My parents are debating whether Russia has changed since the fall of communism. Their consensus is this: Superficially, the country has changed. You can buy everything that’s available in the West. People are driving cars and traveling. Nearly everyone has a cell phone. What hasn’t changed? The Soviet mindset, the bureaucracy, the stone-faced apathy and rudeness of the clerks and cashiers.
When we arrive, our host, an old friend of my mom’s, says we may need to “register” our visa. What this means, we later find out, is that if you come to Russia on a homestay visa (issued to you personally by a Russian citizen)*, you need to check in and get special paperwork from the city where you’re staying. Fail to do this and you face heavy fines and other unspecified misfortunes.
So on a Monday morning, we head to a nearly police station to register. We’re told you can register here only on Wednesdays, 1:30-2:30 p.m., but other stations might be open. We traipse around two more police precincts before we’re directed to the city’s visa registration office.
Naturally, there’s a line. Registration is held from noon to 1 p.m. only, we’re told. People have been waiting since 5 a.m. Put your name on a list, someone adds, but you probably won’t get in. We sign a piece of scrap paper and wait. Someone else advises us to register at the post office. It's faster, they say.
Okay. Anyone know where the nearest post office is?
No one does. We go outside and ask strangers for directions. People shrug. The hell with it; we head back and wait some more.
Did you fill out the paperwork? we're asked as it gets closer to noon.
Everyone laughs. If you don’t have the paperwork, you’ll be waiting here all week!
We race to fill out paperwork. We need multiple photocopies of our passports and visas. There’s no copy machine in the office. We go in search of one at a travel agency across the street.
Can we use your copier? We ask the young staffers.
They give us a deer-in-the-headlights look that's a customer service trademark here, but nod.
We make copies and run back to the registration office.
It turns out we need yet more copies of something or other. I keep our place in line; my parents race to the travel agency. It’s now closed for lunch, but they sneak into a nearby office complex and sweet talk the security guard into letting them use a copy machine.
It’s almost 1 p.m. now. Surprisingly, the line moves fast. At 12:55 p.m., we get called in. But it’s not us they need, it’s my mom’s friend, who invited us. She goes in; paperwork is issued; she’s out in two minutes. We get a little paper document that says we can stay in St. Petersburg. Lose it, and there will be hell to pay. (After we leave the country, our host must come back here and complete more paperwork testifying that we’re gone.)
We fly out of the registration office into the afternoon sunlight. We’re elated, we feel free. This is what it was like in the Soviet times, says my dad. You would bang your head against the wall trying to get something done. But when finally got it, you felt so happy! It’s different in the U.S. Everything’s easy!
*(I understand that if you travel to Russia with a tour group, or stay in a hotel instead of a private home, the travel agency or hotel staff can take care of the registration. Don't quote me on this, though; ask your travel agent.)
We spend the next several days seeing the city, which is beautiful and majestic and sometimes reminds me of Paris, but with grander architecture and a sadder history.
We take a few day trips, too...
Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo (Czar's village). Pushkin, the famous 19th century Russian poet, went to school in these parts. This was also a summer residence of the Russian czars: Pushkin
Peterhof (palace, fountains and gardens)
Next: Down memory lane in St. Petersburg