Moscow On The Hudson: The Pains Of Getting A Russian Visa

Standing in front of the bus door at Sheretmetyevo airport in Moscow, I steepled my hands at a young woman and begged her to pay my bus fare. I had no rubles and was dangerously close to missing my connecting flight to Minsk. There was supposed to be a free Aeroflot shuttle but it never materialized. This city bus was my only chance of getting to the next terminal. Based on what cab drivers wanted to take me there – $50 – the terminal was in Siberia, or so it seemed.

It was my first time in Russia and it was not a good start. But it was hard enough just getting here. After an intriguing piece about the troubles of getting a Russian visa at the embassy in Washington, D.C., was recently published in the Washington Post travel section, it made me consider my own pursuit to get one. My experience wasn’t as bad as writer Ayako Doi’s. But for me, having gone through various visa applications a dozen or so times, this was by far the worst.

It was an ominous sign that seconds after hitting “purchase” on the Aeroflot website for a JFK-Moscow-Minsk flight, a big red warning appeared on my laptop screen informing me my credit card had been declined. When I called the bank, they said they just automatically decline relatively large purchases made to Russian companies.

When I called Aeroflot to rebook, Dmitri, the amiable representative on the other end of the line, informed me that I’d needed a transit visa. I was going to have to apply for and buy a $131 visa just to change planes in Moscow on my way to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

I have to confess, this was partly my fault. When I did searches for how one flies from New York to Minsk, I could have flown Czech Airlines through Prague, Finnair through Helsinki, and Lufthansa through Frankfurt. (There were no options to go through Milan, by the way.) The cheapest option was to fly through Moscow. I wasn’t paying for the flight – a magazine that was sending me to Minsk to write a feature article, was. I figured they’d appreciate that I was going for the more affordable option. But really, flying Aeroflot, an airline my aviation-savvy friends warned me not to take, had benefits for me, too: it was part of Skyteam, which I’d accrued so many miles on I’d occasionally get special perks like upgrades and such.

I double-checked on the Russian embassy’s website, which said I did not need a transit visa. So I counter-checked on the website of the New York-based Russian consulate’s website. It said I did need a transit visa. I rang the embassy but it was impossible to get a human. I called the consulate and got the same result. The ghost of Kafka, I thought, is residing in Russia – or at least at their embassies abroad. I could have chanced it and gone without one. But fearing I’d show up at the passport control at the airport in Moscow and be turned back because my passport lacked a transit visa, I decided the safe thing to do would be to point myself to the Russian consulate on New York’s Upper East Side.

When I turned up at the consulate E. 91st St., it looked a teamsters meeting – or something one might really see in Russia. Thick-necked guys in flat caps and drab clothing scattered around the steps to the consulate door while pickled rotund men and ancient babushka-clad women, their bodies as stout as a beer can, mingled in line. The front door was postered in signs, all of which were written in Cyrillic. Everyone but me, it appeared, was a native Russian speaker. Well, everyone but me and the woman who got out of a black town car and walked up to the front of the door. When I started talking to her a little later on, I learned she was supermodel and famed tantrum thrower Naomi Campbell’s assistant. I scanned her from head to toe and then head again looking for cellphone-shaped bruises. There weren’t any – at least none that were visible.

But before I could ask about Ms. Campbell’s upcoming trip to Russia, there was rumbling behind the door of the consulate. The crowd of 75 or so people went silent for a second. As the door swung open, what had been a line became a mob of people. Everyone rushed the door. Holding pieces of paper above their heads and screaming in Russian, the cacophonous crowd was rollicking, demanding the man at the door let them in. He randomly pulled people out of the crowd – those yelling the loudest, it seemed – and I, the non-Russian, stood back on the sidewalk, watching it from afar and thinking I was never going to get in there.

It was really Moscow on the Hudson. Embassies and consulates do have a way of becoming microcosms of the countries they represent. The Americans, I’ve been told, like to sit visa applicants down and have a little chat with them about why they want to visit America. A lot of people leave the embassy with a bad taste in their mouths, I’ve been told. Both the Vietnamese and Belorussian consulates in New York are very Spartan. In the latter, there was just a skinny old man hen-pecking on an old typewriter. Of course, there are services you can pay for that will ease the headache. But that’s not always an easy solution. At first to get my visa for Myanmar, I paid $95 to CIBT. Only to find out – after they submitted my passport to the embassy in Washington, D.C. – that residing in New York was “out of [their] jurisdiction.” They refused to refund me the money. Even after I complained and complained.

One of the purposes of a country installing a visa requirement is to evaluate who is coming into their country. Another is totally political (see the fight between the USA and Brazil). And yet another is to make money. I’m not sure what Russia’s motivations for insisting Americans and citizens of other countries attain a visa (or even a transit visa) but it would probably inspire a lot more travel (and money spending) if they could somehow make it less disorganized.

A couple hours after the doors of the Russian consulate in New York finally opened, and after pushing and shoving and some elbowing, I got inside. It took approximately 97 seconds for me to hand over my application and passport.

I did barely make my flight to Minsk. On the way back I sucked it up and paid $20 for a cab to the next terminal. I had so much time that I was able to relax for a couple hours. I ate a salad at a restaurant – my first vegetables in a week and a half – and paid for it with my debit card. By the time I got back home to New York, my bank account had been cleaned out by some savvy Russian hacker.

A week after returning from the trip, I submitted my expenses to the magazine. My editor emailed the next day to say that, after doing some research, I didn’t, after all, need a transit visa.

Well, at least next time I have to go to Russia, which I hope won’t be when I have a lot of money in my bank to siphon out (likely I won’t; I’m a travel writer), I’ll now know what to expect.

What’s your worst visa-applying experience?