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.

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