Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Weird Visa Registration Oxymoron Dance

So, Russia has this requirement that foreigners must register their visas with the authorities within seven days.  That is, only if one is staying in a city for more than seven days. Sounds pretty straightforward. But it is anything but.

I arrived in Ulan-Ude originally only planning to stay for four days. But then I got some abdominal bug that had me wishing I was dead for about forty-eight hours. I was pretty much confined to bed that whole time. Since I didn't get to see as much of the city as I had hoped, and since I hadn't made ANY plans beyond Ulan-Ude, I decided to stay in the city for another three days, and make some plans to see more of Russia. So now I figure I have to register my visa.

But I can't actually register my visa myself. Only the place I am staying can register it. No big deal, I'll just get the hostel to register my visa. As a matter of fact, they have a giant placard on the wall telling people they have to get their visas registered within seven days, that the hostel does it, and if they don't, they as well as you can get in huge trouble. So I figure that they will just register my visa.

But when I ask the folks at the hostel to register my visa, they refuse. They are really polite about it, they are not, like, complete dicks or anything, they just won't. And I can't get a straight answer as to why they won't. They have a sign on the wall (that they themselves put up) saying they have to do it, but, regardless, they just won't register my visa. They tell me, variously, that the person who does it is not there, that they used to do it but don't do it any more, or that they just don't do that because they are "not really a hostel," whatever that means. They sure advertise that they are one.

Now I am staying to freak out. I look online and find info that says that there is a possibility that I can be fined a huge amount of money and banned from Russia for five years if I get caught not doing this. But the chances of getting caught are low. It seems that the right hand of bureaucracy just doesn't know what the left hand is doing...as is the case just about everywhere. Also, hostels down the line could also refuse to let me stay there if I don't have a registration.

I try several times to get the hostel to do this and every time reach a dead end. So I figure I have to find another way to do this. I contact the agency that got me my Russian visa, tell them my host will not register my visa, and ask if they know any other way I can get it done.

What I get back is boilerplate that I had already seen online. They just Googled it and gave me what I had already found. They told me to first try the migration office in my town, next the post office, and then try other hotels and hostels, but you might have to pay for a night and some sort of *ahem* fee, well, let's just call it a bribe.

I'm not terribly optimistic at this point, and with good reason. First, I tried the Migration Ofiice. When I looked it up on Google Maps, it gave me two different locations, neither of which was actually there. I ended up running all over town for phantoms. And when I tried to call the number, I got a recording saying the number is no longer in service.

OK, so it doesn't exist. Or, it probably does, but not in any form I can find, not speaking fluent Russian. But as far as I am concerned, it is a dead end at this point.

Next, I try the post office. There is a machine to take a number, but you have to type in which service you want, and I don't know enough Russian to figure it out. So I am meticulously typing each option given to me into Google Translate, to see which one I need, when a guard comes up, and asks me what I need. I say, "Registracja Visa," having no idea whether that is a correct statement of what I need to do. He doesn't seem to care, and just punches the first option, and I get a number to wait in line.

I already know from the get-go that this is probably damn well not going to work. But I wait in line, I type into Google Translate, "I need to register my visa. Please help me."  I scan the clerks in line and try to figure out which of them might have enough compassion to carry out a pain-in-the-ass non-standard task for some foreign person who means nothing to them, and who is basically aphasic and developmentally challenged, as far as they are concerned. And I try to figure out which clerk has the bureaucratic attitude that they don't give a fuck about anything, and just want to get me out of their sight as soon as possible. And if I choose wrong, it won't happen. Not that it matters, because one of them will just call my number anyway.

My number is called, and I go up to the counter crossing my fingers. Please help me. Be a human with compassion. And what I get back is "Nyet!" Well, shit. That didn't work. I ask where I can go.  I get "Nyet!" They don't really care, and just want to finish their shift with a minimum of hassles.

Tears of frustration are welling up in my eyes, but I decide to try random hotels and hostels. The results I get are somewhere between body language that says, "are you fucking kidding!?" and failure to acknowledge that I am standing in front of them asking a question at all.

So this is just not going to happen.  As a last ditch effort, I call the US Embassy in Moscow, and ask them how in blazes I can get this essential task done if nobody will cooperate. They agree to try to help, but what happens is that they call my hostel and put pressure on them like there is now an international incident. Oh, fuck. Now I am not looking forward to walking into that hostel in just a few minutes.

When I get to the hostel,  Ivan, the guy sort of in charge, is pissed. He wordlessly buzzes me in, and the first thing he says is, coldly, "We have a problem. Unfortunately we cannot register your visa." No greeting or anything. He had dug in his heels in the face of a potential threat of an international incident, with the United States of America coming down full force, and apparently, he had come out on top. I explain to him that I had called the US Embassy just to find out how I could accomplish this essential task to keep me out of trouble, not to get them to lean on them. I apologize profusely for the inconvenience, and I think the feathers stopped being ruffled after a day or two. And, the thing is, he is the nicest guy, willing to bend over backwards to help with just about anything BUT THIS.

So I'm basically back at square one, where this shit is just not happening. I call the embassy again to see if there is any last-ditch Hail Mary thing going on as a possibility here.

Well, look, they say. You spent seven days there, but the law says seven BUSINESS days. In the meantime, there was a national holiday from the first to the third, an intervening weekend that didn't count, and another national holiday on the ninth. So I haven't reached the seven business days, and I ought to be OK under a strict reading of the law...but who knows if some minor player who wants to shake me down at some point will interpret the law correctly. I figure that is the best I can get, they tell me to save all my receipts that show where I have been and when, and the odds are that it will work out. And there is always a record of this call where I proved my case that I tried my best to meet the legal requirement, but things happened that were beyond my control.

I guess that is all I'm going to get. So I put it into the "out of my control" drawer and wipe it from my psyche as best I can. Then I check into a hostel in Chita, the next town.  They ask me for my passport, my exit migration card (I have both those things), and my visa registration. I don't have that. No problem, the clerk takes it in stride and says nothing. I check in, go around town, and when I come back, they have prepared and have ready my visa registration for me, official stamp and everything. On a national holiday. Without me even asking.  For no additional fee. I could just hug and kiss them. I just can't stop saying, "thank you, thank you," but they are perplexed and mystified at my gratitude, sort of analogous to how Spock would react at a soccer riot. It's like it is no big deal. So now I'm legal, bitches. Fully loaded and ready to Russia. Russia is awesome. I'm planning a month here in Russia in various parts, then if I told you what is next, it would spoil the suspense. A girl's got to have a little mystery.


  1. Spock at a soccer riot!

    This reminds me of a journalistic piece I read about a guy trying to get his press credentials from a pro-Russian paramilitary group in Ukraine. Wish I could find it; it was a great read.

    But anyway, what a relief to get it sorted! Russian officialdom is nothing to toy with.