Deportation Drama Unfolds at Sheremetyevo

Deportations, interrogations, body cavity searches ... these are a few of my favorite things (sing this part).

But being deported as a joke - well, that's something I'd never expected.

Recently, The Moscow Times published a letter from a Western businessman who wrote that his visiting relatives had been subjected, for no clear reason, to a quite comprehensive body cavity search by officials at the Sheremetyevo II airport customs area. After being surprised with vaginal and anal searches, the relatives, he said, were released, albeit feeling a bit violated.

I missed out on this opportunity of a lifetime - the border patrol had staged a different game for me.

After spending a wonderfully relaxing 10-day vacation in a place where the strip malls and fat people can be excused in light of the healthy sunshine and clean air, I was forced to be reconciled with the fact that returning to Russia, to my job and my belongings, was imminent.

But imminent it was not.

I was told at Sheremetyevo that I wasn't getting across the border and was held for three hours in the border patrol office to await my new boarding pass and a ticket "home." I said Moscow was my home and I didn't have anywhere else to go, so they chose Frankfurt.

"According to your ticket, that's where you came from," the chief deporter said, referring to my connecting flight from Texas.

So I waited, as they ordered, to meet my fate; three hours is a long time to think.

I thought, is this bad? Do I really want to cross the border anyway? A blessing in disguise, perhaps?

It also occurred to me that I had been complaining - and quite openly - of late that I would rather live just about anywhere else than Russia, that my time here had expired. I couldn't help thinking that some otherworldly force had attempted to answer my prayers.

I contemplated asking the border guards to send me to Prague instead - but common sense told me to refrain.

I had about $100 on my bank card, suitcases full of Mexican souvenirs - tequila with the hallucinogenic worm, a lime and two hammocks - and I was ready to start my new life in Frankfurt.

I wasn't allowed any phone calls, so I accepted my fate alone. I would resign from my job via telephone from Frankfurt and hope that my boyfriend would continue to feed my dog and cat.

My bags were put back on a plane to Frankfurt, I was handed a boarding pass, escorted by guards out of the customs area and then abandoned to figure out the rest of the deportation process myself.

And just as it became apparent to the laughing guards who were watching me from afar that I had accepted my fate, that I wasn't going to argue and was actually going to get on the plane - and even seemed a bit relieved - they came running back, ripped up my ticket and said they had decided to "let me go."

They thought it was funny and realized I had passed up my last chance to offer them a bribe. They had taken the charade as far as they could - boarding pass, baggage, escort, etc. And the joke that entertained them for a good three hours came to an abrupt end.

Nervous breakdown aside, at least I came back with a good story to tell.

There is something to be said, indeed, for role-playing. I assessed the situation carefully when the first customs official brought up the little matter of a black stamp in my passport that said I had been deported last July and wasn't allowed back in the country for a year.

It was another act in the ongoing play "Russian Bureaucracy Simply Doesn't Work, Scene 1 Billion: What Do All These Papers and Stamps Mean?"

Some people are born responsible and organized. Others aren't. And a little matter of neglecting to renew my visa about two years ago put me in the latter category.

It was about this time last year, while I was living in St. Petersburg, that I decided I should do something about the fact that I had no visa and hadn't for about a year. I arrived on a tourist visa and simply couldn't be bothered to get on a train bound for Estonia or Finland or some other sterile, happy place, to get another when mine expired.

But as my second St. Petersburg winter began to take its toll on me - in the form of cabin fever, conversations with cockroaches and the inability to motivate myself to even comb my hair - to my horror, it dawned on me that I couldn't leave Russia.

So I turned myself in. Easy enough. A middle-aged woman wagged her disappointed finger at me, made me promise never to do it again and gave me a "light" deportation visa. I left. They issued me a new visa and I've been in and out of Russia many times since.

The deal was this: It was a "light" deportation, meaning that I was allowed to come back to Russia as soon as I got my new visa, which I did. (Thank you, sir, may I have another?)

Unfortunately for me, one Russian administrative organ doesn't know, or care to know, what the other is doing, and they get all confused in the quagmire of stamps and papers that contradict, overlap and make no sense at all.

Bureaucracy in general, and the Russian bureaucratic nightmare in particular, send my normally calm and collected character into Tourette-like seizures and utterances. I foam at the mouth. I might say something like: "Fine, I hate this country anyway," or, "Do any of you comprehend your own bureaucracy?" or, "How many stamps and illegible documents printed on limp toilet paper does it take to run Russia?"

Instead, I bit my tongue and played an Oscar-winning role of the sad, about-to-lose-everything, excessively sweet and passive victim of a bad mistake.

But more importantly, I never asked that golden question: "What can I do to 'solve' this problem (hint, hint)?"

(As a side note, should they have chosen the oral cavity torture rather than the deportation version, the golden question would have come up tout de suite.)

So, if my theory proves correct, you can just wait them out if you've got a little time to spare.

But there was another lesson learned here: The beauty of Russia's deportation system is that if you don't have any money and there are grounds for your deportation, the border patrol has to buy you a ticket home. So, when I'm ready to leave Russia for good - which could be any second now - I'll show up with no visa at all and get a free ride home.