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On Migration, Bureaucracy and Culture Clash

I have been, sort-of, an immigrant three times in my life. I say ‘sort-of’, because in all three experiences my use of the word can be argued against. The first time I was just a baby, therefore, apart from linguistic immersion and an array of multicultural nannies, I didn’t really experience the culture-clash. The other two could also be debated, since we moved to countries native to my parents. Here, however, lies the catch.

While one of my parents was a native, the other was not. That is 50% of our family; and think whatever you like, 50% is a lot. Especially when it comes to bureaucracy…

Growing up in Russia with a Russian father and a mother fluent in Russian, we really did not stand out much. We were what cross-cultural studies would call “hidden immigrants”; many people didn’t even realize that our family wasn’t quite as Russian as our neighbors’. Even those who did know didn’t really pay any attention to it. We lived as Russians among Russians, our multi-cultural background accepted and mostly ignored by friends, by schools, and by hospitals. The only times we really got reminded of was our foreigner status when traveling.

I got a Finnish passport of my own when I was less than two years old. (I had that same passport ’til the age of 11. You can imagine the reactions of border officials…). However, it didn’t really hold any other function than being a means of identification; to cross the border I needed my parents’ travel documents. I was marked in both of my parents’ native passports, my father’s Russian travel passport and my mom’s Russian permanent residence permit. That is five legal documents, all of which needed to match. Once, they didn’t, and I almost got stranded in Ukraine. I’m not sure which document was used, but I could enter the country without a problem. However, on the way out we encountered a problem.
I am a Finnish citizen, so technically I would have needed a visa.
However, as a minor, I could accompany my parents.
However, I was not marked in my mom’s visa and, it turned out, I was not marked in my Dad’s new travel passport either.
There was no document that could have allowed me to legally enter the country and so, legally, they couldn’t let me out. My parents figured it out somehow, but that incident will always remain in my mind as a prime example of the functionality of Russian border control.

It wasn’t just travel between Russia and country-X. Back in the day, even crossing the border between Russia and Finland was, well… Let’s be nice and say it was complicated. I remember having to wait for hours in the OVIR—Office of Visa and Registration—to get the stamp permitting us to leave the country. That is my mom and I. It was almost like applying for a visa, only in our case we were going “back to our country”. Depending on the official, the paperwork could take days, weeks, or even be rejected. Thankfully, traveling became much easier in the last years of our stay in Russia. I got a residence permit of my own and, due to some changes in the legislation, it basically functioned as a Russian travel passport. For a short while I could just sit on a train, show my Finnish passport on the way out and the Russian permit on the way in, and cross the border, no questions asked.
And then we moved to Finland…

Finland was a whole new “hidden immigrant” experience. Only, this time around I was legally a native but didn’t quite know how to act as one. I didn’t understand any of the cultural references. I didn’t speak or even understand dialects, let alone slang. And I definitely didn’t know how to navigate in the rather rigid system (especially when compared to the Russian “nothing works but everything can be arranged” – mentality). Although I have to point out that the system really does work. It didn’t take long for us to be completely (re)integrated into the Finnish social security system. Even my Dad got a temporary residency permit and after a few years a permanent one. While Finns don’t seem quite as welcoming as Russians on a personal level, in practice the society is much more immigrant friendly and efficient. And of course, there are the numerous perks of having an EU (European Union) passport. Trust me, I do know what a luxury it is to be able to step of a plane in a different country without having my passport checked once. However, ironically, the one place my passport does not give me easy access to – is Russia.

Many people, including myself, are often confused by this. Why would it be difficult for me to get into the country I grew up in, more so, since I’m half Russian? Just another example of Russian bureaucracy. Back then, there was no such thing as “half Russian”. Russian government did not allow double citizenship and so, in order for me to get a Russian passport, I, or at that time my parents, would have had to give up my Finnish one. My parents said no, and so I legally remained a foreigner. But what happened to the permanent residence permit, the one that practically functions as a passport?
A document that would have been valid for 10, 20 maybe 30 years, if the laws didn’t change too much, expired because I stayed “abroad” for over six months over the span of a single year. And since this is Russia we are talking about, the document does not just become invalid. No, I had to travel to Russia to personally submit a hand-written declaration of resigning my right to the document. And then, I was stuck. I got into the country without a hitch despite my residency permit having been expired for half a year at that point; but once they took it away there was no legal document showing how I entered the country. Does this sound familiar? I had to wait a week for the system to process my petition and grant me a one way visa back home.

And now the funny part: Second day of my unexpected vacation in St.Petersburg, I received a call. It was early in the morning so I didn’t think and just answered it. On the other end of the line was my class advisor going on a tirade about me missing school without prior notice. Through her nagging, I tried to explain that I was stuck in Russia and that I hadn’t known about this trip before my parents, who were already there, had their friends pick me up and give me a lift. To this day I’m not quite sure she understood the situation. Talk about a culture clash.

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