Jan 12, 2011

Bureau-crazzzy (О бюрократии - pt. 1)

Sorry for the English-language title, I didn't how to translate "Bureau-crazzzy" into Russian. In fact, Russians don't even have a word for "bureaucracy." I'm kidding, of course they do. It comes after "apple" in their alphabet books. Apple, Bureaucracy, Collectivization, mutually-assured Destruction, all the way to Zero-sum game. Today's post is brought to you by the letter Б, for Бureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is one of Russia's longest and most cherished national traditions. Oil paintings from the era of Peter the Great depict long lines of ragged, exuberant serfs, waiting joyfully in the snow to have their line-cards stamped. The line-card was a document that confirmed that a serf waited in the line, and was only discontinued with the serfs' emancipation in 1861 (and not without resistance). Alongside the birch tree and the Troika, the elaborate circular stamp is a symbol of Russia's eternal greatness. Politically, every major social movement in Russia's history has identified bureaucracy as anathema to social reform in the country. Once in power, though, revolutionaries have turned into bureaucrats faster than you can say "Main Office of the Interior for Transport and Special Transportation of the Russian Federation." Bureaucracy, like alcoholism, is another of those stereotypes that everybody wishes weren't true.

On an unrelated note, I've learned how make hyperlinks, so expect to see more of those in this second iteration of the blog. You might recall my first run-in with the Russian bureaucracy in the winter of my first year there, which centered on a lost migration card. That was a stressful episode, and I recommend re-reading, if for no other reason than to reacquaint yourself with the blog. That time, everything was resolved last-minute through the Irkutsk police (with the help of our charming blond program director). This is an important point - though the Russians are prone to stumbling and unexpected delays in pretty much every sphere, they're also apt to magically resolve everything just in time, with an immense joy and satisfaction that's foreign to our more predictable lives. It's one of the country's more charming features - except in those instances when it doesn't happen.


Some background. To enter the Russian Federation for any reason, be it tourism, study or work, an American needs a visa. A visa, if you don't know, is official permission to enter a country, in the form of a small document adhered to a page of your passport. It looks like this:

A passport, if you don't know, is a document issued to a citizen by his or her government, which identifies the holder for the purposes of international travel. Without both a passport and a visa, I am not allowed entry into Russia.

Russia, if you don't know, is the subject of this blog. It is the world's largest country by area, occupying all of northern Eurasia. Russia has figured prominently in European and world history at least since the founding of the Russian Empire in 1721, and as founding nation of the USSR, was one of two global superpowers for much of the 20th century. It looks like this:

So here's the story, as it stands today. Before I get a visa, my Russian host needs to email me an official invitation. This time, my host is the University of Adygea, my employer this spring (I use the term "employer" in the broadest sense possible; see future posts for my wages!). Once I receive the invitation, I need to fill out a visa application and send it, with my invitation and my passport, to the Russian consulate in New York. The application is a relatively straightforward form, on which I tell the government where I'll be living, the purpose of my visit, and how many poods of barley my parents grow per hectare. A pood is roughly 36 pounds. When that form is approved, the consulate in New York stamps it and sends it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, where it will be filed next to my dental x-rays and thrown out in 2055.

But the embassy will also send me my passport, with my visa inside it. The invitation has been the hang-up so far. Until I have it, I cannot send off my passport and visa application. That process should take a few weeks. I also can't buy my plane tickets, because until I have the invitation, I don't know after what date I'm allowed in the country. To summarize: everything rests on my invitation, which is already a month late.

Through a series of emails this fall, it was agreed that I'd be teaching English conversation at AGU (the university). I got the opportunity through my Russian professor from college, who vouched for me to the point where I didn't even send an application. After that, though, I conducted business directly with the university. The exchange of emails, in a way, mirrored all of Russian history - some shock would come from the Russian side (e.g. "You're hired to teach English in Maikop!), and I'd write back ("Great! Where's Maikop?), but then, a long, stagnant official silence would follow, during which all sorts of complications and stresses would take root and grow. Emails have come from them at a rate of maybe one per month, each one containing only half of the information I urgently requested in last month's exchange. In October, I was told that the invitation would arrive in January, and that I should aim to arrive at the end of that month. For reasons explained above, that was too short a timeframe, which I explained to my contact at AGU. A month later, I was assured that they would send it in December. Another month later, it was December, and I was only told that the person in charge of my arrangements had retired.

Now, it's January, and the latest plot twist has twisted. Remember above, when I said that the invitation would be emailed to me? Well that was a literary device - I said email, because that's how it seemed to our protagonist, and as narrator, I've let you watch events unfold through his eyes. Turns out, the invitation can only be sent via the post office. This happened today, and delays the process by another two weeks. There are added dimensions of complexity - I'm about to return to my apartment in Chicago for two weeks, so I may want them to send it there. But wait! That apartment is on the market, and could belong to somebody else by the time the invitation arrives. It's been a hassle, but not the worst thing in the world, just a lot of time sitting at home. C'est la vie, as the Russians say.

It is unclear when I'll actually be leaving, though I still hope to go. If I do, the blog is up and running. Welcome back!