Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Another year, another (very different) country...

Firstly, a belated happy new year to everyone. After a relaxing Christmas, I came back to London with big intentions to spend six carefree weeks travelling around the UK seeing friends and family and hanging out with university friends in the Union. Within about a week I decided it was a bit stupid to spend my student loan doing that when I need it for such useful things as staying alive in Russia. Within two weeks, it had become painfully apparent that I needed the time to actually prepare to move to Russia.

Russia is a famously difficult country to get into and out of, and it’s not all about booking flights. I have found that there are a series of hoops to be jumped though, in a very formal and very specific order.

Going out as part of an English study group, my departure has been made considerably easier through having group flights booked and accommodation pre-arranged. That being said, the visa application process alone took a considerable length of time to complete. The form is extraordinarily long, and demands to know every country you have visited in the last ten years, and the dates on which you last held a Russian visa – cue desperate phone calls home. It’s the last time I laugh at my mother for keeping old passports and plane tickets.

Questions ranged from the commonplace home address and next-of-kin details to “Do you work for a nuclear facility?”, “Are you trained to handle weapons?” and (presumably a deal-breaker) “Have you ever been extradited from Russia?” Luckily my life hasn’t been long or interesting enough to answer yes to any questions like that. 

Answers have to be checked and double-checked – the smallest mistake can lead to your application being rejected or you not being allowed into the country at all. Arrive a day earlier than stated on your visa, for example, and you can expect a night in the airport at the very least. I also remember a small and nervous history teacher on a school trip being marched away by two huge Russians at Moscow airport because of a slight paperwork discrepancy. Anyone who knows said teacher can understand that he evidently posed the country so little threat that eventually they gave him back and let us in.

To complete the application, you have to gather all relevant paperwork together: application form – check. Passport – check. Passport photo – check. University support letter – check. £76.50(!) to cover the application cost – check. HIV test – ch – wait, HIV test? Yes, to get a Russian visa, you first have to prove that you’re not bringing AIDS into the country.

Actually getting this test is relatively simple. There’s a walk-in clinic near to UCL where the blood test is done and results and official “Congratulations, no HIV” letter are ready in 10 minutes. Nonetheless, going in almost certain that I was going to be HIV-negative, I still found it pretty awkward, and made quite a big deal of announcing to the receptionist and all the other patients in the waiting room that I was applying for a visa. I also didn’t enjoy leaving a sexual health clinic so close to my university holding a formidable brown envelope that might as well have had “SEXUAL DISEASE RESULTS” printed all over it in big red letters.

However, that done, I could give my application in. Aside from needing UCL to put a more recent date on the cover letter I gave in, the process was then very simple, and the visa only took five days to be ready. For those not in London it’s possible to do the whole process by post, and you can also have an express service to get your passport back in two days. Although if it costs £80 to do it in person, normal service, I dread to think what express costs.

Although time-consuming, this is the most I’ve really had to do in preparation. Naturally it’s wise to do a bit of language and work preparation in the remaining free time. Otherwise it’s all about shopping for a decent pair of boots and a bazillion t-shirts to layer up for the remainder of the Russian winter.

As I’m spending eight months out of the country, it’s been great to have a few weeks to have a normal English life to catch up with friends. Work-wise it’s been time that I’ve really needed to make use of, and a good chance to draw a line under the work and language of one country and prepare for it in the next. In fact, I’ve found that general “official” preparation isn’t too difficult.

But the process is so different from that of moving to France that it’s really highlighted the fact that Russia is most definitely not in the EU, and is still a society very different in norms and expectations from our own. I’m incredibly excited to sample this society. But I’ve also realised that in a six-week period a bit of mental preparation for a relocation to Russia won’t go amiss.

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