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In June we received our temporary residency permits that allow us to live in Russia for three years. (Actually, the permits were officially issued in April, but it took a few months of bureaucracy for us to actually receive the documents.) When I received our permits, I asked the Colonel at the registration department if these documents allow us to travel across the Russian border without visas. She told me that of course we could cross the border with these permits. I gave her a few examples just to make sure that she understood my question.
“Do I need a visa if I go to Estonia to look at the Baltic Sea for a few days?”
“No, your permit allows you to cross the border without a visa.”
“Do I need a visa if I go to Ukraine to visit my friends?”
“No, your permit allows you to cross the border without a visa.”
“What if I go to Finland for a business trip?”
“Just show your residence permit at the border, they will let you go out and come back.”
“Do all the border guards know about this?”
“Of course! This is our new law; everybody knows all about it.”
Well, in July I took the four kids on a train and went to Ukraine for a youth camp. At the border, the guards asked us for our visas. We showed them our residence permits.
“What is this? You can't cross the border with these! You must have visas!”
“The Colonel told me that I didn't need a visa...”
“Whoever told you that is incompetent.”
“Are you telling me that a Colonel of the Russian Interior Ministry doesn't know his business?”
“I didn't say that, but you have to have a visa to cross this border.”
“If I did need a visa, I'd have to get one from the same Colonel who told me I didn't need one. What am I supposed to do?”
“You'll have figure that out for yourself!”
With that, the border guards walked away and left us on the train. Soon the train started moving again and we were on our way to Ukraine. I figured that if the guards were so sure of themselves, they would have made us get off the train.
We spent a very good week in Ukraine attending two different youth conferences sponsored by American missionaries. The first one was held at a campground in Chernigov that used to belong to the Communist Party youth organization. It was attended by about 90 Christian young people from several churches around Ukraine, and many made decisions to serve God with their lives. The second conference, in Kharkov, taught kids how to play baseball. The game is totally unknown over here, and it was a good way to get kids to come. There was preaching every morning, and a baseball seminar every afternoon. About 50 kids attended, and about 35 were saved. I preached once at each of the conferences, and I even pitched an inning or two of baseball.
On the way home, the Russian border guards asked for our visas. I showed them our residence permits, and they sent us on our way without further questions. I was quite confident by now that we did not need travel visas, even though the border guards didn't know all the rules.
When we got home to Oryol, we discovered that we had forgotten some of our things with our missionary friends in Kharkov, including our only baseball bat! I wanted our bat back, and my kids wanted to fellowship some more with their missionary friends in Kharkov. They rarely ever have a chance to spend time with American kids. We decided to make a day trip to Kharkov.
Once again, the border guards wanted to see our visas. I patiently explained about the residence permits, but they were not convinced. They got on the radio and called their supervisor.
“We have five Americans on wagon 8 with no visas!”
“So?” replied the supervisor.
“All they have is residence permits! No visas!”
“What should we do??”
“Let them go...”
“Oh, OK. Have a nice trip...”
We spent a real nice day in Kharkov with our friends, the John O'Brien family. We stayed until 1:30 in the morning! We were so tired when we got on the train to go home. At about 3:30 am we arrived at the Russian border. The border guard woke us up and asked for our visas. I wearily explained all about the permits. I showed him the stamps on my passport to prove that we had crossed the border three times already. He was NOT convinced.
“Gather your belongings and get off the train!”
“What?? You can't be serious! My four kids are sleeping! We just want to go home to Oryol. Look, here is our registration that proves we live in Oryol...”
“Wake up the kids, get your belongings, and get off the train.”
I tried to stall, to reason with him. I asked for his name, and he wouldn't tell me. Finally, I had to get the kids up and we got off the train. The guards took our passports and brought us to the police station. I argued with the police captain for a while, we sat for a long time in the police station, and at about 8 am they decided to send us back to Ukraine.
We had no luggage, no change of clothes. We were only prepared for a day trip. This was Friday, and by the time we got back to Kharkov and found out there is a Russian consulate there, it was too late to do anything more until Monday morning. We stayed with the O'Briens for the weekend and borrowed some clothes from them.
On Monday the Russian consulate informed us that everything we had been told was wrong. We actually DO need visas to cross the border. Next year our temporary residence permits can be converted to permanent residence permits, which WILL allow us to travel without visas. I asked if we could get an official letter explaining that it was all just a mistake, that the border guards should not have let us out of the country, and could we please just go home? No, said the consulate, you have to buy visas.
You can get a visa the same day for $350 per person. ($350 x 5 people = $1750) Ouch! Is there a cheaper option? Yes, if you wait 7 working days, you can get a visa for $125 per person. ($625 for 5 people) There are no other choices. We prepared our applications for visas, to be issued in 7 working days. It was too late to apply on Monday. On Tuesdays, there is an extra $25 fee per person, so we decided to apply on Wednesday. They would be ready in 7 working days, on Friday (the 13th).
Now we had almost two weeks to wait in Ukraine. We decided to make good use of our time. Missionary Matt Hudson in Kiev had bought a new house and was busy remodeling it. We called him and asked if he could use two strong teenage boys to help him work on the house. He was glad to have them come. I took them to Kiev on Tuesday. I went to the Russian consulate in Kiev, and asked if there was any other way we could go home. They confirmed what the consulate in Kharkov had told us.
I returned to Kharkov early Wednesday morning and applied for visas. Then I decided to take the girls to Simferopol in Crimea (southern Ukraine) and visit with Missionary Al King and his family. We had not seen them for a few years, and they have girls about the same ages as ours. We left Kharkov Wednesday night on a train to Simferopol. The O'Briens had sold a little dachshund dog to some missionaries in Simferopol, so we agreed to bring the dog with us and deliver it to the new owners.
We stayed with the Kings until Tuesday. I was able to help him with some plumbing and electrical problems around the house, and did some computer work for him as well. The Kings are great hosts, and we had a wonderful time there. I preached in his Sunday afternoon service. I also had some time to fellowship with the Van Sant family and the Hess family. They are missionaries in Simferopol, too.
We arrived back in Kharkov Wednesday morning. (Most of the trains we take are overnight sleeper trains. We board in the evening and sleep all night in a compartment on a bed with clean sheets. Oryol to Kharkov takes about 8 hours, Kharkov to Simferopol - 10 hours, Kharkov to Kiev - 8 hours. I don't usually sleep very well on a train.) We had enough time to get cleaned up and relax before church Wednesday night. The O'Briens were out of town - they went to Poland to get their new visas. I was glad to fill in for him and preach his Wednesday night service.
After church, the girls and I got on yet another train to Kiev. We arrived Thursday morning and did a little sightseeing. It's been almost two years since we left Kiev - we lived there 3 1/2 years. We visited our old neighbor, Nadia, who was saved while we lived there, and encouraged her to be faithful to the Lord. Then we went out to the Hudson's house to fellowship and get our boys back. Thursday night we were back on a train to Kharkov.
Friday morning we checked on the status of our visas. They would be ready Friday afternoon. We spent most of the day cleaning up and relaxing at the O'Brien's house. They were still in Poland, but they had one of their church members there watching the house.
We received our visas at about 5 pm Friday (the 13th). The visas expire on September 11th! - but that doesn't matter because we have our residence permits that allow us to stay in Russia, even though we can't use them to cross the border. We were on a train by 8 pm, and arrived back in Oryol by 4 am. What a trip! 2 weeks and a day as refugees beyond the border...
Ruth was by herself all this time in Oryol, but she was brave and did a good job holding down the home front while we were “stranded in Ukraine”. There is one other American that we know in Oryol - Jason moved here a year ago to marry his Russian bride, Marina. Ruth had Jason and Marina come over a few times to keep her company. They took her out for walks around town and for a boat ride on the Oka river.
The biggest disappointment of this whole episode was that it happened when it did. We had prepared 5000 special edition New Testaments to distribute on May 9th, which is a big holiday here celebrating victory over the Germans in World War II. I had to go to the hospital in May, and that messed up our plans to distribute the Bibles. Ruth and the kids worked hard while I was in the hospital on May 9th, and gave away 1500 of them, even though I wasn't able to be there. I had planned to try to distribute the rest of the Bibles on August 5th, which is an even bigger holiday in our town - the anniversary of the liberation of Oryol from the Nazis in 1943. Well, we were stuck in Ukraine on that day, so my plans didn't work out again. We know the devil doesn't want these Bibles given away, but we also know that God is in control of everything. We still plan to give away these Bibles soon, even though it won't be on a holiday as we had hoped. God knows best and we will trust Him to bless the results.
We appreciate your prayers. I was away from my e-mail for much of the time, so forgive me for not keeping everybody up to date on our situation.
Thank you, and may God bless you.
August 17, 2004.