Page 82 - FSJ_03_12

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n 1997, near the end of our For-
eign Service tours in Tashkent, my
wife and I booked a one-stop
flight to St. Petersburg for a vacation.
Our first inkling that this was going
to be a unique experience occurred as
we were boarding the plane. Our fel-
low passengers stormed the plane like
a herd of stampeding cattle, many of
them carrying one or two buckets of
freshly picked berries and other kinds
of fruits.
Once we boarded, many of them
placed their fruitful bounty up against
passenger windows, in the aisles be-
side their seats, and even onto the
seats themselves, fastening two or
three buckets into place with one seat-
After about a three-hour flight, we
touched down in Kazan, Tatarstan, an
autonomous republic that was our
point of entry into the Russian Feder-
ation. Prior to the breakup of the So-
viet Union a few short years before,
this would have been a strictly do-
mestic affair — no customs check, no
passports stamped, etc. And as we
soon discovered, the local authorities
were still operating on that assump-
When we entered the terminal to
complete immigration formalities, we
looked for the diplomatic line. After
all, there had always been one when
we had traveled to other former Soviet
republics — but not here.
Meanwhile, everyone else was run-
ning as fast as possible to the one im-
migration counter that was staffed, as
if mobbing a rock star. People were
pushing each other, throwing elbows
and otherwise trying to position them-
selves as near to the front of the “line”
as possible.
That left us dead last, lingering on
the periphery, wondering what was
going on. We walked over to an air-
port official and told him we were
diplomats, then asked where the
diplomatic line was. All we got was a
blank stare.
More than an hour later, we finally
made it to the passport desk, the last
ones to do so. The agent looked long
and hard at our diplomatic passports
and at the diplomatic visas we had got-
ten previously. Then, after looking
long and hard at us, he asked: “You are
diplomats?” When we confirmed it,
he quickly stamped our passports and
waved us through to the departure
After perhaps half an hour of wait-
ing there, a pleasant female official
came up to us and said, “Come, we go
now to the plane.” No one else got up
or made a move as we followed her
out of the hall and onto a large airport
bus. We were the only two passengers
on a bus built for 50, which took us the
half-mile to our plane, still waiting on
the tarmac.
We were escorted off the bus and
up the stairs to the plane, then on to
our seats. For 15 more minutes we sat
there, alone, waiting and wondering
what was going on.
Finally, three busloads of passen-
gers were herded up the stairs to join
us. Within half an hour we had taken
off and were on our way once again to
St. Petersburg.
We’ve never been quite sure what
happened back in Kazan, but we guess
that initially the airport officials had no
idea how to treat diplomats. Later,
having had some time to think things
over, they must have decided that it
would be prudent to give us the red-
carpet treatment — just in case treat-
ing us poorly (as they had initially
done) might somehow come back to
haunt them, with potentially negative
Whatever the explanation, it was
the only time during our 18 years in
the Foreign Service that we ever got
ambassadorial treatment!
George Wilcox, a retired USIA For-
eign Service officer, served in Tashkent
from 1995 to 1997 as the first Regional
English Language Officer for Central
Touchdown in Kazan
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 1 2
Meanwhile, everyone
else was running as
fast as possible to
the one immigration
counter that was
staffed, as if
mobbing a rock star.