Go There, Don’t Know Where, Get Something, Don’t Know What
An Ex-Pat Returns to St. Petersburg
“There’s a famous saying: ‘Russia cannot be understood with the mind.’ You see the buildings, and then the soot, and then you are told to wear slippers inside to preserve the age-old parquet floors. You descend into a beautiful metro, then get shoved around, then emerge into another stop where a beautiful statue to this country’s best-loved poet Alexander Pushkin greets you with an uplifted hand.”
Zhukov was my man.
I was told that this lieutenant in the Russian immigration services could help me obtain a document I needed to spend a week legally in St. Petersburg,
I watched as a black sedan rolled through the archway, stopped, the door opened and out came a short stout man. He opened the trunk and began pulling out brick-sized parcels stacking them along his arms.
As he came near, vaporized breath rising in the chilled air above his balding head, I saw that each box he was carrying was sealed with red tape, words “highly confidential” stamped on it.
“You know immigration services fall under KGB,” my husband Max whispered. “These guys are all KGB.”
After the balding guy went through the door, a stranger peeked his hatless head out the door. “Did the agent show up yet?” he inquired in all seriousness.
“Someone went inside just now,” I answered unfazed.
In a few moments the duo came out, got more boxes from the trunk. “Follow me,” the balding man, who turned out to be Zhukov, threw my way.
When planning my trip to the country where I was born and which I had left for good as a teenager, I imagined a week of sightseeing and visiting the neighborhoods where I had grown up, as well as meeting some old friends. Showing up at the creepy central police station wasn’t my intent.
Like every foreigner, I had to register with the Russian immigration services upon my arrival. Typically, hotels handle this for their guests, but since I was staying with friends, I would have to go to the immigration services in person — or work this out through my Brighton Beach travel agent who had arranged my visa. Only my agent’s confusing directions left me to be turned away at two places in St. Petersburg where I was supposed to get help.
I was in limbo, not registered in the country, but just as I thought of letting the matter go, locals regaled me with tales of how the absence of the registration could affect me. What if the police stopped me and I would have to pay a huge bribe?
What if the New York consulate found out and never issued a new visa to me? What if I were stopped at the check-in gate on the way back and barred from returning. I had to resolve this.
With the story of my inability to register propagating, “blat” possibilities multiplied. One person knew a tourist agency employee, another knew someone at the airport, and finally one had a connection to the immigration services directly. Even if the system didn’t make sense, everyone had a way around it.
That Tuesday we walked in behind Zhukov without tapping off the snow slush and followed the men up the dirty staircase into the old building’s pleasant warmth. There’s a misleading pleasure about administrative buildings in Russia in the winter — they are warm, and the warmth after waiting outside for what might have been hours relaxes you in the first moments inside.
After examining my visa, Zhukov’s face soured and he said without remorse:
“I can’t help you. You have strange visas.” But the problem was quickly solved when I insisted that he talk to the guy who referred us to him, who was probably a few ranks above. Zhukov did call, nodded into the receiver, hung up and broke into a smile. It was as if a holy mother’s apparition floated before us.
“Great! All I need are these few things from you,” he said, adding that he’ll handle both the registration and the follow-up. Momentarily I was puzzled by the word “follow up” but let it go. Zhukov asked that I bring copies of my real hosts’ passports the next day.
When we were back outside, Max fretted over giving our friends’ information to the officials. What if the Iron Curtain falls again, he warned me, what will it mean for our friends to be listed on the same application with a U.S. citizen, all on file with immigration services?
The next day Max headed to see some more friends, while I followed an advertisement for another travel agency that said it can get me registered in minutes (and possibly without taking down our friends’ information).
The bare-bones office that I finally found in the back of another courtyard was filled with empty desks and new computers, staffed by college-age kids. It looked like they could clear this place out any minute.
A young man ushered me into his office. He quickly surmised that I’m a U.S. citizen and explained that the job will cost 22,000 rubles or $100.
He handed me an application and a piece of paper with the template fake name and location of people who were supposedly hosting me in order to process the registration.
I rummaged in my bag and asked if I could pay part of the fee in dollars.
“Oh no. I’m sorry. That’s not legal. We can’t accept anything but rubles,” said my law-abiding service provider who was handling fake-name documents.
Then he wanted to get my passport, my money, and give that all back in “two days.”
Thanks, but no thanks.
Max and his friend met me outside in the chill. I was mad. Half of Wednesday, if not more, was wasted on this operation, I hadn’t had time to browse the Russian Museum nor do much else. Nothing had come of it yet. Max’s friend urged me to try catching another friend of his, a travel agent, and we ran through the streets.
There’s a Russian fairy tale called: “Go there, don’t know where, get something don’t know what,” which is essentially what the king orders one of his servants to do, in a bid to get him off his back forever. I felt like I’d been given the same mission.
As we hurried along I looked around at all the people and some understanding welled up in me — they are grumpy for a reason.
In that night’s dream I was making a power point presentation about my trip to Russia. Each new slide was filled with pictures and, inevitably, the captions led off with curses which I thought I had long forgotten.
Thursday morning, back at the police headquarters, I had to go through the regular entrance. A crowd of people waved papers and elbowed each other to get closer to the single window with a clerk, who sat a couple feet away from her side of the window facing away from the crowd.
A woman in a flowy fur coat tapped the shoulder of a man at the front of the line. “Excuse me, do they have the work-permit application here?” she asked.
The man turned around wearily and said. “They have it. But whether they give it out is a different question.”
I pushed through the crowd and shouted to the blank-faced clerk: “I’m here to see Zhukov!”
She opened the door from the inside, snuck me in, as, I am convinced, people spat into my privileged back. Zhukov’s assistant stamped the application and tore off the piece at the bottom.
“Now, your hosts will have to come back here, bring back this paper I gave you and fill out a new application saying that you left the country, once you leave.” I asked to do that paper right away as well. “But then what’s the point of your signing the paper if you give it back to me right away?” she said.
Finally it dawned on me, the way the system worked was that I just carry the paper with me while I’m in Russia, but I give it back to my hosts before leaving and no one at the airport gets to see whether or not I actually registered.
I insisted she make a copy of my registration paper, which she gave to me, kept the original and waved goodbye. And so I at once registered that I was in Russia and that I had left.
There’s a famous saying: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind.” You see the buildings, and then the soot, and then you are told to wear slippers inside to preserve the age-old parquet floors.
You descend into a beautiful metro, then get shoved around, then emerge into another stop where a beautiful statue to this country’s best-loved poet Alexander Pushkin greets you with an uplifted hand.
I stepped into the street five days into the story and still outside proper bounds of Russian law. Max took my arm and we went to an old student haunt of his, a pisheshnaya, where they make pishki, which are unlike any doughnuts you’ve tried. One can’t find such airy simple fried decadent dough even on Brighton Beach.
We walked into the shop, its white floor tiles smeared with muddy footsteps. The lady at the counter had an unintrusive manner. She gave us tea, served in chipped Soviet cups, that still cost what amounted to kopecks. It was Lipton. The pishki with sugar powder on top came on old plates. Being there was sweet and warm.
Oh, and the police never did check my papers.
Yuliya Chernova left Russia and came to Brooklyn, New York, as a teen. She calls Brooklyn home. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Brown Alumni Magazine and other publications. She often takes the part of Santa Claus at big Russian New Year’s eve parties.
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