Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sovok on the Upper East Side

I was recently denied a Russian entry visa. This gave me the opportunity to visit the Russian Consulate in New York, a rare occasion since I usually get my visa through an agency that spares me such visits for a small fee.

The consulate is located on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side on 91st Street, which would have been an elegant block except for the grim crowd shoving and clustering nervously at its doors. At the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, U.S. citizens get preferential treatment from their own consular officials. In New York, however, besides foreigners waiting for their visas, there are also many Russians obtaining new passports, trying to get documents for their children born abroad, applying to get their dachas “amnestied,” or futzing with other nerve-wracking bureaucratic procedures. Thousands of Russian citizens live in the United States, but there is also the undeniable fact that these people are treated by Russian authorities even worse than foreigners, especially Westerners.

The wait was long, the line didn’t move for hours, and little information was given. The person manning the door emerged every now and again to give a curt answer to all questions — “Wait!” The consulate closed for lunch, and there was no telling whether you would be admitted through the massive doors before the break or, for that matter, before the end of the day. If you were not lucky enough to be served that day, you had to come back the next morning.

Occasionally, somebody jumped to the front of the line, resulting in heavy grunts and groans from the other mortals who didn’t have connections. Some animals are indeed more equal than others.

When my turn at last came, I went through a metal detector — a reasonable precaution in the age of terrorism — which began buzzing loudly. The guard completely ignored me.

Americans in the visa line kept complaining about poor organization, cigarette smoke, empty coffee cups on the sidewalk and a lack of information. Their complaints would have probably been more valid had the U.S. Embassy in Moscow been providing a more pleasant experience for its Russian visitors.

Instead, the U.S. Embassy has been called the last Soviet agency in Russia. Lines outside are long, documentation requirements are onerous, intrusive and arbitrary, and U.S. consular officials are sometimes ignorant and crude.

To be fair, things have improved in recent years after the U.S. Embassy made a concerted effort to improve its customer service in the visa section. But it will take many more years of a new and improved, friendlier embassy in Russia to reverse the damage that has been done to its image.

The stakes are high. When the U.S. State Department treats potential visitors rudely, other governments have the carte blanche to do even worse.

Systematic violations of international law and the U.S. Constitution by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush not only set a bad example to dictators and tyrants worldwide, but they deprived their critics of a leg to stand on. For this reason, U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to prosecute such violations is not a private matter for the United States, but it is a slap in the face to every person on Earth concerned with freedom and democracy.

I would have liked to say I was denied the Russian visa unfairly. But at least it was done politely and in a professional manner, which is more than many Russian applicants to the U.S. Embassy can say.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.