In August 2000 I departed Washington, D.C. with 79 other volunteers for a two year assignment in Russia. We arrived in Moscow, and after some complications retrieving our baggage we boarded buses that would take us to Zelenograd, a suburb of Moscow, where we would spend ten weeks in language training and other assorted training aimed at preparing us for life in Russia. The language training was intense, four hours per day in groups of six volunteers with each teacher. It is amazing how much you can learn during ten weeks of training. We all left Zelenograd with what the the Peace Corps calls “survival” Russian. Most of us were far from fluent, but we had learned enough to live on our own in the Russian environment.
The Russian government had issued each of us a one year visa to stay in Russia, and the plan was to renew the visa for one more year at the end of the first year. By the time we needed to renew our visas a few of the volunteers had left Russia for various personal reasons. So in August of 2001 we all traveled to Moscow planning to take a train to Riga, Latvia to re-enter Russia with our renewed visas. When we arrived in Moscow, the country manager for the Peace Corps informed ten of us that there had been an administrative problem and our visas for the second year had not been renewed. We had a few days before our visas expired and the country manager was confident that the problem would be corrected and we would all go to Riga as planned. As the days passed before our visas expired, the country manager and his Russian assistant worked diligently to get the problem corrected, but on the final day we were informed that they had been unsuccessful getting the problem corrected. The country manager advised us to all travel to Riga and stay there until he got the visa problem solved and then we could come back into Russia for our second year. We had waited until almost the last minute, and had to rush to the train terminal to board the last train to Riga to get out of Russia just before our visas expired. After several days in Riga a representative of the Peace Corps met with us to advise us that the administrative problem was more of a problem than they had anticipated and we would not be given visas for our second year. I suggested to the Peace Corps country manager that we should go to the press with the story as a way to put pressure of the Russian government. He was very much against talking to the press for fear that it would damage the relationship between the Peace Corps and the Russian government. We were given the choice of being reassigned to another country for our second year of volunteer work or to terminate our service and return to the U.S. Most of the volunteers chose to be reassigned to the Ukraine or Latvia, but I decided it was time to go home.
The Peace Corps planned to have our personal belongings collected and sent to us, wherever we were going. The realization that I would be unable to return to Krasnoyarsk and say goodbye to all the friends I had made during my first year was just unacceptable to me. I decided it was time to take the matter in my own hands.
I visited a travel agency in Riga and asked if it was possible to get a tourist visa to visit Russia. The travel agent said she would be happy to get me a 30 day tourist visa. I had a choice of waiting a couple weeks for the normal visa approval process or to request the expedited process which would only take a few days, with a slightly higher cost. A few days later I received a tourist visa to visit Russia.
I contacted the country manager in Moscow to advise him of my plan to return to Russia to say goodbye to my friends in Krasnoyarsk and to collect my personal belongings. He was not happy with my plan but knew he could not prevent me from doing what I wanted.
I boarded the train in Riga bound for Moscow. It left Riga in the early evening and would arrive in Moscow early the next morning. I shared a small compartment with a Russian man who was traveling to Moscow with several large packages he had stored under his seat. As I rode the train toward Russia, I began to wonder what I would do if the immigration officials at the Russian border would have a red flag on my passport because of stamps in my passport showing that I had been in the country for a year previously. What would I do if they refused my entry? In the middle of the night we stopped at the border crossing and the immigration officials entered the train to check everyone’s documents.
When the official came to our compartment he first asked the Russian man to show his documents. They got into a discussion that quickly escalated into a very loud, heated discussion. The immigration official order the Russia off the train and had him escorted, with his packages off the train. He did not return. Then the official asked me for my documents. He looked at them briefly, put a stamp in my passport, and handed the documents back to me and wished me a pleasant journey, in Russian. When he left my compartment my heart finally started beating again. I had visions of being hauled off the train at the Russian border, in the middle of nowhere, with no one to turn to for help. Luckily, that didn’t happen. My assumption had been that the Russian immigration computer system at the border crossing would not be sophisticated enough to match my previous time in Russia with my simple tourist visa. In hind sight, that was a very big gamble, but it worked.
I got to Moscow, tired from the over night travel and the stress of the immigration check, and took the subway into the center of Moscow to a travel agency to buy an airplane ticket for the trip to Krasnoyarsk. I caught the red eye from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk and arrived early the following morning.
I took a taxi to my apartment and was pleased to find that all my things were still there. I then took a long, hot shower and fell into bed to get some rest. After a few hours sleep, I walked to the university where I had been teaching and met with the man I worked for. The Peace Corps had advised him of my visa problem and had told him I would not be returning. He was surprised to see me, but happy that I had come back. I asked him if he knew anything about why my visa had not been extended, but he claimed he had no idea. He asked me if I would consider coming back as a private citizen to work at the university if he could arrange to get me a work visa. I thanked him for the offer, but said I thought the best thing for me was to go back to the U.S. He said he was not surprised with my answer, but suggested after returning to the U.S. for awhile, if I wanted to come back, to let him know and he would make the arrangements.
I spent ten days in Krasnoyarsk visiting with my Russian friends and enjoyed several going away parties. I am extremely glad I had the opportunity to go back to Krasnoyarsk to say thank you and goodbye to all my friends. I can’t imagine what I would have felt like if I had not been able to go back.
I flew to Moscow and went to the Peace Corps office. It was September 10, 2001. Part of the Peace Corps policy includes providing transportation to and from the country where you serve as a volunteer, and they arrange a flight for me the next day, September 11, 2001, to New York with a connecting flight to Detroit, where my wife would meet me. I was staying in a small hotel the Peace Corps uses for volunteers when they are in Moscow. I was watching the TV in my room when the news channel started talking about New York and the pentagon in Washington, D.C. My Russian wasn’t good enough to understand all that they were reporting, but I understood enough to realize that there had been some kind of disaster in New York and Washington, D.C. I took a taxi to the Metropol Hotel in the center of Moscow, where I knew they had CNN, in English, on the TVs in the lobby. That is where I learned about the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the pentagon.
All flights were cancelled from Moscow to New York indefinitely. The Peace Corps gave me a choice, I could wait in Moscow until they could arrange transportation back to the U.S. or they would give me the equivalent money and I could make my own arrangements. I wanted to get out of Russia, and I was pretty sure if I got somewhere in Europe I could get a flight back to the U.S. I chose the money and immediately bought a ticket to Amsterdam. Once in Amsterdam I was able to book a direct flight to Detroit. The security in the Amsterdam airport was like nothing I had ever seen, with heavily armed guards everywhere and incredibly long lines because of the extra security precautions. Finally, I was on a flight home.
Looking back on my time in Russia, I will always be grateful for the experience. The Russian people in Krasnoyarsk could not have been friendlier. I often wonder what the second year would have been like, but I am thankful I had the one year experience.
This was a long explanation, but it helps me explain why I wrote my book, “Life of a Double Agent.” All my friends asked me why I joined the Peace Corps and why I chose Russia. Some of them voiced there suspicion that I must be working for the CIA. Most of them were convinced that the reason I was evicted from Russia after my first year had something to do with the CIA. I continually told everyone that I did not and do not work for the CIA. But all of that lead me to the decision to write a book about a fictional character who did work for the CIA and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Russia, in the city of Krasnoyarsk. The result was my first novel, a work of fiction, “Life of a Double Agent”.
I think it is an entertaining story. I hope you buy the book, and I hope you enjoy reading it. You can learn more about the book at http://www.lifeofadoubleagent.com
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