Moscow (Москва́), Russia
Based entirely on factual events occurring over the course of one Friday in Moscow
Reading time: 20 minutes
About that time I lost my passport in Russia…
Марко Поло Пресня Hotel
I wake up at 7:30am to the harsh ringing of my phone. The world is slightly spinning, and I’m faced with the realisation that I’m perhaps one eighth hungover, and it’s already one eighth too much. I slide out of bed and gather my thoughts, my head cradled in my hands. I feel so helpless and disconnected, yet here I am: compelled to stay the course because it’s now or never.
On the plus side, I’m in Moscow, and that’s pretty amazing.
Brushing past the bedside table, I glimpse a bundle of hotel notes scratched carelessly with Russian phone numbers. Some are numbers I’ve been trying for two days now while others are new ones I’m hoping reception will have the patience to try. Laura’s been extremely helpful, too, so there’s a number for St Petersburg Моско́вская station, which I hadn’t thought about calling before.
Eventually somehow I’ve managed a shower and a shave. I gather my things (phone numbers, copies of e-tickets, copies of I.D., spare passport-quality photos, and a few other pieces I can’t remember now). I pace towards reception. It’s 8:15am. Time is slipping. The elevator takes an agonisingly long time to slide through three floors, and I saunter towards reception like I’m not in a rush. Julia [pronounced yulia; Юлия] recognises me and instantly starts dialling Moscow Ленингра́дский station in a familiar solemnity. I realise I’m short of breath, perhaps in a light sweat.
There’s never much banter in these fleeting moments because no one ever fully understands me and everything is broken. Julia looks at me with the handset by her ear and it’s not looking good. I am a silent slave to a handful of kind strangers. Things that normally take minutes or even seconds back home, morph from quarters of an hour to fractions of a day like corrupt stretches of elastic.
I take deep breaths of feigned calm, and fidget in gazes about the room. Julia continues quietly for a good minute, her attention fixed on something in the distance. She returns the handset with a shake of her head, her face forlorn. Her voice is delicate and pained. “I’m sorry, but there’s no answer.” She makes some gesture about how maybe the station is closed and I should try again in an hour.
We trade exhausted helpless looks of confusion and defeat, interspersed by awkward smiles, before it’s clear there’s nothing more I can do to retrieve my original passport. It’s been three days now. It’s imperative that I push forward with somehow getting a replacement before sunset. I thank Julia for her help and ask her to print a handful of important documents (i.e. my Russian Tourist Invitation, and my original train ticket from St Petersburg to Moscow, etc) and by the time she manages to find the email I’ve sent with all the right documents, resolved some issue with the printer formatting, given me rough directions to the closest police station, finished a conversation with her supervisor and helped a handful of other pressing hotel guests checkout, it’s now 9am and I’m dying inside. Breathe. She makes one last call to Ленингра́дский before I surrender with sincere gratitude for her assistance and race off to the nearest police station, heart thumping, knees weak.
Тверскоmy police station
It’s morning but the sun is blaring. According to Julia’s instructions, the cop shop’s just around the corner. After a series of confusing underpasses and backtracks, I power walk towards a collection of cop cars caught in the distance. Policemen crowd around in conversations of Russian importance that I can’t possibly interrupt.
I manage to find the entrance, but the guard struggles to understand my predicament because surprise surprise I don’t speak a lick of his mother tongue. After repeated dictations of the words passport, lost, and report, he hesitantly lets me in. Inside, the office is bustling with officers who breeze past me in all directions for a good 10 minutes. Then one by one, a series of uniformed men approach me in frenetic Russian tones, shake their heads and walk away. For extended periods, I stand in the middle of a bustling police station with as much existence as Vasilisa the Beautiful (Василиса Прекрасная).
Out of nowhere, a young blond officer calls for me as if I’m wasting his time and leads me back out to the entrance waiting room. After a handful of inconsequential questions filtered with heavy sighs, he tells me in broken English and scattered eye contact that I need a translator. They can’t help me; there’s just nothing they can do. A glance over my wrist and it’s 10:30am. I implore him again with desperation and broken exhales of frustration. I must get passport report. Lost passport. Report. Australian Embassy. Passport. Visa. Please. Thank you. Very important. My brow has never been so furrowed with desperation. He lingers helplessly. Suddenly, his phone rings, he answers it, then leaves.
I remain standing in the centre of the room now completely empty save for the main guard. I’m alone and confused. Nothing is going the way it needs to, but I can’t let it get to me. 10:45am. Several officers come and go, but my affairs are none of their concern. At one point, a man emerges from the secured area and strikes up a conversation with the guard, making passing glances in my direction. He’s upset. He gesticulates towards me, and it looks like he’s telling his colleague that there’s nothing to be done and for goodness sakes it’s none of his damned business. He leaves as quickly as he has come.
Moments later, he’s back, this time armed with a smile as he calls me into his office. His English is borderline perfect and I’m slightly perturbed but hopeful by the change in disposition. Questions and answers are traded about how I’ve managed to lose my passport and what steps I’ve taken to get it back. He asks me about Moscow, what I’m doing in Russia, and my thoughts on what we agree are undeniably beautiful Russian women. He then explains what’s happening next. He’s going to complete a police report and a statement on my behalf. Oh and by the by, he’s going to do me a favour and write a letter to the Australian Embassy asking for a replacement passport. Things are somehow looking up. He asks me about kangaroos and if I have any. He tells me he wants to visit Australia one day, but he can’t because of the whole deal with the Ukraine, etc. It’s complicated. I take his word for it and we bond in a fleeting moment under the shadow of his plight. He seems like a nice gentleman, and in those passing seconds and minutes, he is my best friend in Russia. I’m amenable to whatever he needs me to do to get this thing done.
Silent moments segue into the clicking of a keyboard to passing glances and shuffles of my seat and signatures here, here, and here, before I’m ushered back into the main room and asked to wait again for something. Damn, I’ve forgotten my pen in his office. It’s not long before he comes back with a stamped copy of the report, and I’m sent on my merry way, feeling like maybe I’ve got this in the bag. We shake hands, enjoy a light dialogue of eye contact and stressful grins, and he leaves me with the lasting words “Australia, hello.”
Australian Embassy, Moscow
11am. Sunny. Getting to the Australian Embassy involves tracing back to the closest metro station and a few stops along the pink or blue line to Китай-город, but Murphy’s law prevails and I come up at the wrong underpass exit and it’s a good half hour of frantic rushing up and down concrete stairs before I’m on the right track. A deep breath. Scuttling through the streets along the path I’ve marked the night before on my map, I see the gloriously familiar blue emblem against the horizon and it’s the first time I’ve been so relieved to see the Australian flag rustling in the wind.
Security is surprisingly lax. A friendly guard asks me basic questions about why I’m visiting, making only faint glances into my bag for weapons before letting me through. Inside, portraits of Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop stare at me from opposing sides. It’s another handful of moments before I’m directed to take the stairs up to the very top floor and press a button for assistance. By the time I arrive, I’m positively exhausted, out of breath, and again breaking into an unpleasant sweat.
Maya appears in the window: the same woman I received a response from the night before about my potential options in the event of a lost passport. She asks me skeptically if I’ve managed to get in touch with my Russian Sponsor. I tell her truthfully that they’ve since advised that they can’t help me and have instead told me to ask the embassy for help. She shakes her head like it’s a huge problem and leaves to get some forms. I give her my identification documents and as I’m filling the overseas passport application, Maya’s supervisor Jake approaches the window. He asks me why I’ve lost my passport, where I’ve been in the last month, what I’m doing in Russia, where I’m going next, if I have any friends here, who I’m travelling with, and what I do for a living, amongst a myriad of other personal questions leading to nowhere, and somehow they’re much more difficult to answer than they should be, and I’m losing track.
At this point Jake tells me I’m going to need a guarantor. I’ll need to ask Laura to come in and complete the necessary paperwork. 11:40am. Jake manages to get in touch with her after a stressful fiasco of wrong numbers, and she says she’s going to be an hour. Almost half the working day has transpired and I have yet to achieve a replacement passport, let alone an exit visa necessary to leave Russia, lest be detained indefinitely. I’m growing increasingly nervous and numb from the uncertainty.
I complete the paperwork in an erratic font. Jake recommends that I grab a coffee or something nearby while we wait for Laura to arrive. I roam the streets aimlessly for the good part of half an hour before realising that I’m going to need some extra “passport” photos for the eventual Russian Visa application and manage to find a shop across the road that’ll do it for ₽350. Time continues to pass a lot quicker than it normally should.
By the time I’m back at the embassy, finally up the four flights of stairs, Laura’s there, filling out her end of the paperwork. It’s 1pm by the time the forms are done and Maya comes back out asking me to pay ₽10,000 to finalise the application. They’ll only take cash, so I have to run down the flights of stairs to the conveniently located ATM on the ground floor and run back up. My face is dripping. Maya issues a receipt and says the process will take another two hours or so. She suggests Laura and I maybe get some lunch and come back at 3pm. She revises this unconvincingly to 2:30pm after I tell her I need this done quicker considering the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) where I need to get my necessary exit visa closes irregularly early on Fridays at 4pm. She’s empathetic and says she’ll try her best as she looks down at the papers, unconvincingly.
30°C. Laura and I go for lunch. I’m in a complete daze, half-resolved that I’ll be stuck here in the former Soviet capital indefinitely and that no bed and breakfast will take me without any of the necessary paperwork. I spend a useless moment googling how much it might cost to hire a Russian interpreter for the day. I see numbers like US$600 to US$1,000 and put my phone away. I don’t eat. Instead, I have an unsatisfying watermelon juice.
At 2:30pm, I leave Laura midway through her meal and rush back to the embassy. I pass through security again and the guard tells me that Maya’s been calling for me and that I should get inside as quickly as I can. This scares me a bit, so this time I’m hurrying up the stairs with a sacred vigour, and as I get there Maya is slightly frantic and frazzled. She asks me whether she’s given me form letter 18B to sign yet, to which I answer no. She paces back and forth and then back to her desk, concealed from view. She returns with a letter setting out the restrictions of an emergency passport and asks me to sign it. Then she silently leaves with the paperwork.
On my side of the glass pane, there are no chairs, no tables, nowhere for one to rest, save for the stair rails and the stairs themselves. So for a good 45 minutes, I’m crouched over the stairs, rocking back and forth due to boredom and fatigue, absent as to what is going on, all the while increasingly mindful that FMS closes at 4pm and it’s now 3:15pm. I have no idea where FMS is and how long it will take to get there. Several presses of the call button go unanswered. I see officers at their desks through the glass pane, unperturbed. I look up at the security camera pointed squarely in my direction and wonder if they are watching me. Perhaps they sit there, pointing, laughing, ridiculing.
Maya calls me from the window and it looks like there’s bad news. She starts with a deep sigh, concentrates on her fingers, and tells me they’ve had issues printing the emergency passport and yes they are trying to fix it but sorry it’s going to take some time. There are feigned hand gestures and apologetic expressions. She mumbles a few extra words to herself, maybe in Russian, looks all about the room for something and then leaves again.
At 3:30pm, Maya returns with a note in her hand. She tells me without explanation that I need to get to the nearest Сбербанк bank and make a deposit of ₽1,000 into an account number she writes down. The girls there will know exactly what to do. The notes are all in ру́сский язы́к. I pass her my copy of a Moscow Tourist Map and she marks the location. She tells me to hurry. I run out and it’s now 35°C, the sun pushing against my face.
I bolt towards Сбербанк bank, weaving through strangers. It’s a good 5 minutes before I arrive in a complete sweat, passing on the note from the embassy. But the clerks are confused. We approach a machine counter and they press a few uncertain buttons. There are irregularly long pauses and struggles, before they eventually infer that it’s not working. After deliberations between them, escalations to management, deferrals to adjoining departments and sections of the room, looks of despair and handballs, they all agree that there isn’t enough information for them to help me complete the transaction. They ask me in whatever English they can manage about what exactly I’m trying to do. I tell them that I don’t really know and that I was just sent here by the Australian Embassy, to which continued looks of confusion persist. After trying to sort something out over Google Translate, we realise I don’t have a Russian keyboard installed and voice recognition doesn’t work without a proper internet connection ‒ it’s futile. 3:45pm. Sweat. I ask the bank clerk to call the embassy because it’s urgent, an emergency really, and after a good 5 minutes, they manage to work something out. I give them ₽1,000. They hand me a receipt and I’m back to the embassy.
By now the security guard and I are mates and he lets me through without a hitch. The stairs are brutal on my legs. I meet Maya at the top who remarks that I’m surprisingly quick to be back so soon. Ok. It’s past 4pm now, and I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not brave enough to think about what’s going to happen in the coming minutes, hours, and maybe even days. Maya leaves me alone in the stairwell for a few seconds before returning with my emergency passport (my emergency passport!!!) and some official paperwork, asking me to sign for receipt of the documents. I see the random names of those who have previously signed for their passports; absent profiles of characters who have shared my plight in some shape or form; members of the public who shall forever be remembered in the system along photocopies of their faces in official archives as lifeless names on a page. And so I contribute a verse.
I’m in a state of disbelief as I feel the texture of this strange document in my hands, so elusive to me only seconds ago. Maya interrupts me and tells me the following information is crucial. She takes my map and tells me that I will need to get to FMS ASAP, maybe even by taxi, probably by taxi, and most likely best by taxi. It’s unclear whether or not they’ll stay open, but the Australian Embassy has made a “request”. She leaves and Jake appears from nowhere reiterating what Maya has just instructed before he leaves again. Maya’s back and she tells me there’s just no guarantee. I need to get there now. Probably by taxi. She marks a spot on the map and it doesn’t look so far away ‒ perhaps just a bit further than the bank, albeit in a different direction. It’s just down the road through a series of side streets, but she can’t stop recommending the need to take a taxi because time is of the essence and I can’t afford to lose any more. It’s building number 42, she says. She gives me another note, telling me that once inside, I’ll need to go to window number two where a man will be waiting. 4:15pm. According to all official documentation, FMS has closed. I take everything and thank Maya profusely. She wishes me good luck. Building number 42, window number two. Building number 42, window number two. There’s no time to wait for Jake to come out for me to thank him, so I run out without another word.
Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) Office
It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the sun. I look for a cab but there’s nothing. For a while I debate whether to wait or go. Wait or go? Left or right, there’s not a car in sight. So I decide to run. Ten minutes on, I get to the spot Maya’s marked and I think I’m on the right street, but the closest building is number six. 4:30pm. I realise there’s a huge strip of road ahead of me in this searing heat. People are everywhere and I’m going to have to do this like an experienced runner who’s arrived late to a fun run. As I’m sprinting, the buildings increase by two maybe only every 25 metres across enormous plots of land. There’s nothing I can do but carry on, stopping only for red lights, sweating through my chinos, through my socks, beads dripping into my eyes and through my hair.
I arrive at FMS breathless and approach the guard in a hot mess. I tell him I’m here to complete a visa application but he tells me FMS is closed and tells me to leave, shaking his head, his finger pointed squarely at the street. I show him the slip from the embassy but it only baffles him further. I repeat the words passport and visa and eventually he lets me through.
Inside, a handful of people appear to be finalising their business. Window two is closed. Every window is closed. I take a seat on the sofa and occasionally people walk by, exchanging goodbyes, and I start to think that maybe I’m too late. I’ve missed the boat. As time passes, the few people who were here when I arrived slowly make their exits, smiles in tow. Every now and then employees implore me to leave, tapping their watches.
Half an hour later, a man approaches and asks if I need assistance. I explain the situation again as best I can. He nods, takes my paperwork, and leaves me alone in the waiting area. Fifteen minutes later, he returns and tells me to wait some more, making sure to be very clear that I not move from my seat. 5:30pm. The security guard comes in, shouting. I need to leave. He needs to lock up the building and I am the one thing in the way of him doing his job. A colleague emerges to corroborate his story and together they are yelling at me to leave. I try my best to explain that they have all of my documents and that I’ve been told to wait here. Eventually like everyone else, they give up caring and leave.
At 6pm, a lady comes out and asks me if I speak ру́сский. I say no. She shakes her head and departs.
I sit in the waiting room with nothing but the fear that I will not be successful today. I am constantly reminded of the vast array of websites that talk of up to 20 days processing time for a Russian Visa, even in cases of emergency. The Embassy told me that I was likely to be fined up to ₽5,000 just for the inconvenience. It’s illegal in Russia to be without any form of national identification (e.g. passport), so that’s also fineable. Maya said “good Luck” to me in a way that seemed insincere. FMS is closed on weekends and my flight to Tel Aviv is this Sunday. If it’s not processed today, I’ll have to cancel my flight. I’ll have to cancel all accommodation in Tel Aviv. I’ll have to let Tamar know. I’ll have to cancel the flight from Tel Aviv to London. If I’m not in London in time, I’ll have to cancel my second trip to Paris. First thing’s first, I’ll have to tell my parents. If I’m still not done by the 22nd, I’ll have to cancel my flight back to Melbourne. Where will I stay in Moscow? The fear is paralysing and I go minutes staring into nothing, forgetting how to blink.
My daze is eventually broken by a pretty lady bearing my passport. She presents me with my new Russian visa like it’s nothing, asking me to check whether everything is in order and then instructs me nonchalantly to go on my way.
I walk out of FMS expecting it to be dark outside given how long I’ve waited. It’s probably only about 7:30pm now after everything. I step in front of the office along the footpath, hands on hips, absent, staring into the ground. My breathing grows short, my eyes water, and I’m overcome with a crazy wave of emotions, on the verge of tears, struggling to convince myself that I’ve done the impossible, finally letting the magnitude of the situation sink in, and for the first time in days, manage a tearful smile, crying with happiness in the middle of the footpath among passing strangers.
“I did it.”
Cover image by Frankey Chung