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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday Travel Section: Torture by Visa

The Darkness at Noon blog offers the following horror story with which all those foolish enough to venture into Russia are well familiar:

My absolute worst experiences in Russia have always revolved around visa issues. The first nightmare occurred about 4 years ago when my passport and visa were stolen on the St. Petersburg metro. Replacing the passport was a snap: a couple of hours at the consulate and I walked out of there with a replacement. Replacing the Russian visa so that I could leave the country was a different matter. I ended up having to remain in Russia an extra week, pay $150 in special "fees" (read: bribes), not to mention the cost of a week's worth of hotel lodging and the inconvenience of rearranging flights during a high-traffic season. Perhaps the worst part was putting my mother, in tears, into a cab to the airport by herself because I couldn't leave the country. What a way to punctuate her first (and possibly only) trip to Russia... In retrospect, I should have gone to the airport with her and slipped a couple hundred bucks into my passport. How's that for an exit visa? I guess I was afraid of getting arrested, as at least the bureaucratic nightmare of visa replacement has a door marked "exit."

The second nightmare was related to the visa for my current trip. When I was informed that my invitation wouldn't be ready in Moscow until early January, I was quite worried, as I was due to leave only two weeks later. That didn't leave much time to receive the invitation and get the visa, so I contacted my handler at the Russian university where I was to be affiliated, asking if perhaps there were some "fee" (read: bribe) I could pay to expedite things.

The response was shocking: "The question is not in fee to pay for making the invitation sooner - they have certain rules which they obey" They have certain rules? Which they obey? Really! This is Russia! Nobody obeys the rules and everything has a price! Alas, I had managed to stumble across the one Russian bureaucrat with a respect for the rules.

My next move was to contact the Russian consulate in the U.S. to ask if they would accept a scanned copy of the invitation rather than the original, thus saving the time and expense of mailing it from Moscow. "Yes, you can bring copy."

A few days later at the consulate:
"No, we do not take copies. You must have original invitation."
"But you told me on the phone that you do take copies."
"You must have spoken incorrectly." [I must have spoken incorrectly??? I, who was speaking in my native language? I'm the one who made the mistake?]

And so, for $65 the invitation was FedExed from Moscow, and for $400 a visa was issued through same-day processing, but not without another headache:

"The visa will be active in 5 working days, so January 25."
"But I'm supposed to leave on January 21."
"Well, you simply can't. It's the law, you know."
"But I already have a plane ticket. And I was here last week and would have done this earlier, but you told me I had to have the original when on the phone you told me I could hae a copy, and I'm a student..."
"No, it is not possible. But I can ask the consul..."

Apparently the boss has the authority to change "the law," as he looked on me with pity and issued the visa with the necessary entry date. It seems I had found the one Russian bureacrat with empathy.

My third nightmare began yesterday. The day began with me being taken to task at the university by the director of the international students office for not having met with my "faculty advisor" on a weekly basis. Apparently this was a flagrant breach of university rules, in addition to bringing shame upon myself and the department. "After all, you're not here to wander around Moscow!"

Let me back up for a moment. I'm a PhD candidate from a major U.S. university, and am conducting research in Moscow for my dissertation with the support of a certain fellowship that provides living expenses and what I thought was a loose affiliation with the university: access to libraries, facilities, and faculty if I needed them. What I did not expect (nor desire) was hands-on "supervision" at the university. After all, I have my own advisors in the U.S. to whom I ultimately must answer. And so, I was at first just irritated by the stifling interest that the university was taking in me. And I do not wander around Moscow all day. After all, the temperature hung well below freezing for the entire month of February. Who would want to wander around in that?

Once the director's tirade was over, I went about the business I had intended to address: visa issues. Originally I had been issued a single-entry visa that expires in April, around the time I leave Russia for a conference. "Don't worry," my handler told me, "we'll extend your visa when you get here and get you multiple-entry visa." Easier said than done, as apparently I've caused lots of headaches on this count. Apparently they think that once you enter Russia you'll never want to leave. Or perhaps they assume that once you leave Russia you'll never want to come back. Either way, getting a multiple-entry visa has not been easy.

I took my paperwork to the office that processes these materials and spent 3 hours sorting through the bureaucratic mess. At one point I verified that my new visa would be good through August 15, my planned return to the States (and yes, the ticket has been bought).

"No, the prikaz gives a concluding date of July 31. That is the latest the visa is valid."
"But I'm supposed to leave on August 15."
"Unless you get a new prikaz that says August 15, then there's nothing I can do."

I called my handler in the international students office and explained the situation. This, by the way, is the same person who held the rules in such high esteem earlier. I was shocked by how quickly she had gone from being warm and pleasant to downright icy. First she told me that July 31 was the date given by my university in the U.S. Unlikely because it was they who bought my plane ticket. Then she said it would be easier to just change the ticket. I told her that I needed those extra two weeks for my research. Her reply left me speechless and fuming:

"I see no reason to go to the trouble of extending your visa to August 15 since you have not made any progress in your scientific research, as you have not met with your faculty advisor. Only he can tell me whether you're making progress, and until then it appears that you have no good reason to stay longer." I tried to assure her that I have been making progress (after all, I work until 8:00 or 9:00 every evening), to which she replied, "I am not an expert in political science, I cannot evaluate your progress. Only your faculty advisor can, and if he thinks that you should stay until August 15, then we can work on it."

Oh God, I thought to myself, the fate of both my research and my stay in Russia lies in the hands of a Russian professor whose guidance I don't need.

Fortunately, I believe this saga is on its way to a happy (or at least neutral) ending, but not thanks to the benevolence of the Russian side of the equation. Having contacted the fellowship coordinator at my U.S. university I was reassured that in fact I was there as an independent researcher and didn't have to answer to anybody, and that this fact would be clarified to the Russian university shortly. Maybe I'll be saved from the clutches of the Russian academo-bureacratic beast after all. Until then I can only dream naively of the day when Russia becomes a full member of the EU and visas are no longer a problem. Then maybe my great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will have an easier time of it than I did.

In the meantime, I should point out that I've been left feeling naked, exposed, and anonymous: in order to process the new visa (the one with the July 31 end date) I had to turn over my passport, visa, entry card, and registration. In essence, my entire existence, as I am nobody in Russia without these things. I will remain in this delicate state of nonexistence for at least a couple of weeks until my documents are returned to me. True, I was given a sheet of paper with all sorts of official stamps, signatures, and an explanation of the whereabouts of my true identity and was told that this would suffice as my documentation for the time being. However, this is of little comfort to me, as I have a very good friend, Comrade Misha (an American), who was once picked up on the street by some Moscow policemen while his passport was at a foreign embassy awaiting a visa. Despite his slips of paper, pleas, and even a few hundred rulbes shoved in their hands, they insisted on putting him in the paddy wagon and driving around a while. He was eventually released when they found someone who looked even more Chechen than he did, who took his place in the vehicle. As such, I don't really trust the Moscow police to accept the validity of my semi-identity papers. After all, they don't seem to share the same respect for the rules as university bureaucrats do...

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