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New Reality: Russians React With Casual Annoyance Over U.S. Visa Curbs


A woman walks by a board with consular information outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on August 22.

MOSCOW -- Yekaterina Barabash might be precisely the kind of Russian that Sergei Lavrov had in mind this week when Moscow's top diplomat accused the United States of trying to stoke a "color revolution" by dramatically curbing Russians' access to U.S. visas.

A culture critic in the capital, Barabash bought airline tickets to the United States in May, hoping to spend Christmas with close friends. She now thinks she won’t get her U.S. visa in time -- even with well over three months to go.

Barabash and thousands of fellow Russians have had their travel plans thrown into doubt as the U.S. diplomatic mission announced it was temporarily suspending nonimmigrant visa services in Moscow for a week from August 23 and eliminating them at consulates across Russia. It blamed Moscow's recent order that Washington cut its staffing at diplomatic facilities in Russia.

Yekaterina Barabash: "Russia is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. This is bad."
Yekaterina Barabash: "Russia is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. This is bad."

“It’s really sad,” Barabash said, before quickly looking at the bigger picture. "The important thing here isn't that I'm not going or that someone else isn’t, it's the very fact of this situation: that Russia is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. This is bad. Are we returning to the Iron Curtain we had under the Soviet Union? This is what’s bad.”

After the initial weeklong suspension, U.S. visa operations will resume “on a greatly reduced scale,” the United States said, and mandatory visa interviews will only be held in Moscow -- a blow to Russians living thousands of kilometers away, for instance, in the Far East’s Vladivostok, where Washington operates a consulate.

The U.S. Congress passed fresh Russia sanctions that President Donald Trump signed into law earlier this month, including wording that makes it harder for the president to ease or lift punitive measures already in place against Russia.

Commenting on the U.S. announcement on August 21 of the consular scale-back, Lavrov accused the United States of trying to stoke a "color revolution" and stirring resentment toward the Kremlin.

Reaction from Russians interviewed by RFE/RL spanned from the emotional, to the defiant, to the philosophical.

It is absolutely clear to me that this [has happened] as a result of the policy of the Russian authorities -- this ridiculous reduction of personnel at the consul by [755] people."
-- Vladimir Snegovoy

Vladimir Snegovoy, the father of a Russian student finishing her doctorate at Columbia University in New York this autumn, had wanted to attend graduation. But now, he said, he fears he won't make it.

“Of course, this makes things considerably more difficult; it’s really not pleasant,” he said in comments to Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “I don’t consider myself a victim, but I do consider myself to have suffered.”

Snegovoy said he paid for a visa consultation in July and had been scheduled for his interview on September 7 in St. Petersburg, where the U.S. consulate has conducted visa interviews in addition to its other activities.

Snegovoy blamed the Kremlin.

“It is absolutely clear to me that this [has happened] as a result of the policy of the Russian authorities -- this ridiculous reduction of personnel at the consul by [755] people,” he said.

He added: “We have to understand that the number of Russian citizens wishing to get American visas is several times larger than the number of Americans wishing to travel to Russia. Correspondingly, the consulate staff should be bigger by several times.”

Last year, U.S. consulates issued around 190,000 visas to Russians, the lion’s share of them for business or pleasure. That was a larger total than in 2015 but much lower than the record 270,000 nonimmigrant visas in 2013, the year before Russia's invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory sent relations spiraling to post-Cold War lows.

INFOGRAPHIC: Nonimmigrant U.S. Visas Issued To Russians (click to view)

Kirill Khripunov, CEO of a firm that organizes educational trips for Russian teens to schools abroad, said he suspected earlier this summer that visa problems were looming following the personnel cut ordered for U.S. diplomatic sites.

“It was already fairly clear from the beginning of August that there would be some problems with visas, because suddenly queues started getting much longer. If the wait used to be, say, 1 1/2 months or in peak season up to two months, then from the beginning of August the registration [for an interview] would be three months. Last week, we registered for the middle of November,” Khripunov said.

“As for on whom and how it will have an impact -- I think first and foremost it is normal people who will suffer, people who are making private trips," Khripunov told Current Time. “As for business, I think it will have less of an impact. Yes, it will be awkward -- perhaps some people will have their business trips scrapped -- but I don’t expect anything large-scale.”

Other Russians remained philosophical.

Muscovite Liliya Ziangirova had been planning to take a luxury cruise around the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico at the end of November. But she now believes she’ll have to cancel. But that is hardly a tragedy, she said, and she prefers to regard the new visa regulations as a new reality of traveling.

“All this discussion by individuals in any case will change little. It’s a waste of time and breath. We just have to draw a lesson for the future -- get your documents ready earlier.”

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