It’s a gloomy rainy day here. Reminds me of Moscow. Land of the Dark.
I found it interesting recently when people were so “shocked” that Putin annexed the Crimea. It didn’t surprise me at all. It was completely in character. He grew up in the KGB and idolized the Soviet Union. He wants it all back like it was.
I will never forget New Year’s Eve 2000. NBC came to do a story on us. It was Y2K and people were worried that the changing of the millennium would screw up all the computers around the world. A cameraman, sound man, and reporter followed us around to various supermarkets (one wouldn’t let them in) where we were buying survival things like water. I wasn’t all that worried but I figured better safe than sorry. They came back to our flat and interviewed us. I remember they asked me if I was going to fill the bathtub. Sure why not? When they left they told us the story would air New Year’s Eve.
On the night I was at home with my son. My husband, Nicholas, was in and out with friends. We were watching CNN International where they greet the New Year in every country around the world starting in Australia. My husband went down to Red Square for the actual event but got home soon after saying they couldn’t even get close because there were so many people.
Every New Year’s Eve right at midnight they always showed the president, Boris Yeltsyn giving his New Year speech. That night he droned on congratulating everybody on the New Year as usual. But then the punch line came. He was resigning his presidency and was appointing Vladimir Putin as the acting president. We were shocked. The world was shocked.
The NBC story never aired.
All we knew for sure was that Putin came from St Petersburg and worked in the Mayors office. We soon found out he was former KGB. People started to get nervous.
Up until then Moscow in the 90’s had been like the Wild West. Anything was possible for a price. There was always a loophole. Things fell off of trucks, papers were stamped, payments were made under the table. The place was full of foreigners trying to make a quick buck. And believe me, a lot of them did.
The Russian economy was in the toilet and although many Russians took the opportunity to feed off the rich foreigners, many suffered from loss of income and services. It was chaotic. Every parade had a Soviet contingency glorifying Stalin. They wanted the old days when they were protected and taken care of. To them Putin was a shining light.
Things slowly started to change. Some foreign organizations were asked to leave. Laws started to be enforced. We could feel the atmosphere change around us in subtle ways. Stories about friends of friends. Chechnya problems, bombings in Moscow always blamed on the Chechens. We even went so far as to speculate that Putin was bombing Moscow just to get people riled up for a war against the Chechens. Whatever he did, it worked.
Then it was our turn.
After eight years, I knew it was time to leave. I decided I would not spend another winter in the Land of Dark. In April, I applied for a job with the U.S. Foreign Service. I figured if they hired me at least they would send me someplace else and it would be an easy way to move on and still have a job.
About two weeks after the September 11, 2001, incident in New York something happened that was to drastically change our lives. Two men showed up at Nicholas’ office and identified themselves as FSB officers. These people used to be known as the KGB; they are not nice people. They asked Nicholas a lot of questions about his work and what he was doing in Russia. They asked him about his visa and then they asked him if his wife worked. At that moment he knew what they wanted. He thought about not answering the question but he knew they already had the answers to all the questions they were asking so he decided to be honest with them. “My wife works at the U.S. Embassy”, he said.
The FSB wanted Nicholas to spy for them. They wanted information about people at the Embassy. They wanted to know who had weaknesses and bad habits. They could use this information to then blackmail people into providing sensitive information to the Russians. People think this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. It still happens, believe me. They were very clear about what they wanted and mentioned that they could “make things easier” for Nicholas in Russia if he cooperated.
Nicholas tried to stall them and told them he would have to think about it. He was told that if he went to the U.S. Embassy and reported their visit, they would have to deport him. He was also told, obviously, not to mention anything to his wife. They agreed to meet the next morning to hear his decision.
The next morning Nicholas went to the U.S. Embassy and reported the visit to the Security Officer. He did not go to the previously agreed upon meeting. Later in the morning he received a phone call on his cell phone from the FSB agent, he never gave them his cell phone number. The agent asked why he did not show up at the meeting. Nicholas said he had decided against working for them. The agent was angry and said that now he could do nothing for Nicholas and he would have to be deported.
My husband called me up and said we needed to have lunch. I could tell something was wrong and on the way to lunch I was trying to imagine the worst possible thing it could be. I didn’t even come close.
From that lunch I went back to my office and started to explain matters to my supervisors. Most people didn’t think anything would come of it. They thought that maybe they tried and failed and now it would just go away. Or they might try again but nobody really took it too seriously. They said things like: “This isn’t the Soviet Union anymore, they can’t do that”, or “You should get a lawyer and fight this, this isn’t legal”. I had certainly lived in Russia long enough to know that it didn’t really matter if it was legal or not and that the state could do whatever it wanted to do. We became cautious and waited to see what would happen next.
Two weeks went by and nothing happened. We started to think that maybe we were overreacting and that nothing would happen after all.
In order to get a Russian visa, you needed an invitation from a registered company or an individual. If you went as a tourist, it was easy to get an invitation from a hotel or a travel agency and when you arrived, you registered with the hotel or the travel agency. Most tourist visas were for no more than one month; business visas were a bit trickier.
You needed a letter of invitation from the company you would be working for. This company had to have permission from the government to invite people. In order to get permission, the company had to be registered with the government in a certain way and pay certain fees. Then the government gave them one or two or 25 (or whatever) slots that they could use to invite people over. If they needed more people, it was just too bad.
My husband’s company was not registered in such a way that he could invite people over. Therefore he had to get his visa though other sources and there were lots of visa agencies in Moscow. These people specialized in matching companies that had slots they didn’t need to people who needed visas. People bought the invitation from the company and then took that invitation to the Russian Consulate in another country and were issued a visa. Then when they arrived in Moscow they went to the Ministry of the Interior and registered themselves as working for the company that issued the invitation. This was common practice. Because of a shortage of slots, even several of the large law firms in town had to get their visas this way. Probably about half of the expats in town used this process. My husband lived in Moscow for ten years on visas like this and never had a problem.
On Wednesday the visa agency called and asked Nicholas if he had been having any problems with his visa. Nicholas said he would go to their office and tell them about it. The people from the agency were called in to speak with the Ministry of the Interior. The next day the head of the company that issued the invitation for Nicholas was called in to the Ministry of the Interior.
This man was told to write a letter indicating that my husband’s services were no longer needed. He was told exactly what to write. On Friday, Nicholas got a call from the Ministry of the Interior and was told that he should come down with his wife on Monday morning. We knew what this meant, so we told the people at the Embassy where we were going and who we were going to talk to. I was scared we would be arrested but Nicholas was sure they would not do anything to us.
The FSB agents had told Nicholas that once we were deported we would have ten days to leave the country, so at 9:30 Monday morning we showed up at the Ministry ready for this to happen. We were told we had to sign sworn statements. They took us down to a room where there were three desks and two men sitting at desks. There was one big black phone on one of the desks and nothing else in the room. One of the men wrote out the forms and asked us if we understood why we were there. My husband said he very clearly understood. It was because he had refused to spy for the FSB. The man didn’t blink. He just said, “Okay, I will have to write that down”. My husband said, “Fine”, and he wrote it down. The black phone rang right on cue. I couldn’t believe it. I was living in the middle of a Le Carré spy novel.
The Ministry official also had the letter from the company saying that Nicholas no longer worked for them and so added that to the statement saying that there was no reason for Nicholas to remain in Moscow since his services were no longer needed by the company that issued his invitation.
As for me, all my statement said was that I would leave because my husband was leaving. At this point we found out we were not being deported. Our visas were being cancelled. We were told we had ten days to leave from the day the Ministry had received the letter from the company. Since they had received the letter on the previous Thursday, we had until Friday to leave the country. This was Monday. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. That was it. If we did not leave on Friday, we would be deported.
We were told to wait for the supervisor to come and make the final decision on our case; we waited for two hours.
The final decision was that my husband had no reason to stay in Moscow because the company he was working for no longer needed his services. Paragraph two said that the Moscow FSB office had requested that he be removed from the country. Mine just said that I would be accompanying my husband. Our son was never mentioned.
I worked on Tuesday. I packed and sorted through nine years of accumulated belongings on Wednesday and Thursday. We left on Friday with six suitcases.
When I landed in the US with no job, no home and six suitcases I felt like a refugee in my own country. I blamed my husband, my co-workers, the US Government. I was angry and in shock.
I have been through a lot since then and I remained angry for a long time. After we left I heard many stories from friends who had similar problems. We saw the country start to close up and shut down. It was moving backwards. My husband always used to say even with all the changes and the supposed “democracy”, nothing had really changed in the past 400 years. And now it was settling back into its comfort zone.
What I have come to realize is that the person I should have blamed was Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately for him, he is totally dependent on oil for his new Soviet state. From what I can tell, things are not getting any better, and I am afraid things will get much worse.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.