Alex Bower

ALEX BOWER’s dishes the Russian dirt on buying fake Schengen visas and the underground hand grenade trade.

alex Alex Bower bower column lash moscow russia year abroad

Being from England and pretty much middle class, I am decidedly risk averse. I have a keen sense of controlled adventure, the type that allows me to go camping in the knowledge that running water is only a few hundred metres away, or go down a zip wire, knowing that if I fall off there is at best a massive mat and at worst a criminal negligence lawsuit at the bottom.

Russians have no such guarantees, and it is probably why they do silly things with their time like establish these weirdly specific memes. People simply seem to have lower expectations in all walks of life (except in terms of how manly men should be), be it in terms of how much protection they will be offered under the law, the actual meat content in a meat dish, or the appropriate amount of hair above your grandmother’s top lip.

Anyway, my obvious risk aversion and relatively high expectations are probably the main things standing in the way of my being accepted as a bona fide Russian – that and my inability to pronounce approximately half of the necessary consonants in their language.

Once, a Russian man approached me on the metro and asked me if I wanted to buy a driving licence for £500. He seemed perfectly friendly but looked like the kind of nutter who wears an “I heart cock” T-shirt round Russian working men’s clubs just to start fights so violent that they would make arch-bellend Joey Barton join the Peace Corps,

It wasn’t a good deal because that was a whole £100 more than my friend Dima paid for it directly from the driving school because it was cheaper than the course enrollment fee. I said I already had one so he asked me if I wanted a school leaver’s certificate, pointing to the advert, which was a bit like this which he’d stuck over a car poster above my head with his contact details on. I was a bit offended that he thought I needed that, even though I am the type of guy who tells their hairdresser that I don’t go to Cambridge and in fact work in Halfords.

I didn’t want to start a fight with him though, and the train was slowing down so I told him that this was my stop and I didn’t have time to discuss it with him. Unfortunately the train was just being stopped at a signal light so I was just trapped, staring at a man who looked like he could take the Balrog in a fight while the only question I had in my head was, “so, how long have you been in the fraud business?”

A friend of mine has just applied for a Schengen visa, which will allow her to travel across all over Europe, except the UK. The problem is that getting all the necessary documents legally is just such a pain that she decided to have them forged by a man who sounded so sketchy that I assume spends his life standing in darkened corners counting the number of people he’s stabbed.

She’s not exactly a risk to EU immigration quotas – she’s a professional with a job and stuff – she just wants a cheaper holiday and is willing to take the risks associated with giving copies of your passport to a professional fraudster from Azerbaijan. But while middle class Russians take these kind of risks all the time, our British upbringing means we are far less likely to. “What if I get caught?” is our normal response.

This was not going through the head of a guy I know who used to earn a few extra quid by working as an underground grenade delivery boy, because there’s apparently a market for that. Just by walking on and off the metro with a rucksack full of live hand grenades, he managed to buy his way out of the exams he failed, and got his degree for just £2000.

At least if Cambridge finally kick me out for failing to meet a deadline, I’ll know where to go.