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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Foreigner, 1,800 Francs and a Finger

ST. PETERSBURG -- It should have taken just a few minutes for Zoya Streib and her companion, Dieter Stinner, to get through customs at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport. Instead, Streib says she found herself curled up in pain on the floor after a customs official chopped part of her finger off after a quarrel over how much foreign currency she and Stinner could take out of the country.

With her career as a pianist in ruins, Streib is trying to start legal proceedings against the custom office, while the German Consulate in St. Petersburg has protested to the Foreign Ministry.

Customs denies any wrongdoing, and an investigation of the incident has been closed without any charges being filed.

Streib, a 43-year-old Russian citizen with Swiss residency, spent nearly a week in St. Petersburg late last year visiting relatives with her common-law husband, Stinner, a German businessman. The couple had planned to fly to Frankfurt and then on to Switzerland on Dec. 30.

"I had my ballroom dress ready," Streib said in a telephone interview from Zurich. "We were going to spend New Year's Eve in Interlaken but ended up in such a mess. "

The trouble began when the two reached the customs booth at Pulkovo and customs official Ilya Trofimov demanded to count the money Stinner was carrying, said the couple's St. Petersburg lawyer, Dagmar Lorenz.

Stinner had brought 2,000 Swiss francs ($1,475) when he arrived and filled out the necessary declaration form. But the form had not been stamped. Streib said they had been unable to find an official to stamp the form -- a common complaint made by tourists arriving at Pulkovo.

Under the law, the amount of foreign currency that nonresidents can take out of the country cannot exceed the amount of cash they brought in. A new law allowing nonresidents to carry up to $3,000 in undeclared cash was passed by both houses of parliament in recent weeks and is awaiting President Vladimir Putin's signature.

According to Streib and Lorenz, this is what happened next at Pulkovo Airport: Stinner complied with Trofimov's request and showed him the 1,800 Swiss francs that he had left. Trofimov ordered him to hand them over and then repeated the demand when shown the unstamped declaration.

Stinner and Streib refused, and Trofimov threatened to send them to jail.

The couple demanded to see the head of Pulkovo customs. A different customs official, Vadim Agarkov, then joined the quarrel, telling the travelers that they had three options: They could give the money to a friend, change it into rubles, or give the money to customs. If they did none of these, they would be refused permission to leave the country.

After several minutes of heated argument, SAS airline representative Olga Golova intervened with a possible solution. She suggested that Streib claim the money because as a Russian citizen she had the right to take out $1,500 without a declaration. The idea infuriated the customs officers, Streib said.

"I've had it up to here with her. Give me her passport. I'll make a copy," she quoted as Agarkov saying.

Streib followed Agarkov to his office and asked through the open door why he was making a copy since she hadn't broken any law. Agarkov attempted to close the door, but Streib was in the way. So he swung the door back and slammed it forward, knocking her off balance. She clutched at the door with both hands to keep from falling down. Agarkov then managed to slam the door shut.

Streib released her grip at the last minute, but the door still slammed against the middle finger on her right hand, chopping off the tip.

She screamed and fell to the floor. As she scrambled around looking for her finger in a growing pool of blood, no customs officials offered to help. Golova called for medical assistance.

Agarkov emerged from his office 20 minutes after the incident.

"It's simply unbelievable how they behaved before and after the incident," said a spokesman from the German Consulate. "There was nothing done immediately on the spot. ... Immediate aid might have helped to restore her finger."

Streib was taken to the St. Petersburg Institute of Emergency and Reconstructive Surgery. Dr. Andrei Bogdanov, who operated on Streib, said several millimeters had been lopped off her finger. He refused to say what affect the injury might have on her career.

Swiss doctors said the damage was irreparable.

In response to an appeal from Streib to open a criminal case, however, St. Petersburg investigators decided last week that the injury was minor.

"We have completed an investigation that failed to find enough evidence to start a case," said Yelena Ordynskaya, a senior aide to the St. Petersburg prosecutor. "If Streib's lawyers gather more medical evidence, more substantial proof of the physical damage done to the pianist, they should file another appeal."

Lorenz, Streib's lawyer, said Monday he would file a new appeal this week.

Agarkov and Trofimov could not be reached for comment. They are still working at Pulkovo customs.

Defending them, Pulkovo customs head Andrei Ozoling denied that they had inflicted any injuries.

"Of course I'm sorry for her," Ozoling told the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper. "Only, the door did not cut off the tip of her finger."

The German Consulate has asked the Foreign Ministry for a thorough and transparent investigation. To date, it has not received an official reply.

"Considering that this year is a year in which St. Petersburg intends to present itself to the world as a city welcoming guests, this is difficult to understand," the consulate said in a statement, referring to St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations in May and June.

Streib, who says she has had to cancel three concerts so far, is receiving medical treatment in Switzerland twice a week as well as psychological counseling. She fears she will never play again. "I still wake up at night in horrendous pain," she said. "My third finger is shorter than the second and the fourth because I have lost the upper phalanx. I can't even straighten it, the finger is curved."

When she and Stinner finally left St. Petersburg on Jan. 6, everyone at the airport seemed to know who they were and acted very friendly, Lorenz said. No one asked whether they were carrying any foreign currency.