The Man Building Makeshift Boats to Escape Israel for Mother Russia

In 2005, a Russian-born ironworker named Michael Chaiyevsky was caught trying to escape Israel aboard a raft that he built from an old Citroen. Since then he’s been refining his vessels in the hope that in the end he’ll succeed to sail away someday

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Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

On an otherwise unexceptional winter day in late 2005, a unit of Israel’s maritime police force patrolling the waters west of Bat Yam was surprised to discover a bizarre raft that resembled a rickety spaceship, fashioned from a 1989 Citroen BX and buoyed by floats in the form of large barrels. On the vessel they discovered a man and a dog.

“Thirty years I’ve been at sea and I never saw anything like it,” maritime police officer Dudu Ravivo told Haaretz at the time. “At first we had no idea what it was. We saw a car cruising on the water. Afterward it turned out that the car was propped up with floats and in place of wheels it had propellers.”

The media reported that the man in the floating Citroen was an ironworker named Michael Chaimsky. The story was soon forgotten. But even if someone had wanted to dig further into it or find out what happened to Chaimsky, there was little chance of tracking him down. Because there is no Michael Chaimsky. The name of the person sailing the bizarre raft was Michael Chaiyevsky, Misha for short.

“When Israel disappeared from the horizon, those were the sweetest hours of my life,” he says today. In the just-over 14 years that have gone by since then, Chaiyevsky, 54, has tried mightily to reprise that floating joy. He has invested thousands of hours of work and hundreds of thousands of shekels to build seagoing craft, and to make each model better, with the declared aim of escaping from Israel, which issued a stay-of-exit order against him in the wake of a debt to the state. To date he has built five boats or rafts of different kinds, and is now hard at work on the sixth.

“That was a trial run,” Chaiyevsky says of those moments of happiness, years ago. “On Saturday afternoon, I went to the seashore at Bat Yam. People on the beach took an interest and helped me assemble the raft. I managed to get 11 kilometers from the shore [the media reported that it was 2.5 kilometers] before the engine heated up and died. My calculations were off. I called a friend to consult about what to do, and he called the police. They came to help me and towed the raft ashore.”

How did they treat you?

“The difference between the Coast Guard and the police is like the difference between heaven and earth. The Coast Guard behaved very nicely to me, but the police abused me afterward, and used nasty words that I would prefer not to repeat, but in the end they let me go. And after I was on the outside [released from detention], they didn’t do anything.”

Even though Chaiyevsky says his maritime foray almost 15 years ago was an experiment ahead of the real deal, he took enough food with him for a week – bread, water and Tushonka, a Russian version of spam. “If all had gone as planned,” he tells me,” you wouldn’t be talking to me now, I would be among my own people, in the homeland, Russia.”

Chaiyevsky is suffering in this country and dreams of leaving. He sees himself as a kind of Prisoner of Zion in reverse. “I feel like I’m in a concentration camp here,” he says. As a protest, he tattooed his ID number on his arm. “I don’t like this country, I don’t like the people. There is no culture here. Life here is torture, I’m like an animal condemned only to work. People here call themselves Jews, but they don’t know the history of their people.”

I ask Chaiyevsky whom he votes for. “I don’t see myself as an Israeli and I have no connection to the state. I declare: I did not want your citizenship.” Even though he’s been in Israel for a quarter of a century, he makes a point of not speaking Hebrew, claiming he doesn’t know the language, because he didn’t have enough time both to work and to study. Occasionally he does switch to Hebrew, when he’s angry or says something emotional, and then his Hebrew turns out to be not bad, even creative. But through most of the interview my friend Katya helps out as an interpreter and also soothes the gloomy, hurt Chaiyevsky.

The ill-fated floating Citroen. “That was a trial run,” Chaiyevsky says of the moments of happiness he experienced on it, years ago. Credit: Alon Ron

Of mice and men

After the attempt in 2005, Misha Chaiyevsky disappeared from public view. He resurfaced in “Hassan Arfa Compound,” Yoav Gurfinkel’s very sensitive 2019 documentary film about four men living in a neglected enclave in central Tel Aviv.

I meet Misha in a carpentry shop in that area. Since 2005, he’s been allowed to sleep here, in return for serving as a night watchman. The place is living on borrowed time: Located on one of the most valuable pieces of land in Israel, near the so-called Maariv junction, it will soon be demolished by developers. People like Chaiyevsky can be swatted away like flies. In its place, in the spirit of the times, a host of glittering towers on an almost-Qatari scale will rise: offices and residences for the ultra-rich.

In the meantime, life is pretty squalid. As we speak, mice skitter by – they’re pretty cute, actually – and Chaiyevsky views them indifferently. But it’s not as though he’s renting an apartment. All his money goes into the seacraft he’s building in the carpentry shop after finishing his day job as a renovator.

Things were different in Russia. He tells me that he studied history but never finished his degree, and worked as a businessman in the city of Chelyabinsk, in the central part of the country, east of the Ural mountains. He had a company that sold alcohol and operated in four oblasts, or provinces. He even owned a zoo, he says. “I had wolves and bears, I ordered an elephant from Sri Lanka,” he says proudly.

Chaiyevsky sounded credible until he began talking about the zoo. I figured he was fantasizing, as part of his idealization of all things Russian. Perhaps he was affluent, but to establish a zoo in the 1990s, with Russia floundering in an appalling economic crisis? That sounded like too much.

Via WhatsApp he sent me a photograph of himself as a young man, handsome and self-confident, together with a bear cub. It was intriguing to see what the broken man I met looked like in better times, but it still didn’t prove that he had established a zoo. Then he sent a link to the website of the zoo in Chelyabinsk, a city of a million people, in which he is listed as one of the zoo’s two founders. Turns out he was telling the truth.

A further search, however, turned up testimony from one of the zoo’s directors that presents a more complicated picture. Chaiyevsky was indeed a businessman, who traveled the world and brought back animals for the zoo. But at some point, things got bogged down, and the animals – according to the director, at least – began to suffer from malnutrition. The city had to take the zoo under its wing in order to save the animals. Chaiyevsky is furious when he hears this, and insists that the animals always had enough food.

In any event, that chapter in his life came to an end in 1994. The “mafia,” as he puts it, waged a turf war against him over the sale of alcohol, and it was intimated that he would be better off leaving Russia for a while. The solution was to take advantage of the Law of Return and move to Israel. He married his son’s (non-Jewish) mother when their child was 6, even though they had not been in a real relationship earlier, in order to be close to his son. “I couldn’t be without him,” he says.

'When Israel disappeared from the horizon, those were the sweetest hours of my life,' he says.

The Chaiyevsky family immigrated to Israel in 1994. Chaiyevsky says he planned to return to Russia when things there settled down, and also said as much to the Jewish Agency. He harks back to the conversation with the Agency official throughout the interview, as though everything would be different if only he could go back to that moment and his story would be confirmed.

Things fell apart when the family arrived in Israel. Three months after marrying and immigrating, Chaiyevsky and his wife divorced amid mutual recriminations and ugly court battles. Chaiyevsky insisted that the Israeli authorities were not authorized to handle his divorce, because he had been married in Russia. The judicial system disagreed.

Stubborn, wounded and suspicious in the face of the Israeli justice system – like a certain national leader and his supporters – Chaiyevsky refused to pay his wife monthly child support of 1,500 shekels (about $375). He says he agreed to pay his son’s expenses directly, but did not want to give a shekel to his ex-wife.

Though I am impressed by his experiences with seagoing vessels, I have little sympathy for his position on child support. In any event, I acknowledge that the man is stubborn when it comes to his principles – a character trait that in my view is responsible for his present predicament. When I ask whether it is National Insurance to which he owes his debt, he responds, “I do not recognize the ‘debt’ and refuse to pay the ‘debt.’”

Chaiyevsky’s life can be read in several ways. One of the most interesting angles, I think, is to try to understand how a person who is so resourceful and talented was pushed into a corner because he insists on remaining fast to his principles and on justice as he sees it, and refuses to yield an iota to the world and to compromise when needed. Another way is to see how easily the bureaucracy and the judicial system in this country can crush people who do not behave according to the norms and are certainly forgotten among piles of red tape.

‘I’m not a thief’

It’s been some time since Chaiyevsky had to pay child support to his ex-wife. His son is now 30, and works in a software company. Chaiyevsky is very proud of him and says they are in touch (“He doesn’t get involved between the mother and the father”). But the debts remain – he doesn’t even know the amount. Someone else might try to deal with the matter, by, say, making an arrangement to repay the debt in installments. People who have done worse things have been able to pick themselves up and move on. But Chaiyevsky has been stuck in limbo for 25 years and isn’t ready for compromises. I tried to find out from the police why he’s not allowed to leave the country, but they said that they don’t comment the reasons for stay-of-exit orders.

Four years ago, Chaiyevsky sent a letter to the Israeli courts declaring that he refuses to pay taxes. “I am not a thief and not a swindler. I informed the state. When the state is on my side, I will certainly pay taxes, but Israel did not give me a thing. You can ask why, if someone complains about his country, he doesn’t leave. But I can’t do that. I am a prisoner here. I can’t get married, can’t hook up to cable television or rent an apartment. Besides working, I can’t do anything.”

The consequences of his symbolic decision to disconnect from the state and ignore the lien and the orders, is liable to be fateful. Chaiyevsky doesn’t have a bank account, so he can’t make payments for national health insurance. In 2013, when he was working in construction, he fell from a height of four meters (13 feet) into a steel net. He was in a coma for 15 days, and broke a shoulder, six ribs and his pelvis. His family had to send money from Russia so he didn’t have to work and could rest while recuperating. “I was thrown out of the hospital when I couldn’t yet walk without a cane and a wheelchair. Another time, I broke an arm and the next day I was back at work. There’s no alternative,” he relates.

Michael Chaiyevsky working on his latest project.

These days he can only work in renovation projects, with Russian-speaking bosses, because other jobs require a bank account, a pay slip or a knowledge of Hebrew. When I ask whether it wouldn’t be preferable to reach a compromise so that he could live like a human being, or even leave the country, he objects vehemently. When I ask how much he would be willing to pay to be done with it all, he replies, “Not even half a shekel.”

Instead of dealing with your life, you build boats?

“More or less. Yes.”

You’re such a creative guy, you could do well if you weren’t so stuck on principles.

“You may have something there. But even if I’m not Rothschild, I feel clean. We all make our own mistakes. You can look at it philosophically – at least I’m not dead.”

Justice or no justice, I would just pay up.

“You say that because you’re an Israeli; I am a man of principles.”

You studied history at university, so you probably know how Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, and what we got was World War I.

“So I’ll tell you what I learned from history: Everything that happened, happened thanks to people of principles who stood up for their beliefs. A herd has 200 sheep and just one shepherd. We need to be those who choose to act.”

In Russia you probably slept in a fine bed, here you sleep with mice.

“The mice don’t bother me. My word is important. When I borrow money, I always pay it back. When I was in a coma, I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Everything around you is meaningless, the only thing that’s important is how you behave.’”

Work of art

Since his Citroen-model boat was defeated in the waves off Bat Yam, Chaiyevsky has been turning out rafts by the boatload. But since that adventure, he hasn’t launched any of them or tried to escape with them. He just builds them and destroys them. Seven years ago, he says, he took a boat to Jaffa with the aim of going to sea with a partner. He even paid an interpreter to help him make a video clip in Hebrew, in which he declared his intention to sail away as a protest. However, the partner damaged the boat, he says, and the municipality finally had it removed.

He offered his most recent model, which featured both a diesel engine and a 220-volt engine, for sale on the social networks. But seeing the lack of response, he grew disappointed with humanity and slashed it to pieces. By building and wrecking boats for the past 14 years, he says, he has been improving and refining his craft, until he finally builds the boat that will be up to the task of carrying him away from here. I read it differently. As I see it, building the boats has become his art, though which he tries to touch freedom or call out to the world for help.

But he says the boat he’s building now will be his last, the one that will take him to freedom – to Mother Russia. After all the struggles waged by residents and workshops in the area against developers over the last few years, the Hassan Arfa compound will soon be evacuated, the carpentry shop will be demolished and there will be nowhere to go other than to the high seas.

'I feel like I’m in a concentration camp here,' he says. As a protest, he tattooed his ID number on his arm.

Didn’t you also say that you would be successful in escaping with your previous boat?

“No.”

And you’re not sorry you destroyed it?

“Haven’t you ever thrown out something you wrote?”

Maybe you’re an artist and the boat is your work of art, which you have the power to create or to dismantle.

“Unlike a work of art, it had no buyers. The truth is that I sometimes also think about building a plane or a submarine. What I’m building now has wheels and can be both a car and a boat. I can take it into the sea without the need of a trailer.”

Sounds like something from a James Bond movie.

“He’s welcome to order a boat from me.”

How about offering it to the Mossad?

“I don’t want to have anything to do with this country. KGB, yes; Mossad, no.”

In the documentary you said that in Russia you were a Zionist.

“Yes, but here people don’t live by the Torah. Is this a Jewish state? There’s no difference between a weekday and a holiday. I ask you: When the buses aren’t working and it’s quiet and all you hear is the flies, is that a holiday? On holidays in Russia, everyone sings. Here I don’t see any joy on holidays. The only holiday in Israel is Independence Day. And I ask: independence from whom? I have no connection to this country. I came here only temporarily. It’s like telling someone who came to a supermarket to shop that he’s the owner of it. You can’t force citizenship on people. It’s like marrying someone you don’t know. You have to ask a person if he wants to be a citizen. But in Israel you just step off the plane and you’re ‘one of ours’ – take a shovel and dig. The flag on my boat will be red-white-blue, the Russian flag.”

Does that mean you’re confident that you’ll manage to escape this time?

“If I’m lucky.”

Michael Chaiyevsky with his latest boat.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

On the other hand, you could drown while trying.

“With bad luck, I could die tonight. I could die of hunger, but not drown. I worked in Russia as a lifeguard and I love life too much.”

Where do you want to sail to? Cyprus?

“I don’t think so – Turkey, Syria, Iran.”

Countries don’t like it when people enter them without a passport.

“I’ll get there and I’ll show them on the beach that I have Russian citizenship. The only problem is getting out of here.”

The coast guard will stop you for sure.

“The state and I are like two sheep that meet head to head on a narrow bridge, and one doesn’t let the other pass.”

Who’s going to win?

When I ask how much he would be willing to pay to be done with it all, he replies, 'Not even half a shekel.'

“That remains to be seen. A small screw can wreck a large engine.”

When will the new boat be ready?

“Pretty soon. It’s already 40 percent finished. I have to get two weeks’ notification before the evacuation, and by then I should be able to finish.”

So this is a farewell interview from Israel?

“Farewell is only in the cemetery.”

Following the interview, I spoke with the National Insurance Institute and the government's Law Enforcement and Collection System Authority. They explained to me that in cases like this a compromise is generally arrived at, and a payment plan is work out. I thought I would try to help Chaiyevsky who is, after all, in debt. I wrote a polite letter in which I tried to understand his situation and how to untangle everything. But in the end Chaiyevsky chose to stick to his guns: “They took my boy and now they want my money, too? I won’t bend. I am a citizen of Russia.”

Why did you tattoo your arm like a prisoner at Auschwitz?

“My life is the same as that. What can I do here, except work? I can’t get married, and if I were to get married, I would be passing on all my troubles to my wife. I can’t get a driver’s license here, either. Two years ago I was put in jail for two weeks: I'd been driving without an Israeli license for 22 years. In those 22 years I didn’t have a single accident, because in Russia I had been a driving teacher in the Red Army. I was caught during a random check. I didn’t pass the driver’s test in 1994, after taking 150 lessons.”

Why?

“You tell me.”

Michael Chaiyevsky's latest project. “The state and I are like two sheep that meet head to head on a narrow bridge, and one doesn’t let the other pass.”Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Because you’re Russian?

“Yes. I was also fired four times because I spoke Russian, for example, from a factory in Rishon Letzion. I went to the police to complain and they told me an employer can do whatever he wants. Today, at work, if I sing a song in Yiddish, the language of my grandfather and grandmother, I’ll be fired.”

I’m sure you wouldn’t be.

“Open your eyes. There are a lot of cases of people who were fired because of things like that. I wish I were an Ethiopian [Jew]. If an Israeli and a Russian both work as night watchmen, the Russian will be paid less.”

Do you have friends in Israel? In the renovation business, for example?

“What are friends?”

In the Hassan Arfa compound, are you friendly with the neighbors?

“No. There are junkies here. But junkies are human beings. As long as they don’t come into the carpentry shop that I guard, they don’t bother me.”

What are you going to do when everyone is evacuated from here?

“If I’m not successful in escaping by boat, I won’t have a choice. Maybe I’ll escape to Jordan – that’s an option – and from there go on to Russia on foot. Otherwise I have no reason to go on living. This life doesn’t bring me any happiness.”

Is there anything good in Israel? Something you like here? The food? The weather?

“I don’t like the food here. The tomatoes in Russia have a pungent taste, here they have none. I ate with Arabs from the territories. When they slice a cucumber, you can smell it. The cucumbers we have here are like Playdough.

Still, try to think of something good. I want an optimistic ending for the article.

‘Katya [the interpreter] is good.”

Anything else good?

“The only thing that’s good in my life is that I have a son who’s a good boy, who does things and works.”

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