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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Travel-Hungry Russians Face Visa Trap

The sun beat down on dozens of would-be Russian travelers languishing in line outside the British Embassy, waiting to apply for visas. Some had been there for days.


"Western civilization is slamming the door in our face," wailed a despairing Ivetta Useinova.


Seven decades of pent-up Russian wanderlust is now on the march, and -- as Useinova and her fellow-sufferers in the hot, sweaty line can testify -- the West is having trouble coping.


Foreign travel, impossible for most people in the Soviet era, has become a passion. Western countries, which campaigned for this freedom of movement, are swamped with visa applications.


Once, a week in Bulgaria was a big deal, but now Russians have hit the road with such gusto that Russians, it seems, are everywhere.


The gaudy new rich swill champagne on the French Riviera. The offspring of the middle class flock to camps abroad, dispatched by parents who scrimped to give them a taste of life in what people here call a "normal country".


The State Committee for Tourism reports a stunning rise in the number of Russian tourists. In 1988, fewer than 1.7 million Soviets went abroad, and most of them, in the language of the times, went to "fraternal socialist countries." By 1994, more than 10 million Russians did, spokesman Vladimir Yelenin said.


"Now the only question is money," he said. "If you have enough money, you can go anywhere."


If, that is, you can get out of Russia.


Some countries, like Greece and Turkey, aggressively promote themselves as destinations for Russians.


But others are more hard-nosed. At many Western embassies, mobs of people compete to apply for visas or undergo a grilling about their financial resources and plans to return to Russia.


The American Embassy, once notorious for long lines, streamlined its procedures after a spate of nasty stories in the Russian press last year.


But it is tough almost everywhere. Applicants at the Spanish Embassy push and shove to get inside. At the British Embassy, they can spend days in line.


Spokesman Ian Hay-Campbell said the British Embassy in Moscow now issues more visas than any other British mission in the world -- more than 96,000 last year.


"In a sense, it's all part of a success story," Hay-Campbell said. "Now there are Russians who are free and who have the means to travel ... But there has been a logistical problem in trying to handle it."


Desperate for a way through the visa maze, some Russians are falling prey to fly-by-night agencies promising quick visas.


The situation was so bad at the Spanish Embassy that last week Russian security forces swooped in and arrested a group of swindlers accused of forcing desperate travelers to pay for a place in line.


Russians are no strangers to long lines and bureaucracy. But visa hassles seem to have a special sting. "I thought that England, a world-famous culture, would be better than this," businessman Grigory Vantsian said, mopping his brow in the broiling sun outside the British Embassy. "This is awful."