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Irregular Passport Is Ticket to Trouble in Moscow

January 18, 1987|BOB SPEERS | Speers is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer.

At the end of my trip to the Soviet Union I learned a lesson the hard way: All international travelers should study their passports before leaving the United States--particularly if they are visiting the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc.

The condition of my passport almost ruined a recent and fascinating trip to that area. While I was passing through passport control before boarding a flight to Paris, the young inspector detected a peculiarity in the passport's appearance. I was ordered out of line and detained for almost two hours.

Unaware at that time of the Nicholas Daniloff affair, I was simply nervous. If I had known of the Daniloff mess I would have been scared to death.

As it was, I initially greeted the situation with a kind of detached bemusement. My cavalier attitude was to vanish quickly.

The episode began when a friend and I decided to fly to Paris rather than returning with our group to Los Angeles as scheduled. Paris, we decided, would serve as a good transition point between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. Thus, our group left a day ahead of us.

Although Fodor and other experts recommend that you travel to the Soviet Union in an organized group, we had no problems in a taxi drive to the airport and a breeze through customs.

At Moscow's impressive new international terminal the customs inspector X-rayed our luggage, checked the magazines in our flight bags and then grunted us through. Apparently Newsweek and Stereo Review weren't subversive enough. After that we were directed to the Air France check-in counter to receive our boarding passes. No problems.

At that point, we felt on our way. All those horror stories about Soviet customs were myths, I decided. But I had forgotten about Passport Control. Unlike the United States, some countries inspect the passports of departing travelers as well as those who are entering. The Soviet Union is one of those countries.

I stood in the shortest line, politely facing the young passport officer at his booth. He took my passport and visa, which both contained a recent picture. He didn't say a word while he stared at my documents. Periodically he would look up at me and then look back at the passport in stony silence. My friend passed through another line and disappeared.

Meanwhile, other passengers behind me gradually moved to other lines and eventually I stood alone. The officer finally mumbled a question about where I had visited in the country. I told him Moscow and Leningrad. He continued to study the passport.

This routine must have lasted well over 10 minutes. Now that amount of time might not seem long, but it was an eternity in a situation such as this. I thought, "What in the blazes is going on? Everyone is filing through these lines but me."

Finally the young official picked up his phone. By this time the initial rush of passengers to my flight's boarding area had subsided, and I stood alone. Still, the departure was two hours away. Plenty of time to clear this up.

After a brief conversation the officer hung up the phone. "Just a moment," he said, in perfect English.

A superior officer appeared in the booth. He examined everything and then asked me for something else containing my picture. I gladly handed him my driver's license.

The two of them, with serious bureaucratic expressions, inspected my precious documents. A queasiness crept into my stomach. "OK," I thought, "You've seen my passport, my visa and my driver's license. Now finish your act and return my papers so I can leave."

Instead, the superior officer told me:

"Please step back, and stand over there."

The Long Wait

I was stunned. I stepped back about 10 paces and leaned on a railing. The superior took my papers and left the booth. As he opened the door to his office he looked back at me.

"Just a moment," was the refrain. I nodded to him and the door closed.

I expected him back in minutes. I mean, this is silly. Oh well, it's an unexpected experience, and there's still plenty of time to make the flight.

But I waited. And waited. And waited. Other travelers quickly went through passport control. They were going home to France, to India, to the United States. Off they went to their respective boarding areas. But not me.

After about 20 minutes two other officers approached me and led me through a door. Nervous time immediately made way for panic time. The door? What's behind the door?

We entered a large fluorescent-lighted room with chairs around the perimeter. In the center was a large conference table with still more chairs around it.

One of the officers politely asked me to sit down, and then took my passport out of his pocket. He gave me a contemplative gaze and then asked: "What's wrong with this picture?"

"What do you mean?" I replied calmly.

"This picture is out of order. Where do you come from?" he asked.

Realization Hits

Then it hit me. At that instant I realized that they must figure I was a Soviet trying to escape to the West. This was happening to me ?

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