October 04, 2021

Russia in the Time of COVID

Russia in the Time of COVID
U.S. passports Wikimedia Commons user Funplussmart

Many Russophiles want to know: How has Russia changed since the last time they were there, pre-pandemic?

This story was prompted by a question on the SEELANGS listserv for those with a scholarly interest in Slavic and Eastern European studies. The question was specific to Americans, wondering if the U.S. Department of State rating of Level 4: Do Not Travel to Russia was justified, both in connection with COVID-19 and apart from COVID-19. American study abroad programs are dependent on the strict "Do Not Travel" label being removed.

To quote the Department of State, Russia is allegedly a huge threat to Americans due to "terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, the embassy's limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law. Reconsider travel due to COVID-19 and related entry restrictions."

The quotation suggests that terrorism and harassment are a greater threat to Americans than even COVID and COVID-related problems. But are Americans in Russia seeing and experiencing these things?

The answer is a resounding "no," with the exception of Americans who are working in or have been in the military, intelligence, and government; those people may be at greater risk.

Otherwise, Facebook groups for expats in Russia abound with daily questions and concerns that have more to do with where one can purchase chocolate chip cookie dough (at VkusVill, by the way), or what to do if your landlord (like everybody else's) refuses to register you.

Russian flag over Hermitage
Russian flag flying over the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
| Wikimedia Commons, user FlickreviewR

One American organizer of study abroad programs responded simply, "Russia is a safe place to travel to." His biggest warnings were to ensure possession of the proper visa, to be sure to register where you are staying when you arrive (obviously easier said than done according to the expat Facebook groups), and to avoid political rallies. Beyond that, Americans who want to come to Russia are "good to go."

He added that those other State Department warnings were around when Russia had a rating of Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. He suspects that, soon, Russia will return to that level. But until it does, most individuals can travel to Russia while things like study abroad programs and fellowships to research in Russia are on hold or severely curtailed.

Another American expat, a female journalist, responded that "Moscow is not a dangerous place. I don't hear about muggings or other crimes against expats or foreigners."

Before the pandemic, St. Petersburg had some Tinder-related assaults against foreign men who were assumed to be able to empty big bank accounts. As anywhere, online daters should use caution and keep an eye on their drinks.

It bears mentioning that foreigners who look like they could be from former, non-white Soviet republics need to be prepared to be stopped by police for a review of their documents. It is especially important that they are registered at their place of accommodation.

Perhaps a better question than whether Russia is safe is whether or not the U.S. Embassy in Russia – as there is only one left – can help American citizens.

Exterior of U.S. Embassy, Moscow
Exterior of U.S. Embassy fortress in Moscow. | Anonymous Facebook user

The Moscow embassy sent an email to subscribers in April 2021 titled "U.S. Mission Russia Service Reduction," stating that, due to staffing shortages, it would not even be able to offer babies born to U.S. citizens proof of their U.S. citizenship unless there was an urgent need. At present, services for Americans are only available in case of emergency.

Several Americans have reported being able to obtain "marriage letters" from the embassy during the pandemic, a form that "proves" (through verbal acknowledgment) that one is not already married in the U.S. and is required to register at ZAGS. In addition, Americans have successfully obtained new passports and child citizenship papers in urgent situations more recently.

Regarding the COVID-19 virus itself, in Moscow masks are required on public transport, in stores, and in many other public and private spaces. In St. Petersburg, masks are currently required in the metro system, but they have not been throughout the entire duration of the pandemic. Masks are not required in stores in the northern capital, though many people do wear them. Some events and venues in both cities require proof of vaccination or a negative test no older than 72 hours.

Can foreigners get the Sputnik V vaccine? Throughout this pandemic era, the answer to that has changed, along with everything else in the world. Members of expat groups on Facebook reported that foreigners could easily get the jab at GUM on Red Square in late 2020, but, with too much demand, that privilege went away in early 2021. A call to ten private clinics in St. Petersburg in April 2021 revealed that none of them were offering the jab to foreigners – but one private clinic's Moscow affiliate was. Some foreigners from around Russia have sprinted to Moscow when news of a place offering the vaccine to non-citizens has arisen.

But now, as of July 2021, foreigners can get Sputnik V or Sputnik Lite without sneaking around and paying the thousands of rubles that Russian citizens do not have to pay. The purpose of this seems to be primarily to inoculate Russia's huge brigades of migrant manual laborers from former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Sputnik V
A lot of Sputnik V doses. | Wikimedia Commons user Martino Gian 

Only Moscow experimented with QR codes proving vaccination to enter bars and restaurants in summer 2021, but that has now been scrapped. Foreigners have had quite a difficult time obtaining their QR code if they did not get vaccinated in a state clinic (and sometimes even if they did). At present, if there are problems obtaining the QR code, the Department of External and International Relations of Moscow, at the email address [email protected], will provide a QR code when you send a scan of your passport, certificate of vaccination, and your cell phone number.

What is causing a lot of foreigners trouble these days is entering Russia. If you know you have the right to enter Russia based on Russia reopening its border with your country of nationality (the U.S. is on that list) or based on proof of marriage to or parenthood of a Russian citizen, that is not enough.

If you enter Russia through a country with which Russia has not reopened its border, you will be turned back at the border regardless of the nationality of your passport. Many expats have reported flying through Amsterdam – with the cheapest and best itineraries very available on every site you check! – only to be sent back. A website's willingness to sell you a plane ticket says nothing about whether you yourself will be able to enter Russia on that ticket. A call to Expedia from the U.S. revealed that staff knew nothing about requirements to enter Russia. While traveling directly from your country of nationality may make for the most stress-free entry into Russia, lots of foreigners report entering through third-party countries that are not the Netherlands and that are currently open to Russian travel.

A negative PCR COVID test no older than 72 hours at the time of arrival in Russia is currently required for foreigners to enter.

This site may give readers more updated local information. As with everything else COVID-related, absolutely all of this information may be outdated by press time. But, at a moment in time, it was all true.

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