“Sasha Senderovich was not planning on picking up his Russian passport Monday,” The Seattle Times reported earlier this week, thus fulfilling a wish I hadn’t known I had: That a picaresque narrative about a day in my otherwise unremarkable life would begin as a riff on the opening sentence of Mrs. Dalloway.
Indeed, I was not planning on picking up my Russian passport on Monday. I was woken up in the early morning the way I’m usually jolted out of sleep in the Trump era: with a push alert from The Washington Post. “Oh shit!” has been my consistent response to these rude awakenings ever since November 2016 – there have been few reasons to respond otherwise. On Monday, however, a bit of nervous laughter was added to my morning routine. I’m a dual citizen of the United States and Russia, and my Russian passport, which had been renewed some months earlier, was still sitting at Seattle’s Russian consulate, as I hadn’t gotten around to picking it up.
The push alert informed me that Trump had ordered the Seattle Russian consulate closed. Of course, instead of closing the only remaining consulate in Western US, Trump could have levied sanctions, long-authorized by Congress, against particularly heinous individuals in Putin’s inner circle. But, instead, it was this diplomatic outpost that became the casualty, with the implication that people there had been spying on Boeing and the nuclear submarines stationed in our region. I didn’t mind being a small casualty of this blow-up: Putin’s criminal regime has long deserved to be punished and Trump’s suspicious admiration for Putin has stood in the way of that. But I could just as well imagine the stress and the pain many of those needing consular services would have to endure.
Monday morning’s push alert made me fear that I was too late to pick up my passport in Seattle. I would have to chase my passport around town, I thought. Why, not just the town—around the country, the world! I’d never find it again, and then it’d be impossible for me to prove my identity to the Russian government and to ever travel to visit my relatives.
I was anxious first about the Soviet and then the Russian passport long before I was old enough to acquire one myself. As a small Jewish child, worrying about needing to get my passport was part of growing up. The Soviet-era passport that my grandparents and parents possessed contained that notorious “fifth line”—which indicated one’s ethnic background. To be thus designated as “Jewish” for any official to see could spell trouble: it could mean trouble finding or retaining employment, getting into university, etc. Terrible stories about the Soviet passport and its effects on Soviet Jews—stories both true and mythic—abounded. Attempts by concerned adults to console a worrying child didn’t mitigate the psychological damage. The best the adults could do would be to invoke the oft-repeated phrase, “When they punch you, they punch you in the nose—not in your passport.” Meaning: when the anti-Semites want to be mean to you, they’ll see “Jew” written all over your face, they won’t need to consult your documents. I was definitely younger than ten when I first heard this.
Around the same time, as most of my relatives and friends were exiting the collapsing Soviet Union, a film called Passport hit the screens. In it, a man accompanying his brother to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for the brother’s emigration journey to Israel, ended up inadvertently emigrating himself when he borrowed his lookalike sibling’s passport to enter the airport’s duty-free zone. This was perestroika and there was no champagne (or other foodstuffs, for that matter) on the airport’s “Soviet” side—and the guy wanted to see his relatives off in style. The poor man—booze in hand—wasn’t allowed back into the country, since “his” passport had already been stamped.
I distinctly remember a warm summer day—I was perhaps eight—when I accompanied my father on some errands around the city. I remember that we lost the small black leather pouch in which he kept money and documents (and menus he stole from restaurants, he told me when I called him this week to confirm this memory). I recall, with terror, the frenzy of the rest of that day. We were about to go on a trip to the Black Sea—the first and last vacation we took as a family until, ten years later and freshly new as immigrants in Boston, the four of us piled into a rental car and headed to, of all places, Ohio. One could not travel inside the USSR without one’s passport, and, to make matters worse, my father’s passport also contained inserts for me and my sister. The trip to Crimea was going to be canceled, eight-year-old me worried as my father and I frantically retraced our steps all over the city.
We emigrated from Russia just days after I turned sixteen, so I never ended up having to apply for an internal passport—the kind that, in the mid-1990s, still would have had “Jewish” written on its fifth line (Russia’s more recent internal passports have scrapped the fifth line). While those childhood worries thankfully didn’t pan out, they were replaced by new ones. For example, though the USSR had been gone for a few years by that point, the Russian state hadn’t yet gotten around to print new external (or, foreign) passports. As a new immigrant in America during the second term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, I would still be stuck with an identity document marking me as a citizen of a country that no longer existed.
I acquired a green card soon after we moved, but a green card isn’t a travel document, so it was my external Soviet passport that I took with me to England on a yearlong study abroad program in the beginning of the 21st century. I was at Oxford, and Oxford gave its students breaks several weeks long between academic terms, so I naturally wanted to travel around Europe. As an American green card holder but a citizen of Russia with a passport issued by the defunct Soviet Union, the Soviet passport was the one that had to be plastered with various foreign visas. Getting a Schengen visa to visit France and Germany was easy enough, but things got trickier when I decided to add Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia to my itinerary. Those four hadn’t joined the Schengen agreement yet, and I remember with horror the early morning bus rides from Oxford to London, spaced about a week apart, as I took frantic trips to the capital to pick up my Soviet passport with a newly-issued visa at an embassy of one country and promptly ferry it to the embassy of the next, my visa application in tow. My most vivid memory of that time involves carrying my Soviet passport from one side of a building to another to two different desks—the Czech and Slovak embassies, fresh from their countries’ divorce a few years before, still occupied the same building but ran two entirely uncoordinated operations.
Eventually, the Russian Federation started issuing its own passports, which of course had to be renewed periodically. While I lived in Boston in the 2000s I had to take trips down to New York, where the nearest consulate was located. I always felt nervousness about something or another. For example, in the years before apps simplified the process of printing unusually-sized foreign passport photographs, I worried about whether my New York sources hadn’t inadvertently misled me about the location of the one photo shop I needed to visit near the consulate before my appointment. At the same time, traveling to Russia with this external passport posed its own challenges in those years. A number of museums I visited in Moscow and elsewhere attempted to extract high admission prices from foreign citizens. I could speak perfect Russian—which is, after all, my native language—but to many a ticket seller I looked … foreign. They weren’t exactly punching me in the nose, as I had been warned in childhood, but this was a version of that. My nose didn’t help me look Slavic, which meant that I wasn’t really Russian and should therefore pay steeper admission fees. Showing my passport—an external Russian one issued in New York—didn’t always help my case.
Getting my Russian passport renewed in Seattle’s Russian consulate—a city I moved to a little while back—could have broken the long spell of my minor but worry-inducing passport woes with the sheer convenience of its location. That is, until the push alert woke me up with its news, making the current diplomatic crisis between America and Russia only the latest in the long string of my passport adventures. And so it went. I rushed to the consulate—by bus, during rush hour—not knowing what to expect and guided by reports in national news outlets that conflicted with some unverifiable local rumors. But my passport was ready, the consular staff were helpful and understanding, I even wished good luck to the clerk that helped me, thinking that she herself faced an uncertain future if she were on the list of people getting expelled.
Everything, in other words, turned out just fine—that is, for now, until my Russian passport inevitably expires again.
Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Slavic, Jewish, and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. On May 7 and May 9, he will host the writer Gary Shteyngart at the UW for the annual Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies.