Thursday, June 26, 2014

Getting in to Mother Russia

Other than having our passports stamped as we entered Denmark from the Copenhagen airport and again as we departed the continent, we didn’t need to have our passports checked at any other ports on our trip.  But St. Petersberg, Russia, was different.

In fact, if passengers weren’t on tours booked by the cruise ship, we couldn’t enter Russia without seeking a visa several months in advance.  Large cruise ships packed with tourists dock a few miles from the center city along an expansive harbor.  Anywhere else in the world, the harbor might feature development for the wealthy.  Across the bay, there did seem to be expensive apartment buildings as well as new development.  

But the St. Petersberg harbor where cruise ships dock is lined with row after row of poorly maintained Soviet-style apartment housing in an unwelcoming shade of concrete grey, standing 20 and 30 stories with an appearance that warned they might collapse at any moment.  They looked unsafe on the outside, though they weren’t marked by graffiti and didn’t have the feel of extreme poverty so much as neglect.  There weren’t people milling about outside and the neighborhood seemed safe enough.  The view of the harbor were spectacular.

The Russian immigration and customs officials were just as one would expect: stern and not amused by us, asking questions in a careful English and not happy with our rapidly-spoken answers.  From the locked gates and exacting manner, you’d have thought that security was a great concern.  But while we waited for our document check, a young man opened the door to the the custom agent’s cage at our gate, stepped inside and gave her flowers and a kiss.  There was a broad smile for him before she turned our attention back to us with a stern face.

Returning to the ship was equally as confounding, with long lines and exacting review of our passports and the one-day visas they granted us before we were stamped back through the gates.

I had the feeling that having lived through centuries of oppressive rules and bureaucracy, the Russians delighted in showing the rest of the world what useless rules felt like.  Fair enough, Russia, but it doesn’t really help your cause.  And it costs you money to staff this operation, which doesn’t add a whit to your safety or your national treasury.

Your country, your rules and all that, but I found it mystifying and not a little weird.  

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