A friend of mine, asked recently when the next anecdote about Russia would be. I answered with something along the lines of “I’ll see when I get back.” As it happens, I only had to reach the airport for one.
Strictly job related, I brought back a load of whiskey and beer samples to offer distributors here in Moscow. I’ve brought excess alcohol in check-in baggage many times without any hitches. This time, however, was different. It was almost as though the customs official knew already.
As I jostled through the milling crowds towards the exit from the baggage collection area, a hand shot out in front of me, and a burly man in uniform took me aside.
‘Put your suitcase through the x-ray, please,’ he said.
I did as I was told.
‘Ooooh, I see there are a lot of bottles in your suitcase!’ he said. ‘Passport, please.’
I duly handed him my passport.
‘Irish? I hear Irish whiskey is very good, is that true?’
‘Yep, most of it is,’ I said.
‘Open your suitcase, please.’
I opened my suitcase to reveal row upon row of neatly wrapped bottles in bubblewrap. His face fell at this, as most of these were beers, but upon closer inspection, he spotted the burly bottles of whiskey underneath.
‘Do you have laws in Ireland?’ he asked me.
‘Em, I suppose we do?’
‘Do you have restrictions on the amount of alcohol you can bring in at any one time?’ he continued.
‘Not that I know of.’ I thought that in this instance it would be better to play dumb.
‘Well the permitted amount of tax free alcohol you’re allowed to bring into Russia at any one time is 3 litres, did you know that? You’re way over the limit.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know that at all,’ I said, shaking my head in what I hoped was disbelief.
‘Come with me, I’m going to show you our laws, so that you know for future reference.’
I followed him to a big list on the wall at the far side of the corridor, where he pointed and explained.
‘See? 3 litres! Do you realise that we could confiscate everything?’ he said.
‘They’re not mine, they’re gifts,’ I said.
‘You must have a lot of friends,’ he said.
‘They’re for Russian friends, yes’ I said, grinning.
‘What are you doing here? Are you a student?’ he asked.
I nodded. This was something of a lie, as my visa does not state that I am a student, but I thought that under the circumstances it was easier to go along with his questions rather than offer unexpected answers.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘well look, if you offer a token in exchange for our good will (translates into something along the lines of “Nasha dobrota/наша доброта) we’ll pretend like we saw nothing. Just make sure this doesn’t happen again!’
I pulled a 750ml bottle of black imperial stout out of the bag and placed it absentmindedly on the table.
‘I’ve always wanted to try Irish whiskey,’ he said, pointing at one of the short, stocky (and much more expensive) bottles at the bottom of the suitcase, which happened to be a 7 year old bottle of Glendalough.
‘Oh, Irish whiskey is very good,’ I said. I reorganised the contents of the bag, placing the whiskey bottle on the table.
‘I’m sure it is,’ he said, grinning. ‘Enjoy your stay.’
It occurred to me that it could have been a lot worse. If that had been in the likes of Germany, it would have all been confiscated in adherence to the law.