In Russia, as in other countries with well-developed bureaucratic apparatus, documents are quite important both to foreign visitors and internal travelers. Moving through immigration and border control at the airport, I had to show my official passport as well as the visa I’d begun applying for months ago, and then acquired a third document: a flimsy paper migration card stamped with my date of entry.
Those who’ve been to Russia before recognize the importance of stamps, which have a certain magical power to turn regular papers and forms into official completed legal documents. Once at a university office, I saw the official university stamp, which completed student id cards, was even stored in a locked drawer. The stamps often use blue ink.
In a sense, documents offer tangible proof that the government has determined you to be a legitimate person with some right to exist on its territory. They also provide an opportunity for police to contact individuals and challenge that right: police here have the right to stop visitors on the street for “document checks.” As one might expect, this turns out to be an irregular practice. I’ve spent a total of 8 months in Russia on various trips and have never been asked for my documents. Anecdotes from friends and acquaintances suggest it probably helps that I’m female and white.
Russia doesn’t merely control its borders, though; internal documents are also important. Anyone residing in a place for more than 2 days, or who has been in the country over a week, is required to be registered locally. Tourists can usually rely on their hotels to handle registration, and students typically have it done through their host university. I’m a bit on my own this spring, doing preliminary research, so before arriving I arranged for “Anya,” a local Muscovite (sister of a friend of a friend!) to help me register once I arrived. (Thanks!)
I spent almost a week in St. Petersburg, orienting and catching up with a few friends. (Also, I love St. Petersburg). Then on Tuesday I took an overnight train, got to Moscow Wednesday morning, called my contact, and planned to meet her after work to go to the local post office and get the forms filled out. There, a middle-aged woman with a dispassionate expression gave us a form, then asked to see our documents, asking when I’d entered the country. I gave her the date, and immediately she said she couldn’t do it, it had been too long, and all we could do was go to migration services. Perhaps, she added, we might try another service; she’d heard they could do registration down the street for a fee, 2000-3000 rubles (roughly $70-100). Yikes.
On the way out, I must have looked deeply concerned. Anya reassured me, said this is just typical business, everything’s always complicated here, and it wasn’t anything terrible. The worst case was just not being registered, which many people aren’t—it only really matters if you do get stopped. We did a little planning, got some advice from her boss, filled out the forms, and decided to try for migration services the next day. It should only be 250 rubles or so, under $10. This all took over an hour; the main form was complex, and several of the blanks named information differently than it was labeled on other forms. For example, the list of reasons why I was in the country was totally different from the list I was given when I applied for the visa.
Next day turned out busy, so the following morning we headed for the local migration service. This was at the current south-west edge of the city, which used to be a village outside Moscow, which gobbles up all surroundings every decade or so. Migration services was in a dilapidated two-story office surrounded by high-rise apartments, all built in the last decade. Inside, almost a dozen people in their overcoats waited in the small downstairs hallway, and another dozen upstairs, where the faux-wood laminate flooring had torn in places. We found the proper door and were buzzed in.
This official was a woman in her 30s, dressed nicely but not in uniform, and had not two but three large stamps carefully arranged on her desk beside a computer. We took the two seats in front of her desk and handed our documents over. She took a quick look over our papers, originals and copies, and instantly found several errors where dates didn’t match: I plan to leave Moscow at the end of April, but Russia on May 10th. The important thing, she said, was for the dates to match, regardless of my plans. She sent us back to the hallway to fill out a fresh form, correctly this time.
Anya gave me a wry look as we sat down, seeming unsurprised. Having re-completed the form, we got buzzed back in. The official had just plugged her cell phone in, leaving only on chair, so Anya motioned for me to sit while our papers were judged again. This time all seemed to be in order. The woman checked through the form, then used two stamps on each side to transmute the form into a proper registration card. She hesitated as she was about to add her signature, asking when I had entered the country. Anya told her, and then she looked intently at the calendar hanging on the wall nearby. I waited nervously, trying not to be obviously concerned.
She furrowed her brow, then looked down again and finished signing. That was that! Seeming in a rush, the official cut the bottom section from the form, ripping a corner, then handed it over. Anya, surprised, asked if we needed to pay anything. The official replied in the negative, and we gathered our papers and left quickly.
Outside we both laughed a bit in relief: a hassle, but we’d gotten it done! Anya told me not to be offended at the woman’s brusque manner, that not all officials were so awful, but anything to do with documents here was almost always a complicated mess.
In any event, now I’m legally residing in Moscow! Cheers!