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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Too Absurd: Freedom Not to Travel

All too often these days Russian reality feels like a Soviet-era joke. When The Moscow Times phones went out at the Slavjanskaya last week due to the flooding of an obsolete cable, for example, we rented cellular phones but then could not get them to work. Why? We were told that the Russian authorities had shut down all microwave transmissions for several days - due to the space shot to Mir! We had been foiled by Russian reality, both the outmoded and the ultramodern.


This week's bad joke is the announcement that, although freedom to travel became law on Jan. 1, people are not free to travel at all. The revelation was not news to any Russians who have tried to leave. The problem, the authorities said, is that the new Russian passports needed for free travel abroad are not ready yet, necessitating the continued use of old Soviet passports, with accompanying exit visas, until March 1, when all should be in order.


Theoretically, that is. In practice, it is highly unlikely that the problem will be untangled by that date. If it was simply a matter of red tape, there might be some hope, but there is a political angle too. Top officials, including Lieutenant General Viktor Yerin, Russia's interior minister, have now admitted publicly that the reason the passports are not yet ready is that Russia's decisionmakers cannot agree on what the country's official seal should be. It sounds too implausible to believe, and yet it is no joke: The partisans of the double-headed eagle have been stalemated by politicians who insist that the seal should be - the Soviet-era hammer and sickle!


So only optimists will actually believe that this dispute can be resolved, and the passports produced, by March 1. and yet, the new Russia has a reputation to uphold, that of a young and enlightened democracy. Why don't the authorities, then, demonstrate good faith and print up some passports right away that simply say Russia?


Perhaps they are held back by history: the history of a country where freedom to travel has never existed, where artists and writers over the centuries have had to ask permission to go abroad. Perhaps that historic brake helps explain why the violinist Vladimir Spivakov, who heads the Moscow Virtuosi, was on television the other night complaining that his musicians had had to cancel performances abroad because they could not get out of the country. Perhaps that is why the Bolshoi bass Yevgeny Nasturenko also was sent back from the airport when he tried to leave for a singing engagement abroad. Perhaps a Soviet-era mentality can accept this scandalous state of affairs - perhaps. But it should not be part of today's Russian reality.