Monday, July 25, 2016

Until Next Time

I just realized that this is my 100th blog post, which is an awkward reminder that I spend far too much time rambling about Russia. Nonetheless, I felt like I should write one more blog post before I leave Russia for the summer. Ten weeks have flashed by, and I find myself on the eve of departure once again.

The point of coming to Russia this summer was to work on my Russian and finish my novel, both of which proved to be overambitious goals. My Russian has improved markedly in the last year, but it still lags behind my Spanish—even after all the time I’ve spent beating it into my brain. As for my novel, I’m starting to think of it as an emotionally abusive boyfriend. It makes me feel bad about myself, but I just keep going back for more. Despite my sense of inadequacy, the baristas at the Coffee Bean on Pyatnitskaya have reassured me somewhat on both counts. Today the new barista complimented my Russian, even if I did pronounce the adjectival form of “mango” incorrectly on my first try. And yesterday, one of them let me cut the line and asked if I’d be having my usual, so I must have been going in to write sans WiFi more than I realized.

The rest of the summer was a flurry of all that Moscow magic that keeps bringing me back: picnics in Gorky Park, apocalyptic thunderstorms, ballet and theatre, endless summer nights, linguistic triumphs (and debacles), walks along the Moscow River, strangers on trains, Georgian dinners, and a fair amount of vodka and wine. Naturally, I’ve already planned my return for next June, because there’s really nothing better than a Moscow summer.

Московское лето (Moscow summer)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Six Degrees of Separation from the FSB

Last Wednesday, my friend Nastya asked if I wanted to join her on a weekend trip to Ingushetia. It was the first time I’d heard of Russia’s smallest republic, but I was immediately intrigued when she mentioned it shares a border with Chechnya. I asked if Grozny was on the itinerary, but even Nastya isn’t that crazy.

A little internet research proved that Ingushetia is not your average tourist destination—unless you’re looking for a package that combines kidnapping, suicide bombings, and clan warfare. Nastya wisely left out those selling points, instead enticing me with pictures of the Soviet sanatorium we’d be visiting. I thought the biggest hurdle would be booking a flight (Russian websites don’t accept US credit cards), but one painless call to Siberian Airlines got me a ticket to Beslan, a city best known for its 2004 hostage crisis. But after the tickets were purchased and I did a little more research, I encountered a slightly larger problem: it seems most of Ingushetia is restricted to foreigners, and I would need a special permit to visit. And to get said permit, I would need to appeal directly to the FSB.

Now for those who are unaware, the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) is the successor to the KGB, and I try to fly under their radar as much as possible. But with my flight booked, there was nothing to do but press ahead and fill out an application for “entry to the border zone.” This entailed sending them copies of my passport, visa, and migration card; a detailed travel itinerary; and the license plate number and VIN of the cars I’ll be in this weekend. Since I’ve already sent the Russian government HIV and TB test results, this felt pretty non-invasive.

The FSB auto-response cheerily broke the news that my request could take up to 60 days to process, which is problematic given that my flight leaves on Friday. Under normal circumstances, I’d say this was a lost cause, but obviously things work differently in Russia. I’ve got two Russian friends working their connections to get my request approved, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ll have a propusk in hand by Friday.

If that happens, I’m still not sure it will be cause for celebration. There’s still the very real chance of getting abducted—kidnapping foreigners was an entire industry in the ’90s, and bride stealing is widely tolerated even today—and a US Embassy employee already made it clear that the State Department can’t help anyone who gets lost in the Caucuses. On the other hand, getting kidnapped could be a shortcut to an easy book deal, so I guess we’ll just have to see how this unfolds.