What It Was Like Driving Across Russia Weeks Before the War
"There wasn't a single person we talked to who thought for one second that there'd be tanks rolling across the border to Ukraine"
“I was supposed to fly out Sunday night. We should be on the road right now. Weather’s perfect, snow is down, the passes are open. We should be driving up the frozen river right now,” says Jeff Willner. “We’re not.”
The frozen river he’s talking about is the Kolyma in the northeastern corner of Russia. If all had gone according to plan, Willner and a group of adventurers under the banner DefenderX were supposed to be on the second leg of a record-breaking expedition, one that included driving two Land Rovers across the world from London to New York, including amphibious crossings of the English Channel and Bering Strait. But three days before the 53-year-old was supposed to leave for Chita, a Russian city in the east across the border from Mongolia where the first leg ended, Vladimir Putin began moving the troops he had been amassing for months into Ukraine.
It goes without saying that the postponement of this “Nonsense Expedition,” as Willner described the exploit to InsideHook in December, pales in comparison to the horrors unfolding during the war in Ukraine, including a million people fleeing the country, a million more fleeing their homes, and thousands of soldiers and citizens dead. Yet by traveling across thousands of miles of Russia — a country that has now been cut off from much of the world through avenues ranging from financial systems to air travel — mere weeks before their invasion, Willner and his comrades were in the unique position of experiencing a country on the brink of starting a war. Not that they knew it at the time.
When asked if he was worried Russia would go to war, and if the team was worried about leaving their vehicles in the country (not to mention a couple of their companions) when they finished the first portion of their trip on February 2, Willner puts it this way: “We left stuff at the check-in at the hotel. That’s how we felt.”
It’s not that the tensions that were building between Russia and Ukraine at the time weren’t evident. When the team — which includes distinguished explorers Steve Brooks and Mikael Strandberg and the documentarian Sofie Rørdam — crossed the border on January 21, after a seven-hour process (“We just ran into a guy who was very meticulous at his work”), they made their way across the continent with two Russian speakers. There was Edward Adrian-Vallance, who is originally from the U.K. but moved to Russia in 2007, who put together the logistics of that portion of the trip and helped them cross the border, as well as Misha Vikhrov, a native Russian who works in the entertainment industry and came along to shoot drone footage.
“His grandparents helped to invent the first atomic bomb and built the first nuclear reactor in Russia,” Willner, who himself is the CEO of the tourism company Travel Edge, says of Vikhrov. “His granddad was one of the guys who flew over Chernobyl when it melted down and later died of cancer. His mom’s still a nuclear scientist. So very talented, very cool guy. He would stay up all night getting drone shots while the rest of us slept and then he’d nap in the truck while we were driving.”
Looking back on that two-week stretch, Willner admits that it was less about sightseeing and more about dealing with vehicle mishaps, and then driving long hours from one destination to the next. (Part of the problem is that these Defenders have been specifically engineered to go through water, and those changes had unexpected consequences; another part of the problem was simply the brutal cold.) But as he says, they stayed at the best hotels in town and ate at the best restaurants, and during that downtime they discussed the prospect of war.
“We had long talks,” Willner says. “And Misha’s family is well connected, so we had some pretty heavy talks.”
From the Russian corner, there was some hand-wringing over Boris Yeltsin “[giving] away big chunks of the country and big chunks of its resources.” Of course, that was three decades ago. When trying to put it into perspective, Willner compared Russia to Canada, where he lives, a country that has a higher GDP, and the ridiculousness of Canada theoretically attacking neighboring countries.
He also tried another tactic with Vikhrov: comparing the situation to soccer.
“If you think about Premier League in soccer, Russia got relegated a while ago,” he remembers saying. “They’re in second tier. They’re coming up around 13 or 14, and they’re still acting like they want to be going up against Liverpool or Chelsea in the Premier League. So that’s the bitter reconciliation … If you think about what the U.K. has done in terms of Brexit and hanging onto Empire, if you will, and still thinking of themselves in that way, there’s a lot of that in Russia too.”
“It’s like they’ve got a little bit of this hangover of delusions of grandeur when they were toe-to-toe with the United States, and they were the first or second biggest game on the block, depending on who you ask,” he adds. “That’s just not it anymore.”
However, what the DefenderX team saw while driving from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, with its fortress kremlin, to Kazan, with its citadel kremlin, to Lake Baikal was not a country in decline. What Willner saw, as a leader in the tourism industry, was a country on the verge of opening itself up to the rest of the world beyond the obvious cities known to people in the West, and a middle class on the ascent.
“It’s this middle class that was really getting its mojo on and buying their little Honda, Toyota cars, Nissan cars, running around, and kids going to school, and jobs. That’s who we talked to, and that’s what I was impressed by,” he says.
“When we were talking with people, because the buildup was happening in Ukraine, there wasn’t a single person we talked to — senior, junior, man on the street, guy at the gas station — who thought for one second that there’d be tanks rolling across the border to Ukraine,” he adds. “So it just took everybody by surprise. Everybody.”
Even as the war appears to be escalating, Willner and his team are still holding out hope that Russia could retreat, the conflict could end and DefenderX could continue on across Siberia. If that sounds naïve, the perspective comes from having met normal Russian people on their home turf mere weeks ago and knowing that war was not on their minds then. But the team will have to make a final call between March 15 and 20, because the ice that they need to drive on will be gone by mid-April.
For now, the team waits, occasionally texting each other in a WhatsApp group. Willner is back home in Toronto running Travel Edge, Edward Adrian-Vallance is in Russia still running guided trips that he organizes, and Sofie Rørdam, who is shooting the DefenderX expedition for a TV series, is in Poland filming with a kitchen that is feeding Ukrainian refugees.
If they had it their way, they’d all rather be shoved into two Land Rovers driving up an icy river.
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