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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LOVE AND DEATH: Dante's Inferno in Visa Line




Anyone who has ever wasted time wondering what form his or her eternal damnation might take has obviously never stood in a Russian visa line.


These lines appear to be a very close approximation of Hell. Consider the elements: The rooms are always very hot and overcrowded. You get poked at with elbows and other sharp objects.


Eternity becomes a knowable concept. And when you finally make it to the front of the line, it is only to be informed - by one of the Devil's haughty minions speaking to you from behind bulletproof glass - that your sins (bringing photographs on glossy paper rather than matte, perhaps) will require you to be sent straight back to the end to begin the process again.


It's a small price to pay - and good preparation - for getting to live in Russia for another month or year. And since everyone goes through it, it's also a great back-from-the-trenches conversation topic, which I expect Hell also is. My most recent visa experience took place in Tallinn, which is where everyone seems to go these days and where nearly all the kinks in the system have been worked out. The Russian Embassy is in the heart of the city's charming Old Town, runs with a certain nod to logic, and even has the working hours posted on the door.


The few snafus that remain are a complete lack of ventilation, refusal to answer the phone, an electronic door system that apparently only opens when a critical mass of humanity has gathered on either side of it, and the tendency among a fairly cheerless staff to resort to people-moving techniques based loosely on cattle herding, although I'm pleased to report they stop short of the prod.


One of the particular barbs of the visa experience is that no two are alike. There is, therefore, no particular advantage to having experience. No matter how many things you anticipate going wrong, it is the one thing you don't anticipate that will get you in the end. Indeed, in my many years of varied visa adventures only one constant has ever held true, and that is that somewhere in the room there will be evangelical Christians talking about how they personally introduced a Russian alcoholic to Jesus. Tallinn was no exception. So a tale of salvation wafted through the steamy room as lines of applicants, mostly Russian, gradually melted from an orderly one-behind-the-other formation to a teeming mass of side-by-siders waiting for each other to blink. Cries of "chto za khamstvo?" - the mantra of the visa line -filled the air as people brazenly cut to the front, and gimlet eyes were leveled at the tour guide managers who stuffed 50 applications at a time through the slot. The room grew hotter still; tempers grew even shorter. One of the women behind the glass definitely had a forked tail.


Things took a turn for the worse when an elderly woman waiting in line put her hand to her heart and began to moan. At first she seemed to be merely despairing over her chances of ever receiving a visa, which essentially made her no different than anyone else. But it quickly became clear that something much worse was happening - she was obviously ill.


The room was packed to bursting; there was no easy escape route if in fact she chose to give up her place in line, which she looked as though she would rather collapse than do. The people around her shrugged with impatience. The Christians had fallen silent, and it wasn't immediately clear if Jesus was around either. The room had taken on a dynamic of its own - mean, feverish and wholly focused on the prize.


Russia got the last laugh, though, as it often does. After the requisite breath of skepticism had passed, the crowd spontaneously leapt into communal action, with women muscling through the masses to proffer up nitroglycerin tablets and water. A man yanked open a window, letting in a medicinal gust of breathable air. Chairs were evacuated to give her a place to lie down; there actually was a doctor in the house, a capable-looking young woman who gave up her place in line to go and sternly watch over the woman. Even Beelzebub got into the spirit of things, rooting through her pile of visas and quickly passing the elderly woman's through.


For the final act, an embassy employee came out and called an ambulance. Within minutes, the room's dynamic had entirely changed: Russia at Its Best. Even this, I think, is not inconsistent with the nature of Hell - a little glimpse of paradise before the curtain drops, to remind you of what you're losing.