Crossing the Russian frontier

Published 19 years ago, updated 5 years ago

FPS (the letters stand for the Russian words meaning Federal Frontier Service) says that it has issued clear instructions for foreign small boats entering Russian waters, but many still get into trouble, so it may be useful to clear up matters.

As an example, two years ago a couple of Australian sailors on board a British yacht went from Estonia to St. Petersburg. Choosing their route, they strictly followed the recommendations of the British Yachting Association and kept to GPS points, described by an English yachtsman who had visited Russia a year before without any troubles. They passed safely the Russian Navy Border Guard base on Sescar Island, keeping along the Southern coast of the Finish Gulf. When they arrived at Kronstadt – deep inside Russian waters – they were arrested “for entering the Russian territorial waters in a prohibited place.” Their yacht was detained in Kronstadt for a day. By midnight they were persuaded to give a promise to visit the Border Guard headquarters and were allowed to go to St. Petersburg.

They appeared in my club early in the morning, and two hours later I met them in the Border Guard headquarters, which is at the opposite end of the city. The situation looked rather pathetic. Strange as it is – no one in Kronstadt and in the headquarters could speak English enough to explain to the Australians what they have done wrong. The Australians showed British instructions in English, the officials showed their instructions in Russian. The officials also didn’t want to understand my Russian, when I tried to translate the British instructions, the Australians’ explanations and my own reasons as for why they shouldn’t punish these foreigners in this case. They said the notorious general rule: “Your ignorance of laws does not spare you of responsibility for their violation.” Being quite frank with me, they also showed me a confidentially written order, where their commanders prescribed them to fine foreign sailors for any minor violation. So, the officers had only one problem – how to obtain some money from the Australians. Not too much – less than a hundred US dollars. I had to advise my Australian visitors to pay. The payment was made quite officially – to a cashier, with the receipt paper and in roubles (the official rules forbid payment in any other currency for official payments in Russia).

This raised one more little problem: there was no currency exchange nearby, the officials couldn’t change US dollars and English pounds, which the Australians had, for roubles. So I loaned Russian money to them. Then I asked the officials to describe exactly where a foreign small boat should enter the Russian waters and leave them. They said that there was only one point in the whole Finnish Gulf where a foreigner can cross legally: an imaginary line of the Russian territorial waters. The vessel must follow the so-called Sea Channel and cross the Russian border near Gogland Island.

I know at least one more legal entering point on the Russian border, that a foreign small boat can use. Finnish sailors often enter Russia from Finnish inland waters through the Saimaa Canal system, consisting of lakes and channels. On their way from Saimaa, the foreigners can choose one of the two official clearance points – in Vyborg town and in a little place near it called Brusnichnoye. This situation is somewhat simpler. The officials meet foreigners just on the Russian border and make all formalities in the pretty much the same way as they do it in clearance points on roads or in airports. There they can also instruct foreign sailors about the rules and routes in the Russian inland waters. When a foreign boat is going to St. Petersburg from Vyborg, the border guard officers usually order to go to the North via Vysozk. In the region of Gogland, it should take the usual route along the Sea Channel. This is the catch! The problem is that the Biorkesund Passage along the Western coast of the Finnish Gulf via the Primorsk town is closed to foreigners.

When a foreign vessel comes to Vyborg or St. Petersburg from the open sea the situation isn’t so simple. They have to go a very long way inside Russian waters without being able to make contact with the Russian authorities. They mustn’t stop at any of the many islands on the way – all of them are closed to foreigners. The Russian authorities have been promising foreign authorities to open Gogland Island and the Biorkesund Passage for foreign yachts, but have yet to put this into practice. I know that there are no secret military installations there and some Finnish boats already visited Gogland on exclusive permissions.

The nearest clearance point a foreign boat can reach on its way to St. Petersburg from the open sea is on the Kotlin Island where the satellite town of St. Petersburg – Kronstadt – is situated. The customs and passport control is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the place named Fort Constantin. There have been several cases, when boats coming from Vyborg, were subjected to a second clearance procedure there after they had passed the same procedure in Vyborg. The border guards and customs in Kronstadt belong to other departments than those in Vyborg. The border guard officers, whom a foreigner will meet at the clearance points, can be very strict during the passport control procedures when checking the dates on visas and other papers. You must, therefore, make sure that both your passport and visa are in order. As a rule customs officers are not that strict, and sometimes they are even rather helpful in minor difficulties.

My advice to a foreign small boat visitor is as following: before making special plans for crossing the Russian border, contact me. I will ask for advice from the Border Guard headquarters and warn the clearance point about your route and time of arrival. It can save you unexpected troubles and accusations of violating some rules – they will hardly argue against the interpretation of the rules pronounced by their own chiefs.

Saint Petersburg Central (River) Yacht Club, Petrovskaya Kosa 9, Saint-Petersburg, 197110, Russia Tel:+7 812 235-6636, Fax:+7 812 235-6636,, [email protected]

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