Realities of a Russian Visa

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Travel broadens you, they say. Well, I'll see that cliche and raise you one: Visiting another country can actually make you a new man.

On Dec. 29, I entered the Russian Federation as Mark Hale Titer. Yes, that's what it said on my new Russian visa, which was routinely stamped and returned to my anxious hand by a nice uniformed lady at Sheremetyevo passport control. She even wished Mr. Titer "Happy holidays!"

That's right, Teeter walked up to the border checkpoint and Titer came out the other side. Shuffling uncertainly toward the baggage claim, I recalled a chilling Solzhenitsyn story of Soviet officialdom determining a man's identity -- "We Never Make Mistakes" -- and found myself wondering: Does this mean I am Titer?

Frankly, it's still unsettling. Sure, I've been enjoying myself these last three weeks. But what if the real Titer suddenly shows up and wants his life back?

Luckily, I've picked the perfect place for a Teeter vs. Titer dilemma, since Russian culture abounds in doubles, doppelgangers and split personalities. In Gogol's classic "The Nose," for example, Major Kovalyov finds his entire identity hijacked by a single rebellious body part. Dostoevsky eerily described a similar case in "The Double," as the feckless Golyadkin senior is led around St. Petersburg by Golyadkin junior, a disaffected identical twin who may or may not resemble him. You see the problem.

Soviet citizens saw it all too clearly, as much of their lives involved the creation of dual personalities to fit conflicting social realities. The private version of Ivanov, Petrov or Sidorov might whisper to an intimate that Stalin was a bloodthirsty tyrant; his public counterpart, meanwhile, would hail the same Stalin as a great humanitarian. Each persona needed his "double," the first to retain his sanity and the second to avoid the gulag. And both, clearly, could legitimately claim to be real.

Overlapping identities and concomitant realities did not disappear with the Soviet Union, of course. Which principal of Russia's current governing tandem is the real leader: Putin or Medvedev? Are you sure? I used to be, but recently I've been getting them confused.

A little perspective on location and identity may help explain my difficulties. Throughout its history, Russia has been particularly sensitive about its borders -- where they are, who crosses them and why -- because much of that history has been generated by non-Russians showing up uninvited with armies. Aware of this traditional touchiness, I could envision border problems ahead for Mr. Titer when I received his visa in the mail just before departing New York. Even without an army, this spurious identity could raise questions.

Typos, after all, are not necessarily trivial in Moscow. A few transposed digits on an entry document can effectively mean house arrest in Sheremetyevo's transit lounge -- or the next plane out. A would-be traveler may even be delayed by a typo involving neither a number nor a letter: With a Cyrillic soft sign in his exit visa where a hard sign should have been, a certain comrade Подъяпольский was once detained until he could explain what he'd done with the comrade Подьяпольский he was obviously trying to impersonate.

To avoid a similar fate, I had prepared myself for a burly border guard opening Teeter's passport, eyeing Titer's visa and thundering, "What's the meaning of this?! Entering Russia under an assumed name is a crime!" With red lights flashing, sirens wailing and the hounds let loose, my plan was simple: Fight off the lead dog with my carry-on bag and shout "Wait, it's an innocent typo! I informed the issuing consulate of the error immediately, as your visa rules stipulate! Here, look at this e-mail printout! Down boy, down! Aaarrrggghhh!"

OK, I didn't say it would've worked. Anyway, imagine my surprise upon skating through Moscow border control with a quick ka-chonk and a holiday greeting. Soon I was warming to the new reality. Who wouldn't want to be this guy Titer? Imagine the pull he must have. Maybe my bags are in the VIP lounge!

A two-headed eagle as the national symbol is no accident. Russia has always been of two minds (at least) and headed in several directions, destination unknown. This is, perversely, one of its singular charms -- and one of the reasons I keep coming back.

And that goes for both of us.

Mark H. Titer teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.