The Incredible, Improbable Story Of The ‘Ruso Loco’ Who Visited 107 Countries Without Spending A Dime

There are two things I want to make clear before I begin this article:

1. I’m not sure if this story is entirely true.

2. I’m not sure if that entirely matters.

I interviewed Yasik “Ruso Loco” Smirnoff, “the ‘crazy’ Russian traveller who has lived with nomads, bathed with crocodiles, fallen down a volcano, and even been lost in the desert (and he’s still only 21 years old),” two weeks ago, and I put off even starting this article until my editor (a normally docile Pacific Northwesterner) called and threatened to take the story from me.

Part of me was tempted to let him have it (after all, these pictures of Wilford Brimley as a sexy vampire won’t just Photoshop themselves), but in the end I asked him for one more chance. Because despite my reticence, the most important lesson I learned from my surreal conversation with Yasik is this:

The difficult things need to be done, precisely because they are difficult.

Yasik didn’t say these exact words during the interview (though in his occasionally brilliant, occasionally rambling monologue there were few words he managed not to touch, including all the variations of “fuck”). But his life is an example of this lesson in practice.

Though dozens of articles and television segments have been devoted to the Ruso Loco’s life story, let’s lay down the basic details for a moment:

  • Yasik Smirnoff was born in Russia, and left home at a young age to go to a school for the sciences and technology.
  • Sometime afterwards, he moved to Hong Kong, opened a business, and married by the age of 18.
  • Shortly thereafter, Yasik became bored and unsatisfied with his life and decided to travel. Or, in Yasik’s words:

This is where the story takes a turn for the bizarre and the spectacular. Because Yasik didn’t just book a package tour to Morocco or a couples’ cruise around the Mediterranean like most people do when they feel the urge for an adventure. Instead, Yasik decided he wanted to visit 100 countries before he turned 21. Since this goal was not insane enough on its own, Yasik decided he would do the trip entirely “naked” — no money, no plans, and, on occasion, no clothes.

When I was a kid I saw bunch of films about like Indiana Jones, James Bond, you know all of those action movies, which is you’re watching, and thinking, fuck I want to be like a hero of this movie. And as well I heard about Richard Branson taking trip in balloon around the planet, I heard about a lot of crazy guys which is did some crazy stuff around the world. But I never heard about the person who has done the trip around the planet naked, completely. So what I start to think, okay, naked trip around the planet, that’s fucking crazy, that’s impossible…but that’s what I’m looking for, that’s what I have to do.

He quickly divorced his wife (in his words, “I’m 18, she’s 19, so we will not make like long-distance relationship, you know? Because in this age, at least once a week you need to fuck.”), and soon he was traveling to Tibet. Not the “Disneyland” part of Tibet where tourists are supposed to go, either. Yasik visited the restricted mountain region of Tibet, and he arrived there in a wooden box.

My first place where I went was the Chinese side of the Tibet. I went there illegally, because you need special type of the permission, and with this permission you will go to some places where the government allow you to go…it’s not the Tibet, it’s like Disneyland, man. But they will not allow you to go to the mountain regions, close to Indian border or whatever, where is all the ethnic groups is living. And I went inside of Tibet inside of the…how to explain it…inside of the wooden box…They took the nails (makes nailing noises). I spend in fucking wooden box six hours. It was such experience.

You may find this story hard to believe. I know I did (and still do). As soon as I heard Yasik tell this incredible story about being smuggled into a communist-controlled country inside a wooden box, then follow it up with even more thrilling tales of daring adventures, I was struck with two competing feelings:

1. Yasik’s stories are unbelievably amazing.

2. Yasik’s stories are unbelievable.

If I were watching a movie and saw a red-faced Russian teenager smuggled across a hostile border in a crate, my willing suspension of disbelief would immediately fracture. To be clear, movies have made me temporarily believe that giant robots could love, space magic was real, and Judd Nelson was the acting talent of a generation. And yet I couldn’t fully accept Yasik’s story. The more I heard, the more this flicker of doubt grew — until it tainted every word of our conversation.

Was all of this bullshit? Was he just exaggerating for attention? Was I just another in a long line of writers who had been taken in by a charismatic con man? And if this all was a lie, how in the hell did he captivate the world with such a compelling story in a language he’d just learned? I have devoted most of my life to writing fiction, and all I can show for it is a box full of remaindered books in my parent’s garage and some Goodreads reviews that make me wish I’d gotten my real estate license, instead.

The thing about me is, I know that I am gullible. I’ve purchased and ingested tree pollen because internet forums made me believe it would make my biceps bigger. I even convinced myself a long-distance relationship in college would be anything but a doomed voyage of emotional devastation and cell phone overages. And though it hasn’t happened yet, if anyone ever tried to sell me magic beans, I would probably buy them.

But as gullible as I am, even I had difficulty completely believing Yasik when he told me stories like these:

Actually I’ve been traveling completely naked in three countries, it was in Rwanda, in Uganda, and I did it in Spain as well, but Spain in Granada, they arrested me, the police. Just to prove and to show first of all to myself and as well to the people around that literally you don’t need anything from outside. You just need yourself, your right ideas in your mind, and you have to follow it. But for many people to be naked in the public place really sucks…so what is good, what is bad, it depends on how we feel it.

In Rwanda and Uganda it is legal [to be naked], by the constitution you can be naked. It’s kind of weird shit. For example in Uganda the miniskirt for the girl it’s illegal, but you can be naked. African governments they are funny, they are really funny.

[In Granada] they took me to the police station and I was supposed to stay over there for…I don’t remember…two weeks or something. But the good thing I had a bunch of friends in Granada and the policemen…if you are in the trouble, but you are not aggressive to the policeman or whatever, you are just making fun, you are relaxed, people feel it. So they are not really want to make a trouble for you. In the end they just put me in the police station for like one day waiting for my friends, and then they came and gave me clothes and the conflict was done.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that Yasik lied to me, or lied to any of the other magazines, websites, and TV stations that interviewed him. From what I’ve read, his stories have been consistent, and he has extensive photographic proof of his travels. As much as I would like to fact check his claims of not spending money during the entirety of the trip or crossing Uganda without a stitch of clothing, I don’t have the time, funds, or resources to verify his stories.

Not even one as seemingly insane as this:

But even if I knew Yasik’s story was a complete fabrication, I wouldn’t want to expose him. I would have simply buried this story in a dark corner of my hard drive, along with my many failed novels and fewer (but somehow more personally devastating) photos of myself with my shirt off at the beach. I want (and wanted and will always want) Yasik’s story to be true, despite my doubts.

I want it all to be true, even though the story doesn’t make me feel very good about myself — because if Yasik has done all this, then why can’t I? My whole life, I’ve dreamed of travel and adventure and testing myself through the crucible of bad decisions and good intentions. Exactly the kind of life that Yasik describes here:

I’ve even imagined dropping all of my responsibilities and career obligations to live somewhere tropical and beautiful and new, but my dreams have never made it past speculative Airbnb searches and the occasional glance at Costa Rican exchange rates. Reality always seems to have more pressing plans for my life: money to make, and money to spend.

Even if Yasik stretched the truth about parts of his adventure — even if he didn’t actually freeze his bank account for five years to remove the temptation of spending money, even if he did pay with his own cash for some Funyuns in an Arkansas gas station during a moment of weakness, even if the most insane story I have ever heard is really just a slightly less insane version of the most insane story I have ever heard — he has still, without any question or doubt, spent the last four years on an amazing adventure.

Yasik had a dream, a vision of happiness, and he didn’t let anything, not money, not spousal responsibility, not even a basic sense of self-preservation keep him from achieving that goal. He simply decided to (in a phrase he used often in our conversation): “don’t be pussy and move your ass.”

I laughed when Yasik first said that to me. At first I laughed because his phrasing surprised me, then I laughed because he sounded hilarious saying that in his Russian accent, and finally I laughed because it was absurd to hear such a seemingly idiotic phrase spoken with such solemnity.

I have thought about those words over the past two weeks, and they have become much less funny with each passing day and missed deadline.

“Don’t be pussy and move your ass.”

As vulgar/blunt/sexist as those words may be, there was also a glimmer of brilliance in them. For weeks I’ve been slow to start this article —  partly because writing is hard but mainly because I worried that I could never truly apply Yasik’s advice to my own life. I am, at times, hesitant and tentative, which is clearly what Yasik meant by “pussy” (not a usage I’m on board with, but still). Also, I spend most of my waking hours both literally and metaphorically on my ass. As much as these attributes have led to occasional challenges and frequent therapy bills, they are also part of who I am, and why I am writing these words.

I know I will never travel “naked” like Yasik, but I can still learn from his example, and so can you. Because as Yasik said in his own inimitable way, “if you want to learn something…your eyes have to burn.” Over four years, over a hundred countries, and without a single penny, peso, or ruble spent, nobody has learned more about travel than Yasik “Ruso Loco” Smirnoff.

He has discovered the best way to learn a foreign language:

If you have the girlfriend who don’t speak any English and speaks some other language, you will learn this fucking language. Because if you are sleeping with the dictionary, you will learn it very quick.

He has learned the best way to negotiate with government officials:

So this guy start to explain me like by the law of Uganda you cannot be on the border with clothes which is looks like the military, blah, blah, blah. The thing is at that time I had only one pair of pants, so if I give my pants to him, I would be naked completely. So I explained that to him, he did not understood. So after fifteen minutes we was like face to face literally, like two centimeters between our faces, shouting to each other with the worstest words you can imagine, and then he just throw the documents on his table, and said: “You fucking Russian, you are even more tough than the people in Uganda. Go put your fucking stamp and I never wanna see you anymore here.” So he allowed me to go inside of the Uganda.

He has learned international diplomacy:

So I just crossed the border [into Mexico], I start to ask for the ride, and the one truck, the white truck stopped…and the guy start to scream: “Hey pinche gringo, puta madre, pendejo.” Some Mexican bad words, like you fucking American…because many people think I’m a gringo, they think I’m an American, because I’m blonde, blue eyes, tall, whatever, mostly talking in English. And I was like, “Hey, hey, hey cabron, yo soy Ruso.” I was like, “Hey man, I’m Russian, shut up.” And he was like, “Oh hey, Ruso! What’s up?”

He has learned the power of charity and human kindness:

I am still alive only because of the help of the people. It start when the people they are giving me the ride when I am hitchhiking, when the people are inviting me to stay in their house, they are sharing the food with me or giving me the clothes, because I am using no money at all. And it is finished when the people are saving my life literally. When I was lost in the Gobi Desert, in the Chinese side of the Gobi Desert, and people found me there…Or like it was in border between Rwanda and Uganda, where I stayed in the tribe, and [I] had the malaria, and it doesn’t have any treatment like the pills or something, so the local tribe tried to help me, they gave me the herbs and the things. Or like it was in the Syria, when at some point some groups they start to hunt for me…to try to kidnap me or kill me, and the local people, the Syrians, protecting me from them…I want to make message for the backpackers, for the people who are traveling by themselves. Because we, I think, have to stop to travel just for experience, just for fun, just for selfish reasons, we have to start to travel to help the local communities. For every place that we go we have to make this place better, and help local people.

But most of all, through the pain and the insanity and the fun and the many near-death and life-changing experiences of Yasik’s four year voyage, he has learned about himself:

You know what is really good when you are traveling by yourself without anything? You start to see yourself very clean…We all have shit inside. But we don’t like to say to ourselves that we have this shit. We’re always lying to ourselves. We’re always wants to looks better than we are in reality, so when you’re traveling like my way, with nothing, just with your brain, heart, and balls, and the help of the people around, you start to see all sides of your personality very clean. Bad sides, and the good sides as well. When you see your bad sides, you can work on them, and make them be better.

And that is perhaps the most valuable lesson of all.

There is an old saying: “we hate in others what we despise in ourselves.” I have thought about this saying quite a bit since I began this article. Not because I hate Yasik Smirnoff — I genuinely like and admire the man — but there is something else I feel for the Ruso Loco, something that is even more caustic than hate: envy.

I envy him because he acts when I only think.

I envy him because he has turned the everyday realities of his life into unforgettable adventures.

I envy him because he is living the life I have always dreamed of, and I am too scared to even attempt it.

Even if parts of Yasik’s story are  untrue, it doesn’t really matter. Because Yasik’s story represents something: a desire for adventure in all of us and the constant challenge of personal growth. Yasik’s journey is an embodiment of the life that all of us have dreamed of, if only for a moment, and then immediately discarded for the realities of work, and money, and all the other things that look like happiness in the moment, though we can never know for sure, because it always moves out of reach, no matter how hard we chase after it. But we keep chasing and soon the chase is all we know.

Yasik Smirnoff is chasing after happiness too, with each bummed sandwich and each new friend and each crazy, dangerous, stupid, wonderful adventure. He is chasing happiness, and, for the moment, it appears he’s caught it.

And for this, I envy Yasik Smirnoff most of all.

*** For more information about Yasik and his incredible journey, visit ***

*This article has been modified slightly after publication.*