14 August, 2007

A Russian civil servant who was actually civil

Sometimes I suspect that the American government has lost its sense of purpose, and in this fog of existential angst has concluded that its mission is to go further and further out of its way to find ways to annoy us, the citizens whom it should serve.

The latest evidence came as we were leaving Sheremetyevo-2 last week. Everyone heading to the United States had to wait in line while someone hand-checked each article of luggage. In case you missed that, they hand-checked each article of luggage belonging to every passenger leaving for the United States. The resulting debacle extended out beyond customs to the entrance of the airport, and a security guard kept telling people to move the line and clear the entrance.*

Long line and screaming baby aside, my wife and I were lucky. We were directed to the one civil servant in Russia who is actually civil. I've written before how Russian civil servants treat the people before them as annoyances. I've also written how the American embassy in Moscow seems to think this is a great idea, and treats Russians who apply for visas with the same disrespect that Russians experience anywhere else in life.

But this guy was different! Tall and stocky, he could easily have attempted a physical intimidation, if not for his irrepressible smile.

Did you pack any pistols or guns? he asked our son as he unpacked the first of our bags. The boy shook his head a little nervously. Are you sure? the official pressed on, his face beaming at the opportunity to toy with a ten year-old. Not even any fake guns? You'd better tell me now, 'cause I'll find 'em. My son laughed.

He and my wife exchanged a few remarks that I didn't entirely follow. Whatever I quote (above as well as below) is based on her translation. She swears it's the truth, and it does correspond to the few words I caught here and there.

Wow, that's a huge bag, he said as I lifted our fifty-pounder onto the table. What is a woman like you doing with a large bag like that? It must be hard to carry.

That's what my husband is for! my wife grinned.

Ah, he must be an American husband, then, the official remarked.

I caught Американыц, and turned a quizzical eye to my wife. She waved dismissively and answered him, Yes, it's true. But don't let him know, or I'll be in trouble.

Apparently that makes some sort of humor in Russian, because the gentleman laughed. Do you mind turning this luggage the other way? He spun his finger over the suitcase. I don't want the wheels to get my shirt dirty.

After telling me (in English) to turn the bag around, my wife turned back to the official. I thought that if you had this kind of work, they provide you with the uniforms.

That's true! he admitted. They give us two white shirts, but with a job like this they don't stay clean long, so I visited a store and now I have ten. So much for free uniforms!

(This reminds me of an acquaintance of my wife's who serves in the Russian army. When I asked if he had to travel in uniform, the way I see many American soldiers do, he laughed. No, Russia has a poor army, and can't afford more than two uniforms per soldier. This makes me wonder if American soldiers always have to wear uniforms when flying on an airplane, or only under certain circumstances. I should probably ask, rather than giving foreigners false impressions.)

In short, it was a pleasant, gentle conversation that one does not expect when dealing with Russian officials, especially not Russian security officials. In the United States, I might write a positive letter to his superior and hope it would lead to a raise, but in Russia I wouldn't dare. Smiling during any sort of business is considered unprofessional; imagine security. Americans are considered idiots because they're so quick to offer a fake smile. Really! I've heard this from my wife, my sister-in-law, and two Russians I worked with, so either it's the truth or there's a massive conspiracy afoot.

For us, it was a good omen: from then on, everything went splendidly. We had the blessing of polite, professional officers as we passed through Customs and Immigration in Washington. It restored some of my confidence that American civil servants have some purpose other than to annoy the general public, and do not view the people standing before them as annoyances.

*It was not, however, the longest wait I have endured in an airport. To date, the champion in this category is the line for airport security at JFK airport in mid-July, 2005. I got in line three hours before my plane was to leave, and finally passed through with about 30 minutes left. It was such a disaster that they were constantly calling for passengers riding planes that had started boarding, which meant that chumps like me who had showed up early had to sit and watch as several planeloads of people who didn't show up early were moved to the front of the line.

You do well to ask, Why do you blame the American government, and not the Russians, for the line at Sheremetyevo-2? Easy. Attendants emerged from time to time and called for people who were flying anywhere that was not the US (Air France had one such flight). Those travelers didn't endure a hand check of their luggage.

Even this wasn't enough. When we arrived in the United States, we discovered in our luggage formal notices that our bags had been hand-checked again by TSA. So why the long lines caused by hand-checked luggage? Ya gots me.

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