Friday, July 23, 2010

Flashback Friday: Our Russian "Get out of jail free" cards

(Sorry no picture - they're all back in Ithaca.)

When we lived in Moscow, the embassy issued all its employees and dependents special green identity cards that we called карточка - kartochka. The card had your photo and text on it identifying the bearer as an affiliate of the US Embassy and entitled to residency in Russia.

The cards served their official purpose as a residency permit, but they were also great for getting the discounted price at tourist attractions. You may not realize it, but lots of foreign countries employ two-tiered pricing structures for major historical sites. The higher price is written in English in large, bold text above the ticket window - maybe something like $10. The lower, local price - maybe something like 20 cents - is written in the foreign language and posted some place inconspicuous. At least that's how they do it when they're trying to be sneaky (I've seen it like this in Turkey, Russia, and Egypt). Some places are very open about wringing money out of their visitors and just post it all together in a totally obvious way. I respect that. It makes it all seem slightly more above-board.

But with our magic "get out of jail free" cards, we had the right to pay the local price. It was all fun and games until we entertained guests from America and had to watch them pay $10-$15 each to get into places when we paid 40 or 50 cents.

Besides saving us money, however, the magic kartochkas quite literally got us out of jail free. If we were ever stopped by the Moscow police (people get stopped randomly all the time), all we had to do was show them that card and it immediately became "thank you, sir, good day, miss!" I don't know if it was diplomatic immunity, or simply "don't mess with the embassy" at work, but I mostly took it for granted, until one day when we were walking back to the metro after a church activity.

We ourselves attended a Russian-speaking congregation, but in the entire city of Moscow there was one "international" congregation that conducted services in English. Some of the ex-pat members of that congregations were students from Africa studying who knows what in Moscow. The darker your skin is in many parts of Russia, the more despised you are. Sorry, but it's true. It's a very openly racist place (and the situation is not made better when people who happen to have dark skin take entire theaters hostage). So these poor fellow Mormons from Africa were subjected to terrible discrimination in public.

Now, we were not great friends with these young men by any means - we didn't attend church with them and we knew the members of the international branch only vaguely. But when we saw them getting harassed by some policemen outside of a metro station, we decided it would be a good time to say hello.

We walked up to the young men, all smiles and sunshine, and interrupted the police officers' belligerence. Of course, the surly policemen immediately asked for our identification and seemed ready to make us pay for ruining their fun.

Out came the magic green kartochkas. White went the police offers' faces. Before you could blink, hardly, the policemen sent us and our African friends on our merry way. One of the policemen even saluted Jeremy.

It felt good to do a small service, but it also felt sad, because we knew that next time these guys got pushed around by the police, we wouldn't be there. It wasn't really fair that we had a get out of jail free card when we hardly needed it, while they were left largely defenseless. I hope those young men did whatever studying in Moscow they needed to and then got the heck out of there, to some place where you don't need a magic green card to get you out of non-trouble with the enforcers of the law.


Susanne said...

How awful. :-/ Glad you could help them though!

Liz Johnson said...

You know, Mexico is a lot like that. The darker your skin, the lower class you are. And when you mention it being a racist concept, people look totally taken-aback and offended, because to them, it's simply an accurate predictor of social status. I always thought it was so bizarre that many Mexicans harped on Americans as being "totally racist" against blacks and hispanics, yet regularly discriminated against the people with more Indian blood in their own country.


Susanne said...

I saw this and it reminded me of your post.


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