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How I Got Kicked Out of Russia

The New York Times

February 28, 2012


Its a Friday night, 6 p.m., pitch black, minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit. Im back in my hotel room in Vladimir, a small town 200 kilometers from Moscow, when I get a call from the receptionist asking me to come downstairs. She has something to ask me. Strangely, she refuses to speak on the phone and wants me to come to her.

When I see the five stern-looking men standing by the counter at reception, I realize that I should have stayed in my room. Two of them introduce themselves, badges in hand, as agents from the Federal Migration Service (F.M.S.). Papers, please. In Russia, foreigners must register with the police at every stop during their travels; hotels take care of the paperwork. I know the rule and follow it, but apparently thats not good enough this time.

Looking over my passport, one of the agents grumbles, You broke the law. What law? No answer. The two henchmen are getting impatient. Well, if you want to know, youll have to follow us. It wont take long.

Do I really have a choice? I get into an unmarked car. Ten minutes later, we arrive at the F.M.S. station; I wont be let out of it until a little bit before midnight, four hours of interrogation later. A little boss introduces himself they wont take me to the big boss, a colonel, until papers need to be signed.

He is standing; Im seated. With every statement, he lifts off his heels; the man looks down on me with all his arrogance. Judging by your visa, the stated purpose of your visit in Russia does not match your real activities. What real activities? I dare to ask in return.

He fires back, You are meeting with members of the opposition.

Flummoxed, Im left speechless for a moment. But I realize he isnt kidding. Never in 10 years of reporting in post-Soviet Russia including during the eight years I spent living here and covering the war in Chechnya have the authorities faulted me for something with such grave consequences. The official says that Ill have to pay a fine, to be determined by the colonel. My visa will be canceled immediately, and Ill be given a transit document requiring that I leave the country within three days. Not once is the word journalist uttered.

And you think youre getting objective information by meeting with members of the opposition? a young investigator named Yuri asks, emphasizing objective. He is part curious, part moralizing. In the face of my interrogators blind zeal, I am careful not to raise the tension of this ridiculous situation by asking pointed questions. But I cant help myself from commenting on his last remark. Im not looking for objectivity. In Russia, as elsewhere, everyone has a point of view. Its that diversity Im interested in!

Yes, I spent the previous day with the local representative of the liberal party Yabloko, and a few days earlier I met Yabloko representatives, as well as Communists in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia, about 1,000 kilometers north. Is that forbidden?

According to our information, in Petrozavodsk, you met this person at this time at this address, the investigator whispers, revealing that I was followed as soon as I arrived in Karelia.

Once Im back in Paris, I find out that my misadventure is already widely known: A friend, a Russian writer I saw the day before I left Moscow, has written about it on his Facebook page. I am assailed by the Russian media.

That evening, at a press conference in Moscow, the director general of the F.M.S. admits his agency made mistakes and announces the creation of an investigating team. The next day, the colonel who had signed my sanction with a sullen face resigned.

Three days later I get a phone call at home in Paris: Its the Russian ambassador to France. First, he wishes to apologize for the misunderstanding. Then, he assures me that I may come pick up a new visa at my convenience.

I have no idea why the officials in Vladimir behaved the way they did. Were they acting on instructions? Was I the victim of a coincidence? Were they simply checking up on what I was doing, or did they want to frighten me? Both?

In any event, the excess of zeal of those careerist provincial officials backfired. They were quickly repudiated by superiors in the Kremlin who are wary of seeing Russias image tarnished (too much).

I will probably never know the truth and I dont seek it. But this curious mix of confusion and intimidation measures, which are necessarily unpleasant, reveals the workings of the new Russia on the eve of a major election an election that no doubt will bring Vladimir Putin another six-year term as president.

Anne Nivat is a freelance war reporter who continues to travel across the former Soviet Union, Iraq and Afghanistan. Her latest book published in English is The Wake of War: Encounters With the People of Iraq and Afghanistan.

See also:

The original publication

Presidential Elections 2012

Freedom of Speech


February 28, 2012

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