Friends, due to the onslaught of requests for information regarding my “arrest” in Volgograd, and others’ concerns about their up-coming trips to Russia, I decided to give a fuller description of what happened on February 18th when I was caught in a net of arrests and detainments that were taking place throughout Russia. Part of this information was covered in our “St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Volgograd” trip report, so please excuse duplications.
You may also want to read Radio Free Europe’s article about the detainment–which I consider quite good, considering that they usually tend to be fairly anti-Russia.
On February 16, 2016, in the historic city of Volgograd, I had just finished my remarks to a packed room of Volgograd Rotarians. As I took my seat, three persons loomed in front of me, one a woman with a sizable videocamera. They seemed right in my face. A serious looking young man on the left asked for my passport which I immediately provided. I had no concern. I was legitimate, my documents were in order. Next the fellow said, “You need to come with us to Immigration Headquarters, also bring your traveling partner, Theodore McIntire.”
The roomful of Rotarians were shocked, having never experienced anything like this before. Our coats were fetched by our friends who prepared to trail us; McIntire and I were put in separate cars. The fellow driving my car was giving the orders. He spun the car around in a near “wheelie” and we sped off down the street at a speed that frightened me. In Russian language I asked him to slow down. He did. Checking the woman next to me, I asked her role. She struggled a bit and told she was my interpreter. If so, we were already in big trouble because her English was poor and my Russian is still faulty. I told the driver in Russian that I needed another interpreter. He asked if I had one. Fortunately a friend, Lena Ivanova, was with us in the Rotary meeting and she could help. Arrangements were made for her to join us. I began asking the driver why we were picked up and did they know who we were? We were picked up because our passports said we were traveling on “tourist” visas rather than “business” visas. Actually I thought I had a business visa all along, since for two decades I’d had business visas. Did someone switch it some time ago? I had no memory of a change. But previously it had never made any difference –– my three-year visa was about ready to expire, and it had worked without problems for 2.5 years.
We arrived at an old Soviet building with few repairs since the Soviet era. Upstairs and down halls we finally came to a long corridor lined with dozens of young unkempt Asian-appearing men and women (apparently illegal or legal aliens there for reasons of immigration status). Some were asleep in chairs, others on the floor asleep, a few were awake. We were hurriedly taken through this mass of humanity to the end of the long narrow hall. We entered a room in which two young men were seen starring into computers. It was obviously an interrogation room.
I introduced myself to the large heavy-set young interrogator (Maxim) while apologizing for my less than good Russian language. He seemed responsive enough. McIntire pulled a copy of my book, The Power of Impossible Ideas (in Russian language), from his briefcase and gave to Maxim. The book is about my three-decades of work to create better relations between the two nuclear superpowers. The room began to feel less tense to me. I edged closer to Maxim and began to engage him as a potential friend. In the 1980s I’d been through situations like this. I know Russian men and had learned to talk with them constructively and get to genuine conversation. Russian men are not macho. Perhaps their difficult Russian history, Stalin, past threats of gulags, etc., have created a different kind of man than many in the West. Maxim was like many other Russian men I’ve met. True to typical conditioning, he was capable of being genuine even in this situation (where we were guilty until proven not so).
The interviewing and videoing began. Questions were asked over and over for clarity. Lena Ivanova had arrived and was doing a splendid job of interpreting. Maxim and others detaining us accepted her interpretation without question. She continued to explain to us, “They just want simple answers, no other explanations or versions needed. They just want to get the paper work done honestly so they will be off the hook.”
Something was happening, I was sure of it. The “something” I feel certain was that they realized we were not who and what they expected. We were just honest Americans and were deeply concerned about the relationship between our countries. But they still had to get all the documenting papers settled to get us released. How to do this? They probably didn’t know themselves but they had to cover their backsides. This is what happened: we cooperated with them in good spirit, and they cooperated with us.
Next in another room, they had to get us fingerprinted — no, not finger printed …. we had to get full hand prints! First thumbs, then all fingers, then palms! I had never heard of this type of fingerprinting! They painted both hands with a black goop. When it was all over, I looked like I’d fallen hands-first into a tar pit! All prints were committed to paper with another heavy-handed bulky young man forcing my thumbs, fingers, then palms down on different papers. He was kind but determined to do a good job! Finally I was given a glob of something in each palm and led to a bathroom where I scrubbed my hands until the congealed soap and black tar had disappeared.
Next it was necessary for our hosts to locate a judge and a court to sign off on our releases. They, Lena, McIntire and I trotted back down to waiting cars for a drive through main streets, then back streets and even a couple of alleyways and ended up in the back parking lot of what turned out to be a newly renovated federal building. We made it up another six flights of stairs into a narrow hall where the judges’ quarters were located. Into the hall walked a not-to-happy young judge with his black robe not yet quite in place. Obviously he had been called back to work; he closed his door and we were left to wait again …. It was 8 pm by this time. Maxim, the original driver, another man, the video lady and Ted, Lena, and I tried to occupy ourselves.
With easy access to other parts of the floor, Lena and I roamed freely to see was happening in other rooms. It was probably like any other overly-busy district court back-office operation. There were loose papers everywhere: on desks, in metal trays, stacked on boxes on the floors, on bookcases. Two women were working themselves crazy trying to satisfy others like us who were still coming and going through their doors. Lena and I were eager to see everything The men, bored with it all, couldn’t have cared less about the surroundings––they had a job to do this evening. Tomorrow would be too late. Our scheduled flights back through Moscow then to St.Petersburg, JFK and SFO were departing the next morning. Meanwhile, the hassled judge was reviewing our documents. Finally we were called in. His robe was on straight, but he still looked disgruntled to be back in his office again. We spent about 15 minutes with him, he signed documents and pronounced our fines––2,000 rubles each (about $25). We were told to go to a Cberbank to pay the fines, which our Rotarian friends took care of for us the next day.
The three interrogators got us safely back to the Volgograd Rotarians who had been waiting outside in the cold this entire time! We departed our new acquaintances with smiles and hearty handshakes. We were all pleased it was over. All in all it took about seven hours. Several of us went to PEP alumna Oxanna Malashkina’s delightful “Gretel” restaurant to debrief and try to figure out how and what had transpired.
Unbeknownst to us, our “detainment” had already been sent to media wires in a propagandistic manner and was being circulated throughout Russia (and apparently to Europe and even in parts of the US). By morning friends from all across Russia were emailing in shock, decrying what had happened to us, wondering what the truth really was. The chief of Radio Free Europe (RFE) emailed me saying, “Sharon, this writeup doesn’t sound right, I’ve googled you and something is amiss, please get in touch immediately.” I did, explained what had happened, and he wrote a great article clarifying the situation. The Russian media, however, never followed up on their initial misreporting. That’s unfortunately typical of most media today whether in the US or Russia–it’s rare a publication goes back to correct a misreported story. So no doubt the exaggerated story of the detainment still stands in many Russians’ minds.
The next day I learned that a dragnet of sorts had been flung out in mid-February (we were picked up Feb. 18th). This net closed down a number of NGOs (non-governmental groups) operating in Russia–I hear it was designed particularly for those Russian NGOs that have been operating with funds from U.S. State Department. I feel quite sure that we were caught up in this net. I was staying in a PEP alum’s home; McIntire was staying in a local hotel which checks all registrations. I suppose that the hotel reported that I was not living in the hotel, but at this time am still not sure of the true origins of our trouble.
However, this I do know: today across Russia there exists a strong majority of Russians (citizens and authorities alike) who are deeply concerned about whether a “color revolution” is being planned for Russia by Washington policymakers. Having seen what other countries have gone through due to the destabizing and devastating changes in leadership (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, threatened in Iran, then Ukraine in 2003 and 2014 and now Syria), both citizens and Russian policymakers are battening down the hatches, hoping to weather this extremely dangerous period in Washington-Russia relations. Any foreigner in Russia today may be suspect unless their intentions are well known––this period in Russia reminds me of how suspicious we Americans were immediately after our 9/11 events.
Throughout Russia, regulations regarding visas and travel documents are being tightened or rewritten. I am not an ordinary tourist in Russia. I speak to Russian groups and present at conferences across Russia, I routinely interview former CCI alumni and stay in their homes. Conceivably I could influence their points of view adversely if that was my intention––which it never has been. I was definitely using a tourist visa, although unbeknownst to me.
A tourist visa is now well-defined in Russia as a visa given to someone who comes for tours, does cultural activities, lives in hotels, is registered in each city and goes home at the end of an appointed time.
So I’m in the process of getting a business or a “humanitarian” visa before my next trip!
All’s well that ends well …. Sharon