An American Babushka in Moscow: A Flicker of Fear

Soviet Apartment Buildings

A flicker of fear passes through me this morning when I read the lead article in The Moscow Times titled “Foreigners in Russia are Panicking Over New Migration Rules”( Panic indeed. It has never been easy or cheap to stay in Russia legally. To begin with, one must apply for, but not necessarily obtain, a visa. One can be denied a visa.

There are several kinds of visas. The easiest one to get is a short term tourist visa . There is no problem getting this, but it is of no use to someone who wants to live in Russia. There are also renewable one year work visas. In order to get one of these one has to be under contract with a company. Sometimes, if the company is legitimate and really needs workers, it will pay for this visa. If not, then the individual has to pay for it himself. If one is already in Russia this means leaving the country for two weeks and waiting while the Russian Embassy in another country prepares the papers. This can be quite expensive as one has to pay for the flight, the stay in the country – food and housing – and the cost of the visa which is over one hundred American dollars. Alternatively, one can work with an agency which will make arrangements with the Russian Embassy to have the Visa ready in 24 to 48 hours. The cost for this visa is around $250.

In the past and for most of my time in Russia when I didn’t work for a company, I held three month “business” visas. Working through a visa agency in Moscow I would leave the country every three months and fly to either Tallinn, Estonia or Vilnius, Lithuania – both very lovely cities – where I would receive, at no small cost but in a very short period of time, most often just one day, a new three month visa. All in all I was paying about four thousand dollars a year for the privilege of living in Moscow. However, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, during the Obama administration, Russia and America reached an agreement which would allow citizens of each country to be granted a three year, multiple entry visa to the other. We American expats were dancing in the streets over this. The caveat was that since we were not working for anyone, and so were not under contract and registered with a company, we had to be registered by our landlords. This was no problem for those who were married or were living with Russian lovers. It was a problem for everyone else, and I need to take a detour at this point to explain to you the exact reason this was and is a problem.

If you were to look at the average income of Russian workers, it would seem that they were paid too little to survive. Yet they survive and the reason for this is two fold. First, in order for both the employer and the employee to limit the amount of taxes they have to pay, there was a tacit agreement between the two. The employee would sign a contract which stipulated the salary he would receive – the salary in “white” money as it is called. Meanwhile, and on the basis of a handshake, employer and employee would reach an agreement as to the amount of “black”, hidden money that would be paid. Often the employee was paid entirely in black money. So when one reads statistics regarding the salaries Russian workers are paid one should understand that they are not accurate. This black money represented a huge loss of tax income to the Russian Federation. I say “represented because slowly, over the course of his time in office, Putin enacted measures which forced people to pay taxes. Many small and medium sized businesses were raided and their books seized. Some companies were closed and / or taken over, others fined. Again the Western press pointed to these “raids” as proof of Russia’s failure to follow the rule of law. In fact, they represented the government’s efforts to implement the rule of law. There were no taxes in the Soviet State because there was no private property.

The west constantly uses the image of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the noble entrepreneur who had begun his empire with several businesses during the period of glasnost and perestroika, and then went on to accumulate huge wealth when his company, Yukos, obtained control of Siberian oil fields. I know, because I spent many hours talking to one of his partners in Yukos, that Khordorkovsky was put in jail because he refused to pay his taxes. One of Putin’s greatest achievements was when, in the first days of his administration he asserted his power over the Oligarchs, and part of that was the power to make them pay taxes. Had Kordorkovsky been an American citizen of such great wealth and refused to pay taxes, the same thing would have happened to him and no one would have thought him a persecuted hero.

The same thing is true in the realm of real estate. Because during the Soviet Union individuals were given apartments for free, to have and hold during their lifetimes and pass on to their descendants (or sell), their descendants often find themselves owning two or three apartments. These they can and do rent out. This has created a solid middle class based on land ownership. For the vast majority of these individuals, all the rent money they collect is “black” and because it is, they are not and will not be willing to sign contracts. Thus, now that Putin, in an effort to collect taxes from these landlords, has demanded that expats register at their place of residence and thus, that the landlords sign contracts which show that those apartments are being rented, landlords and expats alike are in a panic. The landlords are in less of a quagmire; they will rent those apartments to Russians, at a cheaper rent, but still at a profit. Without a lease signed by the landlord, expats will have no choice but to leave the country or, like the immigrant workers from the stan countries, either hide or buy forged documents.

It is only a flicker of fear that passes through me and leaves my mind for I have long ago signed my contract with my landlady, and she has in the past registered me with Migration Services. She has done this only because she purchased a home in Spain and before she could do this she had to provide a document verifying her income. Save for that fact, I would no longer be an American Babushka in Moscow.

Mary Metzger is a 72 year old retired teacher who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. She studied Women’s Studies under Barbara Eherenreich and Deidre English at S.U.N.Y. Old Westerbury. She did her graduate work at New York University under Bertell Ollman where she studied Marx, Hegel and the Dialectic. She went on to teach at Kean University, Rutgers University, N.Y.U., and most recenly, at The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where she taught the Philosophy of Science. Her particular area of interest is the dialectic of nature, and she is currently working on a history of the dialectic. She is the mother of three, the gradmother of five, and the great grandmother of 2.

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