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Fleeing conscription in a “flimsy” 16ft boat

“Welcome to America”: Gambell on St Lawrence Island. Getty

On 26 September last year, says Charlie McCann in 1843 magazine, there was a loud knock at Sergei’s door. The trucker, who lived in a port town in Russia’s far east, knew it was the government conscripting men to fight against Ukraine, so he didn’t answer. When the officials left, he called over Maksim, a fisherman friend he had known since they were teenagers. Both wanted nothing to do with a war they regarded as “evil”, so they decided on a “drastic solution”: crossing the Bering Sea to Alaska and claiming asylum in America.

Maksim’s “flimsy” 16ft boat was ill-suited to the 300-mile journey across “one of the world’s most dangerous bodies of water”. But the first few days hugging the coast of the Chukotka peninsula went smoothly, despite the region being heavily militarised. “Sergei thinks it probably never occurred to the top brass that anyone would attempt such a crossing.” Just 20 miles from America, they spied “the white caps of enormous waves” in the open sea ahead of them – but rather than “throw themselves at the mercy of the Russian army”, they decided to press on. Maksim’s “deft” navigation got them through the gale in one piece, and they eventually made landfall at the town of Gambell, on St Lawrence Island. Using Google Translate, the pair explained to inquisitive locals that they were seeking political asylum. “Welcome to America,” said the Alaskans, handing them pizza and juice. “You’re safe now.”