russia and the European Union is no more.
Sanctions affect travel
Before the crossing, I made a 10-hour train journey from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the Russia-Estonia border. After the crossing, and a night in Narva, I will spend another four hours on a bus to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, followed by a two-hour flight from there to Berlin. Working as a correspondent in Russia for the past seven years, I could complete this journey in two and a half hours with a direct flight from Moscow to Berlin. This time it took a day and a half.
The route I took on foot across the border is not the only way you can leave Russia. There are still flights available. However, anyone wanting to fly to the West these days must be prepared to fork out a lot of money — and to wait. Right now, flights via Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Armenia are exorbitantly expensive, and more in demand than ever. E.U. airspace is closed to Russian planes, while Russian airspace is closed to Western planes.
There are also risks if you do decide to fly. Some Russian airlines are no longer allowed to use planes leased in the West. There is, therefore, at least a theoretical risk that airline passengers could find themselves stuck on the ground in a third country if the plane makes an intermediate stop and is impounded there. Airbus, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands, and the US manufacturer Boeing have also suspended their technical support service for planes owned by Russian airlines.
Many Russians stuck
There is certainly no mass exodus from Russia at present. In light of the sanctions imposed by the West, there are not many people who can even afford to leave the country, anyway — not even temporarily, because no one knows what will happen next. Certain famous pop stars are rumored to have fled the country; some of them have publicly criticized the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the rumors say they are afraid of being targeted by the security services. Many people who remain in Russia fear increased inflation, rising unemployment, and worsening standards of living. The ruble has been falling for days now, and interest rates are going up. Some economic analysts warn that the Russian economy could shrink this year by as much as 10 per cent.
But in Narva, on the other side of the Friendship Bridge, Estonians are also worried that their economic situation will get worse. Everyone here is talking about the price of petrol; it's been going up for days. And in my one short night in an Estonian hotel, I can't help noticing that the temperature in my room is considerably lower than in Russia. Gas is expensive here.