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Friday, January 28, 2011

How and why I left Russia

I love my country (Russia) very much. Not a month goes by when I don't think about it (and I have been away for over 20 years now) and wonder if I should  stayed. My country went through hell and maybe I could make a difference, because sometimes one person can,even against insurmountable odds..
Those were turbulent times. Perestroika..Glasnost.. Everything we were taught from an early age (and that goes generations back) was getting destroyed and demolished. Yet nothing new was getting built in place of it and, what's even more important, no one seem to have a clue as what to build, how to build it and what to offer as a new model to replace the old one.
Back then travelling abroad was a challenging proposition. It was extremely hard to obtain visas and what was called "foreign passport" (a Russian national's passport issued specifically for travelling abroad).
The problem was two-fold. First, you had to have someone from foreign country send you "an invitation"-a formal invitation for you to visit,stating their address, occupation and desired length of visit.
Clearly,as Russia was behind the "Iron Curtain" for so long, none of us had any friends abroad.
With "invitation" in hand, we then had to submit the paperwork to "OVIR"-office that handled all issues dealing with foreign travel. OVIR took literally months and, sometimes,years to issue foreign passports and visas. Often they just declined the application without explaining the reasons.
Those reasons could be numerous. If OVIR,after running a background check on you, determined that you might defect,they denied your application. Also, it was commonly known in Soviet Russia that being Jewish pretty much precluded you from travelling anywhere out of the country and effectively kept you from moving too far up the corporate ladder.
This started with Stalin's paranoia and well-documented mass eradication of Jews.
Later, as many Jewish families had relatives abroad,they were classed categorically as  "flight risk" and their applications for foreign travel were automatically declined.
The standard application in Russia back then (including those for employment and University) listed "nationality" as fifth question/paragraph. So it was common saying back then that one's "fifth paragraph" prevented them from travelling.
A lot of Jewish people bribed the clerks and changed their nationality to "Russian" in their passports. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but it definitely backfired  in the early 90's when there was a mass exodus of Jews from Russia to Israel and those who falsely listed their nationality as "Russian" in their passports had a devil of a time proving their heritage and gaining entry to Israel.
In my forth year of University I've met a group of tourists from US. It was a group of older people who called themselves "A Friendship Society"- they basically traveled all over at their own expense and made friends. Nice gig if you can afford it..LOL..
As I was studying at Foreign Languages University and majored in English, and was called to translate for a lot of visiting businessmen,tourists,etc. Back then hardly anyone spoke English in Russia (and especially in Azerbaijan, where I lived).
I became friendly with one couple in particular and 3 months after they left, at my mother's urging, wrote to them, asking for "invitation".
They sent me one a couple of months later.
My parents lived in Moscow, so I submit my application into OVIR over there.
In the meantime I got involved with a married man (see my post "Life is messy") and survived the war ("How I survived a war").
My boyfriend's 5 year quest for permission to move to US to be re-united with his younger brother has finally came to fruition-him and his family (wife,mother,2 sons) were definitely moving.
At the same time I was nearing my graduation and had to decide where I want to work/live,etc.
Then right before my birthday, in June, I got a call from my mother, saying that OVIR has approved my visa and issued my foreign passport. My parents were actively urging me to go to US. I found out years later that,being children of the war (World War II), they both could sense that something "will have to give" in Russia and soon (events of the next few years proved them right) and they wanted me to be away, so they wouldn't have to worry about me. It's a tough one,as it is selfish and caring all at the same time.
Next step was obtaining an entry visa from US Embassy in Moscow. Live queue for about 3-4 hours and then I was interviewed by an immigration clerk. US immigration was not very keen to let young single people into the country,as they represented huge "overstay" risk. What worked for me is that I was married (it was a sham marriage, on paper only and never consummated and is a subject to a whole different chapter). Back then in Russia they stamped your passport with a proper seal,indicating just that ("married") as soon as you tied the knot. My "husband" was nowhere near, not even in the same city, but the clerk had no way of knowing that and I got US entry visa based on the assumption that I'm a married woman who would, most certainly, come back to her husband. What a barrel of laughs that was!
I sat my State exams in July and graduated with Honours (back then it was signified with a "red diploma"-my diploma's colour was actually red, vs the blue-covered ones that everyone else has received). I now had Master's Degree in English (ESL teacher) and Psychology.
The next hurdle was buying a plane ticket. Not at all simple.
To purchase the ticket to a foreign country using Russian currency (roubles) one had to be put on the list and the wait was almost a year. You had to go at least once a month to a "live queue" where they actually called the names out loud and you had to be present to answer when your name was called. If you weren't there, your name got crossed off the list and you had to start at the bottom.
One could purchase a ticket with foreign currency without any wait, but foreign currency was illegal to possess in Russia and if you tried to buy anything with it, you would be arrested, questioned and, most likely, imprisoned.
Although my Dad travelled abroad regularly as a coach of Soviet National team in yachting and was allowed to exchange money while abroad, ALL foreign currency had to be exchanged back to roubles upon arrival to Russia. Of course, he held some back and stashed it, but not nearly enough to buy plane ticket from Moscow to New York.
I got a lucky break,as that summer Aeroflot decided to introduce "half-and-half" pricing, where one could pay half in roubles and half in foreign currency for the ticket. I had to queue for that one for about 2 hours, but I did get it! I was now definitely on my way.
I left Russia on August 12, 1991 with 2 bags containing my clothes and some Russian souvenirs to give away as presents, $300US in my pocket and just a visitor visa allowing me 3 months stay (that did NOT give me right to work).
 Oh, how nice it is to be young and full of yourself and think that you are invincible. These days, I would've NEVER,EVER considered such an undertaking,as I know all too well all the pitfalls and dangers. But that's the beauty of not having enough life experience-you take more chances :)

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