A Travel Vignette

From a Russian Travel Diary (1997)

Leaving St. Petersburg

FROM the Truth in Media's GLOBAL WATCH Report 97/3-4, 26-Mar-97

ST. PETERSBURG, Mar. 24 - Remember the film, "Leaving Las Vegas?" Well, my leaving St. Petersburg was perhaps not as traumatic, but it was fairly dramatic.

The first bit hassle occurred when I tried to check in at about 15:20. I put my bags on the conveyor belt of a baggage X-ray machine.

"Where are you going?", a customs official inquired.
 
"To Zurich," I replied.
 
"What?"
 
"Zuerich," I repeated, this time using the German pronunciation.
 
"Ah, Tsirih," he said in Russian. "It's too early. You must wait."
 
"What is too early?"
 
"You are too early. You must go back," he said, pointing to the lobby outside the customs outpost from which I had come.

I couldn't believe my ears. For the first time in my multi-million mile global travel, someone was complaining about me being too early. I wished my wife were here to hear it. She constantly complains how I always go to the airport at the last minute.

"So what time should I come back?" I asked.
 
"Twenty minutes."
 
"In twenty minutes?"
 
"In twenty minutes."

I walked out with my three bags. No sooner did I put them down on a bench, the same customs official approached me.

"May I see your ticket, please?" he asked.
 
"Why?" I replied.
 
"So that I could see your time of departure."

I thought that it was heartening to see a customs officials with a conscience. It seemed as if he wasn't sure about what he had told me, and wanted to make sure that I did not miss my flight in case he was wrong. So I showed him my ticket. But since this was a North American laser-printed ticket stub, I could tell that he was struggling to figure out what was on it. So I pointed to him my flight's departure time.

"Aha," he said, seemingly relieved that he had not made a mistake.
 
"This means you should come back at 16:45."
 
"At 16:45?" I repeated.
 
"At 16:45."
 
"Okay," I said and shrugged, smiling at him.

I figured that kicking up a fuss at this point would not change the 80 years of Soviet-style bureaucracy. I got myself a coffee, and paced the hall for about 25 minutes.

At exactly 16:45, I tried again. This time, another customs officer was on duty. He motioned me to another X-ray machine which was closer to where he was standing.

"But this one says 'FILMSAFE,'" I pointed out to the sign.
 
"And I have a camera in my case."
 
"Okay, then. 'Filmsafe'," he repeated my words mockingly.   He walked lazily over to the "filmsafe" X-ray machine. He ran my bags through.
"You customs declaration form, please," he demanded.

I handed him the piece of paper which we were given on the Swissair flight into Moscow on Mar. 18. I had declared on it that I had DM6,000 and $2,000 in cash. He looked at the piece of paper and then motioned to another (blonde) customs official to come over.

"Oh, oh..." I thought. "Here comes some trouble..." Little did I know how much trouble was on my way.

The two customs officials spoke in hushed up voices for a while. Then the blonde officer told me: "You've got problems."

"I've got problems?" I repeated innocently. "Why?"
 
"Because this declaration form was not stamped."
 
"It was not stamped?"
 
"No, as you can see," the officer said, looking warily at the document, as if he was about to get indigestion from just observing an unstamped piece of paper.
"And what does that have to do with me?" I asked.
 
"When we landed in Moscow, I handed all my documents, including this piece of paper, to the officials at the airport. How am I supposed to know what they should stamp and what not?"
 
"That's a problem you can take up with the Moscow customs officials," the blonde officer said calmly. "But this is St. Petersburg."

At this point, I recalled that my daughter (now studying in Moscow) had predicted some sort of trouble as soon as she saw that the Moscow customs officials never stamped my customs declaration form.

"So what do we do now?" I asked.
 
"Well, you can leave all your money here with a friend for safe-keeping," the blonde officer suggested. "And pick it up on your next trip."
 
"But wait a second," I protested. "The reason I declared all this money upon entry into Russia was that I needed it elsewhere on this trip. Not in Russia."

He just shrugged, implying that that was my problem.

"So what you're telling me is that you're about to rob me of my money?

You want to take from me the DM6,000 and $1,000? (I guessed that I had spent about a $1,000 in Russia)," I asked, sounding ready for a battle, and about ask to speak to his supervisor:

"Not at all," he said calmly, as if having been through all this before. "All you need to do is walk over to that bank counter (he pointed back to the entrance lobby), change your money into rubles, and then back into DM and US$."
 
"What?" I said. "Come again?"
 
"All you need to do is change your money into rubles."
 
"But I don't want any rubles," I said. "I am leaving Russia."

Seeing that I was slow on the uptake, the blonde officer explained that I did not really need to change any DM or US$ into rubles at all.

"Just go over to that bank counter, and tell the girl what I had told you. And then bring back the official bank receipt."
 
"And I don't have to give her any money?" I asked, sounding incredulous.
 
"No."
 
"And after I bring you back that bank recept, then I can take my money out?".
 
"Yes. But you also have to fill out new customs declaration form."
 
"And this girl at the bank counter will know what to do?"
 
"Yes."

Well, she didn't...

As I walked over to the bank, the "girl" at the only foreign exchange counter in the international terminal in St. Petersburg could speak only Russian.

"Oh, boy..." I thought, when I realized that. "I am really in for it now."

After endless exchanges - mine in English, hers in Russian - both of us became very exasperated. She wanted the rubles I didn't have. I wanted to keep the DM and US$ I was carrying. Neither of us seemed to get our points across.

Meanwhile, a long line of anxious travelers had formed behind me in front of the bank window; some amused by our conversation; others annoyed by the delay.

Finally, I threw in the towel and walked back to the blonde customs officer.

"She didn't understand you?" he guessed my predicament before I could say anything. Once again, it seemed like a "deja vu" case for him.
 
"No, she certainly did not."
 
"Follow me," he commanded, walking briskly toward the bank window.

Once there, he muttered a few words in Russian to the girl. Not many.

Maybe a sentence or two.

"It's okay now," he declared.
 
"Really?"

I was wondering as I saw him walking away. Indeed, when I faced the same Russian bank lady again, we did not seem to be any further ahead in our conversation than the last time. She kept talking fast and furiously in Russian which I could not understand, except for the word rubles.

Finally, a passenger next in line behind me must have taken pity upon me.

"She wants DM175 (about $110)," he explained.
 
"Are you a Russian?" I asked."
 
"Yes," he replied.
 
"And if I give her DM175, what then?" I asked naively, finally waking up to the scam.
 
"Then everything will be okay," he replied, with a smirk on his face.
 
"So it's a racket!" I said, as the penny finally dropped. "It's a bribe, isn't it?"

The Russian just shrugged and smiled.

I counted out DM170 - all the Deutsch Marks I had in my wallet (the rest of the money was hidden elsewhere). I was hoping this would be enough.

It wasn't.

"Pyet' (five) more DM," the lady insisted.
 
"I don't have 'pyet' DM," I replied. "I only have another DM20." I flashed the DM20 bill in front of her window. "Can you make change?"

She looked at me disapprovingly.

"But I still have a few rubles," I just remembered. I threw into the bank window hole all the rubles I had.

That seemed to have pacified her.

She proceeded to type something on official-looking forms for about 10 minutes. The Russian customers behind me were getting restless. They tried to get her to take their (presumably quicker) business ahead of mine. She just ignored them.

Eventually, she handed me four forms. One for exchanging DM6,000 into rubles; another one for changing the rubles back into DM; one for exchanging $2,000 into rubles; and another on for changing the rubles back into dollars again.

As she handed me the papers, she crossed her arms across her chest, as if saying, "I'm sorry." Judging by the expression on her face, I believe she was.

I took the paperwork and just shook my head. Given that the U.S. dollar exchange rate was about 5,750 rubles, there were some incredibly large numbers printed on the forms.

As I then went to fill out my NEW customs declaration form, the dark-haired customs officer approached me. "What flight are you on?" he inquired.

"To Zurich."
 
"Oh, 'harasho'."

"Another hustler with a conscience?" I surmised. It seemed as if he also wanted to make sure I did not miss my flight.

When I put my bags through the 'FILMSAFE' X-ray machine again, I asked the dark-haired customs officer if everything was okay this time.

"Alles gut," he replied in German.

It made me feel sick. This city (St. Petersburg-Leningrad) endured 872 days of the merciless German siege during WW II, paying an incredible human toll for its eventual freedom. And now this Russian customs officer was speaking to me in German!?

That made me more angry than the scam I had just endured. I didn't mind being taken advantage of. After all, I was the stupid one who didn't insist on my customs declaration form being stamped in Moscow. But I did mind a Russian officer speaking to me in German!

I picked up my papers and left, tears welling up in my eyes.

Now I WAS angry. Not at the customs officer. I was angry at us - the West. We are the ones who have made Russia the worst of the two worlds. We have imported into Russia the greed and selfishness from the West. But we never removed from Russia the communist bureaucracy which exploits, rather than protects, its people.

So Russia is now like a two-headed dragon. One head from the West; the other from the East. Each mean as hell to the ordinary people.

The greedy customs officers in St. Petersburg are the mere thorns in a wreath of thorns which the NWO had placed around Russia's neck. As such, they are also the victims, along with millions of other common folk in Russia.

When the Swissair flight took off from the St. Petersburg Pulkovo airport, my eyes were moist again. I blew a kiss to the snowy country I was leaving behind. It was not her fault that she was so backward.  Anymore than it is a fault of an NWO invalid  that he/she is so disabled.  Especially if the invalid were a war veteran. 

I vowed to return. With a few more Russian words in my vocabulary.

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