Those of us in IR who do “constructivist” work (broadly speaking) spend a fair amount of time questioning the notion that things like states are usefully treated as more or less solid objects. Instead of treating states as relatively unproblematic territorial containers with fixed and stable borders, we concern ourselves with processes of stabilization — the various ways in which socially relevant distinctions are produced, inscribed, and sustained in daily practice. Elsewhere1, Dan and I have suggested that states should be regarded as ongoing dynamic projects rather than as already-stabilized entities, and that we should in consequence focus our analytical attention on the ways that “stating” occurs.
Last week I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a seminar on Russia and ‘the West’ in contemporary geopolitics. I flew out of Washington on Wednesday evening, arrived in St. Petersburg on Thursday and spent some time walking around the city, and then we had the seminar Friday and Saturday. Good discussions, about the substance of which I may post at some future date. But at the moment what I want to talk about is my personal experience of the Russian state project, a story that might be called “PTJ Versus Russia” in the grand tradition of the classic Simpsons episode Bart Versus Australia.
Our story begins about two months before I left for Russia, when I went to the Russian Embassy downtown to get an entry visa. I had never been any place that required an entry visa before; I’ve spent time in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Canada, and none of the countries I’d visited require visas from US citizens for short stays. Russia, on the other hand, requires a visa for basically any entry, and in order to get a visa you basically have to provide a detailed inventory of exactly where you’re going, what you’re doing, and who you’re going to be doing it with. Getting all of this right required several phone calls, a couple of trips downtown, faxed copies of documents including a letter of invitation from the tourist agency that had arranged my hotel, and a money order for about $100. But eventually I got my visa, an imposing-looking piece of paper pasted into my passport and granting my access to Russia from 15.9.2005 to 19.9.2005. Wait a minute, my return flight was on the 18th, so I didn’t need the visa to be valid for the 19th . . . but it seemed like too much trouble to change it, so I left it alone. It’s a good thing that I did.
Entering Russia, even with a visa, is a tedious process; several more forms had to be filled out, and I was given another piece of paper and strictly warned to keep it in my passport until I left the country — and, of course, to have my pasport with me at all times, since there were penalties for foreigners apprehended without proper travel documents. After this, when I got to the hotel, there were two more forms to fill out, stamps to be added to the forms I already was carrying, and so forth. One starts to get the idea that the Russian state project is, shall we say, a bit bureaucratically top-heavy.
Everything was fine (except for a 24-hour flu bug that made my trip to the Hermitage Museum a bit more surreal than it might have been otherwise, but you don’t relaly want to her about that) until I went to leave Russia on Sunday the 18th. A taxi came and picked me up at 7:30am from the hotel; check-in went smoothly, passport control gave me no problems, and I was in the waiting area in front of the gate by about 9am — plenty early for a 10:20 flight. About 9:30 they started loading us onto the plane, a 51-seater two-propeller job that was set to take us to Vilnius. Why Vilnius? Because this was Lithuanian Airlines, and I was to catch a Lufthansa connection at 1:50 that afternoon that would take me from Vilnius to Frankfurt, where I’d catch a connecting flight to back to Washington. why was I flying Lithuanian Airlines? Because Lithuanian Airlines has some kind of relationship with SAS, and thus code-shares with Lufthansa (the company operating the other flights on my trip), and so I was able to purchase the tickets all at once.
After taxiing around for about half an hour, and just when I was convinced that we were planning to drive overland to Vilnius rather than flying, the captain came on the intercom to announce a “technical fault” and we headed back to gate. Everyone was off-loaded, and we were told that it would take about an hour to fix the plane. No problem, I thought; I had some time before my connection was scheduled to leave for Frankfurt. So I sat down to wait.
And I waited.
And I waited.
And then I started getting hungry, since it was about noontime and I hadn’t had anything to eat since leaving the hotel. But the only places to purchase anything in the gate area were a) the duty-free shop, which was a reasonable place to buy hard liquor and cigars but didn’t have much in the way of lunch food, and b) a couple of small cafes that featured large signs proclaiming that they only did business in rubles (and didn’t take credit cards). I’d gotten rid of all of my rubles before checking in, since rubles are useless outside of Russia, and in any event I only had enough to buy a couple of inexpensive souvenirs for my kids. Use a cash machine, someone suggested. Sure — but the only cash machines in the airport were on the other side of the check-in area, back on the other side of pasport control. So I asked, and was firmly informed that once my visa had been stamped I was outside of Russia and couldn’t go back in, even for a moment to get some cash.
Together with several other passengers we managed to get together enough rubles for a really really bad bar of chocolate. Some of the other passengers decided to visit the duty-free shop and get some bottles of cognac, which apparently sufficed to take their minds off of their immediate troubles; they were certainly laughing a lot as they got drunk . . .
I tried to explain my situation to a number of different officials with varying degrees of English comprehension (I speak no Russian except a few basic words, which at least allowed me to understand the sharp “nyet” I got every time I got too close to the passport control booths). At one point I switched to German because the official’s German was better than his English. but the resolution was always the same: they were sorry, but I couldn’t go back across the border to talk to a Lufthansa ticket-agent who was about fifty feet away and try to get transferred to another flight. Actually, what I and several others really wanted to do was to talk to a Lithuanian Airlines agent, but wouldn’t you know it, there was no Lithuanian Airlines agent at the St. Petersburg airport, and the SAS agent who had checked our bags was nowhere to be found. we later discovered that since Lithuanian Airlines only operates one flight a day from St. Petersburg, they had arranged for someone from SAS to come in for a couple of hours and then leave, so there was no responsible official to be found.
What there was instead was a very dour Russian woman whose level of English comprehension seemed to fluctuate up and down depending on the situation, and about 35 hungry and frustrated passengers who were essentially trapped in the gate area without anything to eat or drink. For seven hours. Finally they brought in a plate of stale bread and slices of ham, and a few sodas, and informed us that they were going to send all of us to Moscow at which point we’d be able to get on a different Lithuanian Airlines flight that would get us in to Vilnius by about 10pm. There were only two problems with this plan: first of all, where the heck was I supposed to stay in Vilnius for a night, especially since I wasn’t sure that there was a Lufthansa flight the next day that I could catch? I kept pointing out that if I could just talk to someone from Lufthansa for about five minutes we could straighten everything out, but that damn border keept getting in the way.
Second — and this was a situation not unique to me, but also affected about half of the other passengers — since our visas had been stamped we weren’t allowed back into Russia. In order to get to the Moscow flight we would have to cross the border and board a bus to take us to the domestic terminal, which was fine for those with Russian passports but a bit trickier for non-citizens. Actually, there were two visa issues, since everyone else’s visa expired on the 18th and the passport control folks weren’t very happy about the idea of letting people whose visa expired that day into the country; because of the error from months before, my visa was still valid for another day, however. Of course, it wasn’t a multiple-entry visa — no one’s was — so that was also causing much bureaucratic consternation. Eventually, after about an hour of waiting for Someone In Authority to make a ruling, we were allowed to go across the border backwards: they invalidated our exit stamps, making it so that we had never actually left the country in the first place. So much for those eight hours of cooling our heels in the company of bad chocolate and stale bread (and cognac) — officially, they never happened.
By the time I finally got to talk to a Lufthansa representative, everything had left for the day, or was leaving so late that I wouldn’t be able to catch anything in Frankfurt until the following day anyway. And Lufthansa maintained — completely correctly, I think — that since it wasn’t their airplane that had failed to take off, they were under no obligation to pay for a hotel for me. That would be Lithuanian Airlines’ responsibility — Lithuanian Airlines which had no representative on hand.
All I can say is (and I say this without the slightest trace of irony) thank God for Germans. The Lufthansa folks did everything that they could, including booking me into the St. Petersburg hotel where their crews stayed and getting me the Lufthansa rate (which was about 40% cheaper than the listed price), and arranging a new flight for me for the 19th. So I’d get home a day later than planned, but at least I’d get home.
I suppose that part of the moral of the story is “avoid Lithuanian Airlines.” Another part is “get your visa for a day or two longer than you think you’ll need it,” since that was all that allowed me to stay in Russia the evening of the 18th. Even then the hotel gave me some trouble when I checked in, and had to call Someone to confirm that the invalidated exit stamp was in fact invalidated and I was permitted to remain in the country until the 19th, and I had a tense moment the following morning at the airport when the passport control officer wouldn’t clear me to leave the country because there was already an exit stamp on the visa, even though it had been scribbled over in pen the previous day when I’d basically backed up into the country again. Eventually I made it through, and other than the massive jet lag and the lovely drained feeling that comes with effectively spending two days in airports, everything’s fine now . . . except that I managed to leave my pillow in the Hotel Pulkovskaya, since I had to get up at 4am to get back to the airport for the rescheduled flight and forgot to put the pillow in my suitcase.
1The first time we used this language was in a 1999 article in the European Journal of International Relations — our first actual scholarly publication! There’s no convenient free version of the article available, but if your library subscribes to Sage Journals Online you might be able to access it that way if you’re curious. But be forewarned, the piece is extremely dense and convoluted. I’d like to think that our writing has gotten better since then, but I’m probably not in the best position to judge whether or not that is the case.