Newcomb Mott was a 27-year-old world traveler in 1965, accustomed to using his summers to learn about far-flung countries. That summer, he traveled to the Arctic town of Kirkenes, Norway. The border between Norway and the Soviet Union was temptingly near. Norwegians crossed the border to visit the small town of Boris Gleb to purchase vodka. Mott didn't have a visa to visit the USSR, but he figured the border guard might at least stamp his passport before he was turned away.
Mott was, as one U.S. ambassador would later describe him, “a kind of innocent abroad,” who had come to this isolated place, north of the Arctic Circle, on a whim. He had a confidence characteristic of young, educated, American white men in the 1960s—a feeling that everything would probably work out, because, the great majority of the time, everything did. But when Newcomb Mott illegally crossed the border into the USSR in 1965, aiming to collect a new stamp on his passport, everything did not go right for him.
Within a year of crossing the border, Newcomb Mott was dead, killed either by fellow prisoners or by government agents, although the Soviet government officially ruled his death a suicide. Under different circumstances, he might have been given a fine and set free after a few days or weeks. But borders are fraught places, where the rules can shift quickly and individual choices, the power of the state, and politics can turn small mistakes into tragedies.
Read the story of Newcomb Mott at Atlas Obscura.
(Image credit: Tass)