Washington has announced that it plans to close its consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg. It is, of course, Moscow’s fault: The closures are “in response to ongoing staffing challenges of the U.S. Mission in Russia in the wake of the 2017 Russian-imposed personnel cap on the U.S. Mission and resultant impasse with Russia over diplomatic visas” the [official] letter reads. No mention of expulsions from the U.S. or closing – and invasions – of Russian consulates in the USA; as usual, the USA is the innocent recipient of another country’s undeserved hostility. Because a U.S. tourist visa, or B-2 visa, requires an interview which, at present, is face-to-face, closing these consulates will mean that any Russian who wants to visit Disneyland or take in the sights of New York City will have to travel to Moscow for a personal interview with a U.S. official; therefore, many fewer will.
I was immediately reminded of two things: the first was a story from Boccachio’s Decameron. There were two businessmen in the 1300s in Paris who were friends. One was a Jew and the other a Christian. The Christian was always trying to get his Jewish friend to convert and the Jew always said he would stay as he was. But, one day, after this had been going on for years, the Jew said – OK, I’ll go to Rome and see for myself how things are at the centre of your religion. The Christian was horrified – he knew that the moment the Jew saw the corruption, licentiousness and venality of the Roman clergy, any chance of his conversion was gone. But he couldn’t stop him and off to Rome the Jew went. When he returned, his friend asked him what he had seen. The Jew replied that that “from the greatest to the lowest they sinned most dishonestly, not only in natural but in unnatural ways, without any restraint or remorse to shame them”. Indeed, he continued, they were doing their very best to discredit and destroy their religion. And yet, despite this awful example, because Christianity continually increased, “it becomes clearer and more evident that the Holy Spirit must be its foundation and support, as a religion more true and holy than any other”. Thereupon he agreed to baptism.
Perhaps you should visit Rome and see for yourself.
The other thing that I was reminded was a friend who taught at one of the West’s most prestigious universities telling me the reaction of her Russian students to the bearded singer in a dress who won the Eurovision song contest in 2014: stunned, confused, disgusted. It made, she said, an enormous impression on them – the West was not at all what they had thought it was and it in no way represented a model for Russia to follow.
Perhaps you shouldn’t visit Rome and see for yourself.
A person whom I follow on Facebook thinks that closing all these visa-access places is a bad decision because it will mean that fewer Russians can come and see for themselves. She obviously believes that Russians visiting the USA will be “converted” (she being one of those curious creatures who professes to like Russians but doesn’t like or understand their political choices). But what is it that they will see? The healthy open-air housing in Los Angeles? The New York subway system? City street scenes? How to count, re-count and count again in elections? Enjoy the education system? But don’t get sick. Perhaps like Maria Butina, they can have a first-hand tour of the world’s largest prison system. Nostalgic Russians could have the experience of reliving the collapse of the USSR at a distance.
Perhaps, for Washington’s perspective, and for the sake of “converting” Russians, it would be better that they not come and see “Rome” for themselves. So making it harder for them to visit is, these days, quite a clever policy. Better to rely on Hollywood to make movies showing a more beguiling “Rome”.
In the Cold War, of course, the USSR kept itself closed up and restricted its citizens’ ability to travel to the West. Those foreigners who did get to the USSR found themselves rather constrained and guided towards those things the Soviet state wished them to see and away from those it did not; Soviet citizens who were allowed out to travel to the West were usually accompanied by minders to keep them under control. In any case, to “defect” from the USSR could have difficult consequences for the individual’s families and friends; actual emigration, impossible for most Soviets, was made as difficult as it could be. Western countries, on the other hands, were happy to have foreigners visit and millions of tourists travelled and saw for themselves. The result was that visitors to the USSR came back with rather sour impressions while tourists to the West returned home with generally good impressions.
It was the USSR that made it difficult for Soviet citizens to travel, not the U.S. or other NATO governments. The West, confident of its attractions, welcomed visitors but Moscow wanted you to see only the best face of its “Rome” and kept its citizens away from the West’s “Rome”. The Soviet media concentrated on the slums and venality of the West’s “Rome”: not a place you’d want to “convert” to.
But not any more. Since the great success of the quick visas for the 2018 World Cup, Russia has steadily eased its visa requirements. People with a FIFA World Cup FAN ID were allowed entry; this was so successful that entry was extended to the end of the year. Despite all the usual hokum – Could Be the Most Dangerous – from the Western media, the fans had a great time – “Everything they told us about this place was a lie“. The next phase of the experiment saw e-visas introduced for certain areas and finally, after that good experience, e-visas will, on 1 January 2021, be extended to the whole of the country. Citizens of 60 countries already do not need visas and this new arrangement will apply to another 53. The process is simple: go on the Net, fill out the form, supply passport details and pay the modest fee. No need to travel to any embassy. But not for all: “Countries not expected to benefit from this new Russia electronic visa include the United States, Canada, and the U.K. due to the tense political relationships with Russia.” Nor are Australia and New Zealand on the list. So citizens of the “Five Eyes” will have do it the old-fashioned way which, while it does not appear to require a trip to an embassy or consulate, does require gaining an invitation from “a Russian tour company or hotel or hostel“. Other NATO countries – Germany, Estonia or France, for example – can use the e-visa which, “in the absence of COVID-19 restrictions, the e-visas will grant eligible individuals entry to Russia for 16 days for the purposes of tourism, humanitarian travel, and business travel“.
For a Russian to obtain a tourist visa to any of the three countries particularly excluded is more difficult. To get a U.S. visa is impossible for an ordinary Russian who can’t afford the time or money to travel to Moscow for the interview. Obtaining a tourist visa for the UK requires the applicant to go to a Visa Application Centre; but at least there are five of them, in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Rostov-on-Don and Novosibirsk. Canada is the easiest because it does not apparently require a visit to an embassy or consulate, just an invitation letter.
What can you expect to see should you visit Russia? Here’s what Westerners are told to expect: poverty, booze, prostitutes (by the way, TinEye tells me that that photo is actually from France) worse and worse (Yes! Even the Sochi toilets are there!!!). So there is no reason to visit Russia: it’s just Skid Row with a dictator. I won’t waste time responding; here’s an American living in Russia. In any case, there are plenty of videos on YouTube to give an idea of what it’s like.
Of course the visitor to Russia, or anywhere else, will find bad things if he wants to find them. But here’s one accusation he can check from home: here’s a guide to gay bars in Moscow; can’t be that oppressed if anyone can find them, can they? But it’s more likely that he will – as the visitors to the World Cup found – see for himself that Russia actually shows very well. In a word, rather than a decaying superpower with a huge but ineffective military, crumbling infrastructure and an increasingly desperate population he will see a country re-building (new airports, for one example) and increasingly confident. Not at all what the Western propaganda machine tells him.
So Washington – and increasingly the rest of the West – are trying to make it harder for Russians to to see their “Rome” while Moscow is making it easier to see theirs. In this Cold War II, I am continually struck by the reversal of positions:
- then they blocked our broadcasts and we didn’t care about theirs, now we rail about “Russian disinformation” and they are open to everything;
- then they made it difficult to “visit Rome”, now it’s easy to visit Russia and see for yourself;
- then they censored what people could read and see, now we do;
- the Russians know now that the delusion of exceptionalism is a dead end, we don’t;
- to say nothing of the fact that Brezhnev’s gerontocracy is now matched by the American one.
This reversal of positions is quite fascinating and it’s very revealing.
Dare I suggest that it is compelling evidence that the West is beginning to suspect that it’s going down and wants to hide it while the Russians know they’re rising and are happy to show it?