[This week I'm blogging my July 2008 trip to Estonia and Russia. The first entry, on Estonia, is here.]
The iron curtain has fallen, but it doesn’t really feel like it when you’re traveling to Russia. It takes months to get a visa, and don’t expect anyone from Russia’s American embassies to help you.
But let’s say you finally get your visa. Now you have to cross the border into Russia. If you’re coming by overnight train, from, say, Estonia, this is how it happens. You board the train and hand your passport over to the conductor. Sometime during the night, you will be awakened twice. (Actually, it’s better if you don’t sleep. You should be on guard.)
The first time, Estonian border guards will check your passport and visa. That's the easy part. The second time, your documents will be examined by the Russian border control. You will asked, no, ordered, to stay in your compartment. Your bags will be searched. If you’ve already had the misfortune to deal with Russian authorities, you will be tense. You will be anxious. You will know that they can tell you, in a bland, stone-faced way, that your visa doesn’t conform to some obscure, absurd and incomprehensible regulation, and that you cannot enter Russia.
You half-expect this to happen, while paperwork is filled out --there’s a little piece of paper that you cannot ever lose or God knows what misfortunes will befall you--and passports are stamped and returned.
Finally, the guards nod and move on to interrogate passengers in the neighboring compartment--Italians who speak little English and less Russian. The conductor studies their passports and reads their names aloud in a sing-songy way. You feel bad for them, but it’s not your concern. You, you are now free to enter Russia. Dobro pozhalovat'!*
Next: St. Petersburg, grand and beautiful.