an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Facing Gargoyles at Sheremetyevo… Unwelcome to Russia!

Most of my American friends and acquaintances marvel, with some doubtful astonishment, that I still annually return to Moscow, Russia to live and work after a summer vacation’s month or so in what they often fervently affirm is the greatest nation on earth. And a visitor’s first hour or two in Russia, at the Sheremetyevo 2 International Airport, are perhaps indeed somewhat akin to?…entering as a stranger into a closed Medieval city’s dangerous guarded gate?…to the first frightening stage of some Masonic initiatory trial?…

The actual experience of entering Russia directly into Moscow is of course historically as new as air travel, and in fact matches rather well with the images and fears most Americans have, from their national news media, of life in Russia. The psychic curtain through which many must “journey” in order to even want to travel to Russia to experience the world here, is perhaps more powerful than the actual ordeal of the airport; but…

Flying, this last trip, from Atlanta’s Hartfield International Airport via that of Zürich’s, to the capital of Russia, is a quick, decisive lesson in comparative civilizations. After the openness, cleanliness, order and organization in Atlanta, USA and Zürich, Switzerland…the Swissair pilot announced after we had landed in Moscow: “Sorry Ladies and Gentlemen, but we will have to wait a little bit more, as there is no one at the landing gate to meet our plane.” For those already experienced in Russia, this was just a quick reminder of many such Russian moments to come…

Walking through the short, glass-walled corridors, the airport staff offered no more help than an indifferent gesture, pointing the way forward, and then down, down the stairs into a dark waiting area... The foot of the stairs this time was packed with a crowd of some 500 or more people, all standing waiting in the disordered, small, cramped area…many first-time travelers were clearly confused and bewildered as they tried to discern some order in the crowded chaos: were there any actual waiting “lines” for the few obscure, open Passport Control booths (with their new capitalist ads affixed!)? Dark, crowded, somewhat intimidating…there were no public announcements, no explanations, no information desks, or personal to help (in any language). One waited, trying politely to become an eventual part of something at least broadly resembling a “line”. Meanwhile some aggressive or rude Russians – “new” or not – barged or bribed their way forward of the polite, innocent mere visitors and tourists to Russia, and went through passport control ahead of the rest.

After an hour of uncomfortable, uncertain waiting in the “lines”, some people wondered aloud to others as to what might be happening to their luggage…is it being watched and protected?

After the passport gate, one then enters the grungy, depressing “Baggage Claim Area”, hoping anxiously to still find one’s luggage somewhere. Then, after going through the Red or Green Customs control gates, one finally first passes through the final, dirty entrance gate into Russia, only to be met by a mob of unfriendly, searching, gargoyle-like faces, all staring at each and every visitor as they attempt to squeeze through the uncontrolled and ungoverned crowd with sometimes unnerving looks on their faces: visitor?, fresh victim for an outrageous taxi fare?, friend?, foe?,…

As this experience of entrance into Moscow has remained more or less the same for years, it seems that the airport management does not even really give much of a damn what impression it gives to new visitors to Russia…. It occurred to me whimsically this last return to Russia, that if someone started a business of on-the-spot flights out of Russia – about half-way through the experience of entering Russia at the airport – that a decent business could be had of those who would get right on a flight and fly away!

Facing the crowd of gargoyles at the Sheremetyevo airport…is still part of being unwelcomed to Russia.


First published in the magazine English, #20, 2001, p. 14.