Have you seen Argo? The 2012 movie about a true-story CIA op to smuggle six American embassy employees out of Iran in the midst of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis (with the help of Canada. Thanks, Canada). Ben Affleck appropriated the role of Tony Mendez, because there were apparently no Hispanic actors available, but that’s another blog post. Pretty good movie actually. Anyway, the point is that the entire end of the movie is intense and you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to see if these folks will make it out of Iran alive. The airport scene is almost too much. And though I never felt like I was in mortal danger trying to get out of Russia, my airport scene felt a little Argo-y.
Here’s what happened.
Arrived at Pulvoko Airport in St. Petersburg. Checked in manually because online check-in was not allowed. That should have been my first clue. Cleared two levels of security: one that was just a boarding pass/ID check, the next was an X-ray screening (and no, not even the main security checkpoint that we’re all used to, an extra X-ray checkpoint).
Then to customs. My Argo.
Stepped into a vacant customs booth and came face to face with a man behind the glass. Standard. Slid him my passport and boarding pass. Standard. He didn’t like the way I handed him my passport. He gave it back. Should have been my second clue. I opened it to the photo page, removed the cover and then slid it back to him. Still standard.
For me, that’s where standard ended. Next…
- The man inspected my passport (pp). Like the actual integrity of the book and the binding and the pages.
- He looked at me, my pp photo, my visa photo, then back to me, eyes darting in rapid succession over and over for about 60 secs straight. All the while, I was supposed to just stare in his eyes (or general direction?). You think 60 secs isn’t a long time to stare at a human in the eyes? Find the nearest stranger and stare at him or her in the eyes. Don’t smile. Don’t blink. Now imagine they’re Russian.
- Dude broke out a magnifying glass. Proceeded to further examined my pp. I almost laughed but I thought that might be a bad idea.
- He picked up the phone and called someone. Babbling on and on in Russian. Gesturing at me and my pp.
- Slid me a blank piece of paper. “You sign this.” I did so. As I expected, he then began analyzing my signature as compared to my pp signature.
- Made a second phone call.
- Broke out a SMALLER magnifying glass. Bruh, where are you keeping all these magnifying glasses over there? Further scrutinized my photos. I didn’t even know customs had magnifying glasses and definitely not a variety sized set of magnifying glasses.
- Asked me my name and age. I told him. Then made a THIRD phone call. Now I’m like WTH.
- It’s been about 15 mins now. A woman came into the booth and joined dude behind the glass. Great, now I’ve got two Russian customs agents.
- Female agent took my pp. See step #2. Except now I have to decide where to stare between the two of them. Her? Because she’s holding my pp? Him? Because he’s ice grilling me like he just knows I’m on a watch list? I don’t know.
- The female ordered me to do a series of facial modifications. Lift chin, drop chin, smirk, straight face, raise my bangs and expose my forehead, drop my bangs, tilt left, too much tilt, not so much tilt. Put my right hand in, take my right hand out, put my right hand in and shake it all about.
- Female asked me my name and age. I told her. Where do I live? Where am I going? I told her.
- They both re-analyzed my signature.
- Male asked me if I have a sister. Me: Umm, yes. Him: Her name? Me: Lena. Him: Marenda? Me: No, I’m Marenda. Him: *skeptical* You’re Marenda? Me: Yes, I’m Marenda. Him: How old are you? Me: 34. *trying to remain perfectly calm*
- See #2. Again.
- The female took all of my documents and told me to follow her. We left the booth. Now, I was getting a little antsy. Just because I’ve seen quite a bit of Locked Up Abroad. Brokedown Palace also flashed through my mind (another decent movie you may want to see if you haven’t). I know I haven’t done anything wrong but so what. They may just decide to do…whatever. You think once they’ve decided I’m some sort of terrorist they’re letting me call the US Consulate? Probably not. I speak no pertinent Russian and I had no idea what was going on. Who had the man called on the phone? Why were they detaining me?
- As the woman and I walked, I asked her what was wrong. She pointed to my hair. She sat me in an empty hallway and then asked if my hair was actually my hair. Oh! That’s all? They just aren’t used to #BlackGirlMagic. I have natural hair and wear wigs and weave and my natural curls and whatever else my heart desires for the day. They could not conceptualize me having various different hairstyles but still being the same human. Thus them asking if I have a sister (a lookalike). But then that thought began to worry me immensely. Because if these people think I’m not me, how in the WORLD was I supposed to convince them that I am me?
- I offered to remove my wig if need be. The woman just told me to sit and wait five minutes. She kinda shot me a smile, a first sign of humanity. I began to understand that the guy had called a female agent because he wasn’t sure how to deal with my hair. Was it real or not? Is wearing a wig common or am I hiding something? The woman took all of my documents, left me in the hallway and disappeared into the office of a restricted area. Five minutes turned into almost 15.
- Another woman, a younger extremely serious looking agent came out with my pp. See #2.
- After more time went by, a young male customs agent came out with my documents and stared at me. Again. See #2.
- Now, I’m aggravated. Can someone tell me something? If all of this was really just because of my hair, would it be this serious? I have been visually inspected at close range by multiple Russian customs agents who have basically said nary a word to me besides barking at me how to sit or how to hold my face. It hadn’t really set in yet that these people really could keep me here and I would have no idea why. Nor would I know what recourse to take. Again, how do you convince someone that you’re you if you can’t even communicate with them and they’re already in possession of ALL of documentation but still don’t believe you?
- And then. Just like that, almost an hour after the whole detainment started, the original woman came back out, handed me my pp and boarding passes and said “it’s ok”. She took me into a different customs booth, instructed the guy inside to stamp my pp, and then sent me on my way.
Now, at the time, I had no idea what all of that was about. Could have been because I’m American, or black, or just foreign, or because I really do look just that different from my pp and visa photos. Now that some time has passed, and especially once the customs agent in Switzerland where I made my connection did a double take between me and my photos, I’m inclined to believe it’s mostly the latter. Actually, it was probably a combination but look at my photos. I really do look different in all of them. I promise I’m just one person though! And I’m stuck with this horrible pp photo for 10 years. *cries real tears*
Once I left the customs booth, there was a final security checkpoint. The full body scan was one I’d never seen before. You step up onto a conveyor belt/moving sidewalk, turn sideways and put your hands up overhead while the conveyor belt moves you through the x-ray. Gathered my backpack and got out of there. AND I didn’t lose any of my souvenir mini vodka bottles or my honey. Though they did inspect my faberge owl to make sure it was a knockoff.
Thankfully, I allotted two hours for Russian airport BS so I still had about 30 mins to grab some lunch and board my flight. Swiss Air, no less. Just like in Argo.
No one was trying to kill me, as in the movie. It wasn’t THAT serious. But on the scale of mundane to insane, this was definitely more on the nerve wracking side of customs visits for me. And I’ve been through a LOT of customs. Had my stuff screened, been “randomly selected” quite a bit, been separated from the group and searched. But this was my first detainment. I think I could have only been more worried if the agents had been armed, I had been cuffed for some reason or I had been placed in an actual cell during the detainment. The element of angst was also elevated because it was Russia. Detain me for a few extra minutes in Canada, ok. Russia? No thanks to that ever again.
As soon as I boarded my Swiss flight and the flight attendant greeted me with a jovial “Hello”, I was set as ease, realizing how tense I had been the whole last two hours.
Russia is not ruined for me though. If/when I go back, I will just know to expect airport harassment. Though, I shouldn’t have to expect that. It’s crazy to accept harassment as the norm but in Russia, for some people, it just might be. I saw countless travelers pass through those customs booths without incident. I wondered if they all looked exactly like their pp and visa photos. If they were also being harassed or questioned in the booths. None of them looked like me. None of them were sent to the hallway where I sat. I want to have faith that the system will work correctly but systems fail all the time. And while I’m pretty comfortable with where corruption lies in American systems, I have no knowledge of Russian systems.
Could they have decided I was not actually me and detained me indefinitely? Sure. And I have no idea WHAT I would have done in that case. I’m just glad that wasn’t the case, and that I’m writing this from the comfort of my hotel room, planning my next adventure. Or maybe, I should just plan a relaxing, do-nothing, opposite-of-Russia style vacation.
Turks & Caicos, anyone?
Be sure to check out the rest of my Russian experience:
- Do you know anyone who’s been to Russia? Well, now you do.
- How to Travel to Russia
- Photojournal: St. Petersburg, Russian Federation