red tape

you’ll be pleased to hear that there is no shortage of red tape here in russia. despite the fact that communism has come and gone, the country still has enough bureaucracy, red tape, and difficulties to drive a person insane.

Let’s start with just getting in the country. lots of countries let you just grab a visa at the border and come right in. for other countries, you need to go to the embassy, fill out some paperwork, and then you come in. not so in russia. to get a visa, you have to have an invitation from someone inside the country. why? i’m assuming this is some legacy from the communist days when they were afraid of undesirable characters infiltrating the country. maybe, if you could prove that you knew someone living in Russia, they wouldn’t suspect you of coming in to cause trouble. well, now times have changed. you can get this “invitation» from any company if you pay them 30$ or so. so basically, this invitation really is meaningless. it doesn’t prove anything whatsoever except that you paid someone money. I guess now it’s just an extra way for these companies to make cash.

once you finally get this invitation, you can go to the embassy and apply for a visa. the form you have to fill out to apply is insane. you have to put down the last 3 jobs you worked at and their addresses and phone numbers. you have to put down which schools you went to and their addresses and numbers. your last 2 home addresses. which countries you’ve been to in the last year. etc etc and so on. out of the 30 some odd countries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a application form as complicated as this one. even Syria, other than asking for religion and Israeli stamps, was ten times as short and easy as this one. eventually, once you fill out the application, you drop it off, and hopefully after 2 weeks, you find out hat you are now accepted to come to the country… but only during the 30 days specified on your visa. if you stay even an hour over, you will… *not be allowed to leave Russia ever*. yes. they will literally hold you at the border and not let you leave. I’ve heard of people trying for *weeks* to leave Russia on an expired visa, and even then only being allowed to go because of some connections and a loophole.

ok. great! you have your visa! you have a passport! your problems are over right? wrong. once you enter the country, officials need to be able to track you and know where you are at all times. so that they can do this, you need to register your visa in *every city you go to* if you stay in the city more than 3 days. if you get caught having an unregistered visa, you can get in big trouble. so basically, you have to waste time doing this registration in every single town you visit. ugh. from everything we’ve read, there’s two ways of registering. the hotel you stay at, is technically required by law to register you, or you can go down to the town’s PVU (passport Visa something something) office. luckily, for the most part, our hotels have registered us without too many hassles. well, all of them except one that refused to do it. they said that apparently their hotel “doesn’t have the right» to register people. honestly, that sounds like a bullshit excuse to me. the law says all hotels are *required* to register their guests. but.. whatever.

well, of course, we ended up running into difficulties. after spending two days in a hostel here in st petes, we moved to my relatives house. well, since she isn’t a hotel, she cant register us!! so now what? I guess we have to go to the PVU. so, we go across town and go to the pvu. upon entering, the security guy stops me and asks me what I want. I tell him I need to be registered. he then says that to get registered, I need to get registered through the company that sent me my invitation. but, i say, that company is in moscow… hours away!! he looks at me and asks “well, i really have no idea what you would want from us.”. great. so, he tells us to go to some other address. upon arriving, that address turns out to be just an apartment building. either i heard the address wrong, or he gave me the wrong address. ugh. now what. the one place where we need to register, allegedly says it wont register us, even though all the guidebooks, websites, etc etc all say that you need to go to the PVU. *sigh*.

we decided to ask at the us embassy. we get there and are gruffly told that they are on a lunch break and to wait. an hour later, we return. i talk to the lady who says that, well, basically I’m screwed. she says the only person that can register me is either that company in moscow, or a hotel. apparently, if you come here to stay w/ relatives, you need a different kind of visa. so, i cant really get registered by my relative, i can only get registered at a hotel. ugh. she confirms that pvu, apparently doesn’t register people, despite the fact that everywhere it says that it should. so now what? she says our choices are either, a)go directly to moscow immediately to have the inviting company register us, or b) try to get by without registering. she says if we decide not to register, once we come to the border we will face one of 4 scenarios: 1)no one notices since we were registered for the first two days in st petes. 2)they notice, but after we beg and plead they let it slide. 3)they take the official fine of 1000 roubles (40 bucks) each. 4) they try to take an unofficial fine (bribe) or any amount they decide to ask for. so basically, we are screwed. she says that one option might be to get registered at a hotel that we aren’t actually staying at for a small fee.

so, defeated, we leave. we decide to call the inviting company in moscow, who tell us that they have an agency here. good news!!! we go down to the agency, only to find out that they’ll register us, but only if we pay them 20$ each. such bullshit. seriously, it’s like every step of the way, we have to deal w/ crap or pay money.


the next day, we decide that we should try to figure out our onward plans. we go down to the main train station to buy tickets from moscow to Prague. you aren’t allowed to just go up to the window and buy tickets. you have to first figure out exactly what you need on a computer system (price, date, train number, etc) and then walk up to the window w/ that info. this computer system is a total mess, and not only that, but is unable to actually give prices for international train journeys. so, we get in line for the window. after waiting in a long line, i ask the lady how much tickets are to prague. she says she has no clue. no “I’m sorry”. no helpful info. just i don’t know. uh, great. thanks. so i ask her where i could find out. she says she doesn’t know, maybe i should try the next building. so we go to the next building and wait in line again. we finally get to the front and ask to buy tickets to prague. we get told that they cant sell us those tickets. instead we have to go to another place across town. this starts turning into a never-ending saga.

at the station across town, we start waiting in yet another long line. there are only two cashiers, and one of them has a sign saying that her window is closed. when we are close to the front, 2 guys come up and stand in front of us.

me: umm, what are you doing?
him (in an irritated voice): I’m standing in line. i was here before.
me: before what? you weren’t here!
him: listen, i was here earlier and now I’m back. this is my spot.

and with that he just turns his back to me. fucking hell. a bit later, the guys jus randomly leave. now, this chick who had been sitting in a chair across the room walks up and stands in line in front of us.

me: hey, the end of the line is back there
her: this is my spot. i was here before.
me: you cant just do that. if you’re waiting in line, you have to be waiting in line. you cant just be sitting over there!!
her: sitting!! what the hell are you talking about sitting! this is my spot. I AM HERE!

unfuckingbelievable. but really, what is there to do? i can’t just shove people aside. at this point, I’m basically fuming. this is like the millionth line I’ve been in, and it’s getting longer by the second. then, some guy walks up and starts buying a ticket at the next window. what?! wasn’t she closed?! well, then she turns around here closed sign. apparently, she was on a break, that was supposed to end half an hour ago according to the sign, but she just hadn’t bothered to turn it around. so, i switch course and get behind the guy. the woman behind me gets behind me too. as the guy is finishing, i notice some other chick walk up to his right. i just *knew* she was gonna try to line jump, and i wasn’t gonna have it. as soon as the first customer finished speaking, i started my request, before the line jumper had a chance. well, she wasn’t able to cut in front of me, but she cut in front of the lady behind me anyways:

lady behind me(LBM): umm, what are you doing? i was here.
line jumper(LJ):oh, i work downstairs. employees get to go to the front of the cue.
LBM: but that’s not fair! I’ve been waiting!!
LJ: sorry. that’s the policy. i get to cut.
LBM: fine then, how do you know i don’t work downstairs. lets say i work downstairs too!
LJ: well, you don’t have a badge!
LBM: well, fine, lets see your badge then.
LJ:(fumbles in purse).. ohh… umm.. i forgot it. errr. but still. i assure you i work here!

sheeez. lines here are utter chaos. after that, we still have to go back downstairs, and stand in yet another window to buy our tix from st petersburg to moscow. finally… after almost an entire day spent in line, we now have tickets to moscow, and tickets out of Russia. feeling relieved, and tired, we head out.


but it’s not over yet! the train to prague goes through Belarus. another country with strict Russia-like rules. we cant cross their country in a train without purchasing a transit visa. online it says that to get one, you need to pay 35$ and they have it ready in an hour. before heading down to the Belarus embassy in st petes, i call them to check their address. apparently, their own website has an address that was out of date over a year ago. when i call they tell me that it takes *5* days to get a transit visa.. and.. get this… *$100*. WHAT?!! or, if we would like it rushed, we can get it back the following day for $180. what the hell!!! how can they charge 180$.. for NOTHING! we’re not even going to their country. we’re just gonna be on a train coming through. not only that, but how can the Belarus embassy in both the US and the UK charge 35$ for transit visas, while this one charges 100? what, is it to difficult for them to file the paperwork?

as a last resort, i try to call the Belarus embassy in moscow. out of two phone numbers, one doesn’t work, and the other is answered by someone who says that they are the wrong department and gives me two new numbers. i call the two new ones. nobody answers one, and the guy at the other number just tells me to call the first one. after trying a ton of times i call him back and say that no one is answering at that first number. he says that this is not his problem and to just keep trying. arrrrgghh. I’m so sick of this crap!! so in the end, i give up. there’s no way i want to pay 360$ extra to get this stupid transit visa. for that cost i may as well have flown.

so, we opt for plan B. plan B is to take a bus that goes from moscow, to Latvia, and then to Lithuania, and on to Poland, etc etc. this skirts around Belarus. we head to the bus company. i ask how much a bus ticket is from moscow to Riga. she doesn’t know. she can only sell tickets leaving from st petes. to get the moscow tix we need to go to another office… across town of course. great. on my way out, just for fun, i decide to walk up to the airline agent to find out flight prices. she is talking on her mobile. just chatting away and ignoring me, despite that according to her timetable, this isn’t one of the 5 scheduled breaks everyday. i wait. and wait. and wait. finally she gets off the phone. no apology. no “excuse me for being on the phone”. instead, she just glares at me. she gives me this look that says “listen. if you were lying on the street dying, i would rather kick you in the nuts than to help you up. so why the fuck would you think i would want to help you now??!”. after the glare, she just says “WHAT?”. nice, eh? so, i ask her how much a flight is from moscow to prague. she, after a long sigh, says they don’t sell those tickets, and keeps glaring. i then ask, “well, what kind of tickets do you sell?” it turns out that she cant sell any tickets not leaving from this city. all through this, she continues the glare.

and that was it. i just snapped. honestly, i cant take it anymore. i cant take the lines. the constantly being shuffled around. the angry looks. the absolute unhelpfulness. i just cant. I’ve tried. I’ve tried a lot. but, this is just too much. the last three days have just been a nightmare of red tape and other crap. i cant be bothered to try anymore. i don’t care about going to moscow anymore. i just want to GO.. AWAY. so, i turned around, walked back to the bus counter, and bought a ticket from here to Latvia. screw going to moscow. it’s really not worth the trouble. nothing is worth it. so, we’re now leaving Russia on the 17th. several days early before my visa runs out. despite all the incredible sites everywhere, despite the incredible kindness of my dad’s friends and relatives… I’m ready to be on my way. i already saw what i mainly wanted to see which was st petes and the transsiberian. I’m just too tired of fighting the daily battles to bother with anything else.


12 thoughts on “red tape”

  1. Ah yes, the mystery of the visa registration. When we were in St. Petersburg, we had to go down some shady alley and give our passports to someone for a couple of hours, along with some roubles and voila, we were “registered”. Whatever the hell that means.

    Have you considered going through Estonia? (Tallin is a cool city, btw.) We took the the train from Moscow to Tallin and the Russia -> Estonia transition was pretty painless except for those paintings we had to bribe the Russian customs inspectors about…but that seems like nothing compared to Belarus. I remember being really happy with the Estonian border guys: they brought a nice German shepard in to inspect the room and then an efficient looking Estonian guy stamped our passports. *shrug*

    Good Luck,

  2. WOW! That sounds like a *nightmare* – I would fucking kill someone. Hmm… Perhaps I’ll think twice about venturing to Russia; it sounds like a pain in the arse.

    Those kinds of frustrations can seriously deter me from going to a country, and it almost always puts a damper on my experiences there when I do bother to go. Take my trip to Europe last summer, for instance. It was nothing like my first stint there. Nothing. I dunno whether it was the season or the heat, but people were soooo incredibly rude to Chris and me. Everywhere. Including the same cities and countries I’d *already* toured on my last trip – it was a completely different vibe.

    And y’know what? I’ve had my fill of it, and I probably won’t return for a very, very, VERY long time… except for Amsterdam… that goes without saying. 😉

  3. Man, that sounds absolutely infuriating. Do you think the line-jumping phenomenon is unique to Russia? Because I don’t know what you experienced as far as everyday rudeness everywhere you’ve been, but I sure didn’t see anything like that!

  4. Vlad. Unbelievable! Boy, your experiences certainly bring back memories to me of my time in the Baltics(1992, 3 & 4). First time up, thru Lithuania, what a pain. Experienced similar stuff in toooooooooo many lines. God. Vilnius bus station.
    Even though I studied Russian in College, and am dyin’ to go there, yours and others experiences have still kept me out. Hopefully some day, but probably on a tour – so I don’t have to go through the stuff you did.
    As for visas…try some of the African countries – why $70 for a 2yr visa to Ethiopia?
    Even worse is Saudi Arabia. They require a physical that costs close to $1000. Try that on for size.
    Am sure your trip thru Latvia and Lithuania will be great. You’ll meet quite a lot of interesting people on those buses. Bring plenty to eat and drink!
    Lived in Prague from ’93-’96…stop at the Globe Bookstore and one of the Hare Krisha restaurants. Enjoy! David

  5. yeah, we actually did consider going to estonia. but in the end we wet w/ riga cause it’s farther south and closer to prague which is our next destination. we’re trying to get to africa by the 3rd of august, and spend some time in prague before that, so our experience of the baltic countries will pretty much just be “passing through”.

  6. fully! yeah, i really did want to just reach out and start punching people left and right. i just dont understand what the deal is.. i mean, it would take an extra 5 seconds to be just the tiniest bit more helpful.. but no. its just not possible. arrgghhh!!

  7. no, the line-jumping isnt unique. i’ve seen some crazy line-jumping elsewhere too. in lots of countries, its like a crazy free-for-all and everyone jus starts pushing into the front regardless of where they should be!!

  8. the thing about the visas is just the hassle of it all. the cost of certain visas definitely sucks, but at least you dont have to “register” in every single city you go to etc etc. it all just seems so unnecessary!

  9. Wow.. after reading all of that I suppose I got off easy. Luckily getting robbed was the worst that happened to me in Russia. I stayed in hostels and hotels the whole time so didn’t have visa woes. I was going to stay in Galina’s Flat in Moscow, but I didn’t reconfirm in time so she cancelled my reservation. It was just as well because she doesn’t do visa support. I thought I might have trouble leaving the country, especially with a cell phone (apparently that’s more red tape), but the train to Helsinki was painless and only took about 40 minutes to cross both borders. I had to buy the ticket at the new train station in St. Petersburg, but it was really modern and there were no queue jumpers. The best part is that it has a board that tells how many seats are left on each train so you don’t waste your time waiting to buy tickets they don’t have. I was almost out of rubles and didn’t know whether they took credit cards, but luckily I had looked up the price on the net (on the Finnish site.. this would probably be hopeless for other routes) and knew how much to withdraw from the ATM. Leaving via Finland is way more expensive, but it seems to cut down on hassles as well. I guess I was just lucky waiting to buy tickets.. everywhere I went the ticket sellers obeyed the posted break times.

  10. I was just re-reading this and will add a very belated answer to your question. The robbery story (from Rostov) is on my blog at Fortunately I didn’t lose much.

  11. Too true! GodDamd redtape covered russia.
    When I flew out of st pete and had not registert, because I considered it unimportant, i had to bribe the dude on the border with 50$ bewfore he wanted to let me go. fuck. However I still recommand this option to anyone going to russia instead of going to these shady registration appartements, because then I was there last time, it was all in all more hassle and also costed 40$ so it s worth the 10$ more to bribe the costoms clerk.
    cheers, max

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