Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Moving to Russia?
The problem with going to Russia to live is that there are only a couple of ways to do so legally, and they are all rather complicated and involved, with lots of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I am not a legal expert, and I am providing this information on an as-is basis with no guarantees. Don't attempt any of this before consulting with someone who is an expert in these matters.
The easiest way is to get a long-term tourist visa, either directly through a Russian consulate (cheaper but not easy) or through a visa processor that works with travel agencies (more expensive and easier but still not easy). The best long-term tourist visa you can get is a three-year visa that requires you to leave and re-enter Russia every six months. If you fail to leave before the six months are up, you will be allowed to leave but will not be allowed to reenter. After each entry you have seven days to register at a physical address, either through a business such as a hotel or through a private citizen who is permanently registered at that address. (If you happen to turn up during the World Cup, the seven days becomes 24 hours; keep that in mind!) In turn, in order to be permanently registered at an address the individual who is registering you has to own the property at that address, and have the corresponding stamp in their internal passport, because rental agreements only allow for a temporary registration. If you fail to register in time, your visa may be closed at your next departure and you will be unable to obtain another one. Once the three years are up, you have to go home and reapply for a new visa.
The other way to remain in Russia is by obtaining a residency permit. In order to apply, you have to either fit into a quota or be granted an exception. Exceptions are granted to people who fall into one or more of the following categories:
• Born in Russia or part of USSR that has since become Russia
• Married to a Russian citizen
• Have at least one child who is a Russian citizen
• Have a parent who is a Russian citizen and lives in Russia
• Are a proficient native speaker of Russian
Certain categories of VIPs, businessmen and professionals can squeak in past the quota as well.
The quotas fill up very quickly in many places. If you are planning to apply in Moscow or St. Petersburg regions and are subject to the quota, you can pretty much forget about it. But Russia is a very big country, and there are regions where the quotas virtually never fill up. Also keep in mind that the offices that deal with migrants (which is what you will be called) in the major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg especially, are permanently mobbed and you will spend a great deal of time navigating various queues. Things are getting a bit better, but it still takes all day to accomplish just one relatively simple task, like submitting a form or picking up a document.
You also have to be sponsored by a Russian citizen who will take responsibility for you while you go through this process and provide you with a place to live. This is no small responsibility, since the sponsor will be held responsible for any transgressions you commit while on Russian territory. The sponsor has to issue you an invitation and a guarantee letter, with which you can then get a special three-month visa from a Russian consulate back home. During these three months you have to apply for a temporary permit to remain (РВП) which allows you to remain in Russia for longer than your visa allows. In order to apply for the temporary permit, you have to have all your ducks in a row ahead of time.
And there are a lot of ducks:
• You need proof of income. Easiest way is a bank record from a Russian bank showing that you have at least a hundred thousand rubles on deposit.
• You need proof of lack of criminal record issued by your home country within the last month.
• You need to pass a medical test showing you to be in good health, free of HIV and various other communicable diseases and not a drug addict.
• Lastly, you need a successful result on a state-mandated Russian language, history and culture exam taken within the last five months.
Once you have the temporary permit, you can apply for a residency permit (ВНЖ). The process is similar. The residency permit is good for five years and can be renewed continuously provided you apply at least two months before the five years are up. You also have to register every year, showing proof of income and reporting your address.
If you are absent from Russia for longer than 6 months, your residency permit becomes null and void and it's back to square one: looking for someone to sponsor you. After five years of constant residency (being absent from Russia for no more than three months in any given calendar year) you can apply for citizenship. I won’t go into all the details of applying for citizenship because by the time you get to that point your knowledge of Russian bureaucracy will in all likelihood exceed mine.
It's quite a gamut to run, so I wouldn't blithely promise people that they can just move to Russia at the drop of a hat when conditions sour back home. If anything, those who want to move to Russia should start working on that well before circumstances force them. At the very least, learn Russian and try taking the test. If you pass, then with enough effort and foresight the rest of it can be handled.
Or you can just live in Russia as a tourist, but then you won’t be allowed to find employment in Russia. However, this restriction is meaningless for the modern digital nomad because all they need is a laptop, a smartphone and an internet connection, and internet access in Russia is ubiquitous, fast and cheap. You will have to take a brief trip abroad every six months and a longer trip home every three years. But if the previous discussion of getting residency made you queasy, or if becoming proficient in Russian seems like too much work, then that’s probably the approach for you to take.
It seems like a valid question to ask, Why are such Byzantine, labyrinthine protocols necessary just to allow someone to live in Russia? This may have something to do with the Byzantine legacy itself. The Byzantine (or the Eastern Roman) Empire, outlasted Rome itself by quite a few centuries, and it didn't put much emphasis on individual prerogatives, always prioritizing the prerogatives of the state over the individual. Russia absorbed a lot of that mindset, as did Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire continued for quite a few centuries more, fighting multiple wars with Russia essentially over scraps of Byzantium. It was the Byzantine cultural legacy that allowed the relatively young Russian state, born (or, rather, baptized en masse) in 988 AD, and fighting to kick the Poles out of Moscow as late as 1613, to then leapfrog over many centuries of development, to emerge as a fully formed European state in the 1700s.
The emphasis on having to always register one's address probably has its roots in the law of serfdom, which attached each person to a patch of land managed in favor of a landlord, but even more probably is a direct continuation of the police state procedures implemented in the USSR. The terminology has changed from the obviously communist "propiska" to the more sociable registration, but the overbearing system of population control has remained intact. This paperwork requirement, and the bureaucratic hoops one has to jump through to fulfill it, is quite outdated, given that virtually everyone in Russia now has a smartphone and is on the internet, the SIM card is tied to one's internal passport, its location can be established in several ways, and all of this makes it so that where someone happens to be is almost automatically part of the official record.
Be that as it may; the legacies of ancient and not-so-ancient empires (which were great success stories of their eras) die slowly. Prioritizing state prerogatives over individual interests may be on strategy for the state, and the individuals will muddle through somehow, especially the resourceful and clever ones, who might prove useful to the state. But is the complex and unwieldy system of laws and regulations that determine who can live where in Russia and for how long even on strategy for the Russian state? This seems doubtful.
• Consider that Russia went through a demographic collapse in the 1990s, following the dissolution of the USSR, and is now passing through another demographic trough because there aren't enough children being born to children born in the 1990s, because, in turn, there aren't enough of them.
• Also consider that Russians living outside of Russia make up the largest diaspora in the world (between 20 and 40 million) followed by India with 15 million and Mexico with 12.
• Finally, consider that there is a shortage of skilled workers in Russia, with many enterprises struggling to find enough bodies to fill the available jobs and many jobs going to foreign migrants who repatriate their earnings instead of spending or investing them within Russia.
All of this would indicate that it would be most beneficial for the Russian Federation to simplify and streamline the process by which people who are Russian, who speak Russian and who are culturally Russian, but who lack a Russian passport, can gain the right to live, study, obtain health care and work in Russia for as long as they want to. In fact, there was a plan to do just that: a legislative proposal for a "Russia card". But it died, and a raft of minor legislative tweaks to the rules governing economic migrants was signed into law instead. And while numerous criticisms of Russia can often be countered with "Yes, it used to be like that, but things got better since then," in this case, they haven't, and, judging from the current legislative agenda, they won't.
Even if you take the attitude that the Russian state only has to care about its own citizens, consider this. In the 1990s, when times were really bad in Russia, anyone who could fled abroad. They often failed to renew their passports and allowed them to lapse, or simply lost them. And now, when times in Russia are so much better, they want to go back to visit. But they can't enter on a visa because Russian visas aren't granted to Russian citizens, and their expired passports (should they still have them) are not valid for entry. Their only option is to go through a rather rigorous application process for a return certificate (свидетельство на возвращение, СНВ) which is only valid for 14 days. During these 14 days they have to arrive in Russia and within three days apply for a new internal passport. Once they have an internal passport (issued within a few weeks) they have to apply for an international passport (a few more weeks). Now, how are Russian citizens living abroad but lacking valid Russian passports supposed to be able to travel to Russia on their two-week vacations? Answer: it is impossible. This set of procedures essentially locks a large number of Russian citizens out of the country.
In short, this seems like a major instance of bad governance. It is unfair to Russian citizens, to the millions of Russians who are not Russian citizens, to those who aren't Russian but wish to settle in Russia, and it puts Russia itself at a major disadvantage in remedying its demographic dire straits by alienating its gigantic diaspora. But, as with so many things in Russia, things rarely stay as they are, and the situation may get better over time.