My March column mentioned that I expected to be in Russia in April to teach law at a university in Samara. It turns out that nothing about being a “Senior Lawyer Abroad” (the name of the program I am in) is predictable, and we have changed our plans. Now we expect to go in November, not to Samara but to another place I’ve never heard of called Adygheya, located in the southwest corner of Russia. Here is what happened.
In order to travel to Russia, you not only need a passport but also a visa, which specifies where you are going and on what dates. There are different types of visas, including tourist, business, and student, among others. If you are going on business, your “host” sends you an “invitation.” In our case, that meant that the University would send us letters to me and my wife, which we would then submit to the nearest Russian Embassy along with completed applications, our passports, and a money order or bank check for $131 each (no checks or credit cards accepted).
The invitation letters from Samara arrived in February, but of course they were in Russian and I had no idea what they said. They looked like the real thing, however, so I quickly assembled our application materials and sent them to New York by overnight delivery. I know that FedEx did its job, because the next day my phone rang and the little message indicator on the phone said “Russian Embassy.” Somehow, I knew this wasn’t a social call.
The lady from the embassy began by telling me in a thick Russian accent that they had the papers and everything was fine, sort of. No problem with my wife’s papers – the invitation said she was going to Russia on “business.” My invitation was different. It said I was going to Russia to “study.” “That’s a mistake,” I said. “I’m going there to give lectures to students.” “It says ‘study’” came the businesslike reply. Thinking of Khrushchev at the United Nations, I waited for the other shoe to drop. “For a student visa,” she said, “you need to send us an HIV test.” “Could you please say that again?” I asked. And she did: “An HIV test.” “But it’s a mistake,” I said again. “Maybe so, but I can’t help you. Rules are rules.”
The invitation contained another mistake. As I had informed our host, we were booked to arrive in Moscow on April 10, but they had us arriving in Russia a day later. I emailed the university to ask for a correct invitation, but the automatic reply told me my contact person was away for a couple of weeks. So I called my doctor’s office, told the receptionist that I needed to come in for an HIV test, and could I come by early the next morning. After several minutes on hold, he came back on the line and told me the doctor could see me two weeks from the following Wednesday. “But you don’t understand. I just need a lab test.” “Sorry,” he said, “but first you have to come in for counseling.” “I don’t want counseling, I want a visa,” I said. He put me on hold again, I heard some soothing music in the background, and he returned with “It’s a rule. You have to have counseling, and then you take the test.”
I thought to myself, here we have two bureaucracies duking it out. At the rate we’re going, my wife will get a visa in time for our trip, I won’t, and she’ll have to give the law lectures. She’s a pianist!
At about that time, I got an email from someone in Samara, who apparently had seen my email, telling me it would be “impossible to give the second variant of the invitation if it has already been given.” I think that means that as far as my invitation was concerned, I was going to Samara to study. As for the incorrect date on the invitation, “don’t worry about it” – just put the correct date on the visa application (which I had done).
I sent an email to my doctor, who took pity on me and arranged for me to come in the next day and get the test. When I got to the lab, I immediately explained why I was there – “I’m trying to get a visa!” “Sir,” the technician said, “many people come for this type of test.” “I know,” I said, “but I’m going to Russia to teach, the university made a mistake on the invitation and said I was coming to study, and that’s why I’m here.” She looked at me with one of those “Now I’ve heard everything looks.”
A few days later I got the lab report (“negative”) and sent it to the Embassy. The visas came the next week – with the wrong date, of course. If you saw the movie “The Terminal” with Tom Hanks, you can guess what I was thinking – we will end up as prisoners at an airport!
ust as I was trying to figure all this out, Samara State did send me a “second variant,” but not the one I was looking for. Contrary to previous assurances, our room at the “university hotel” did not come with its own bathroom — we would “share.” Or we could stay at a commercial hotel a half hour’s walk away – at our own expense.
We made a decision. Sayonara, Samara.