COMMENT: US expats homeless in Russia

COMMENT: US expats homeless in Russia
The US has closed its consulates in Russia, making life hell for US expats living in Russia. / wiki
By Joshua B Tulgan in Moscow December 7, 2021

The US government recently declared my wife to be homeless. More specifically, it declared my wife’s people citizens of Russia to be homeless. In the vernacular of the State Department, homeless means that it has no consular representation in Russia. My Russian wife found this designation particularly appalling; already baffled by our obligation to pay US income tax, she sarcastically remarked: “Now they have problem with our apartment?!?”

The US Embassy in Moscow like every other embassy shut its doors in March 2020 over the threat of coronavirus (COVID-19). In contrast to its peers, which opened as lockdowns ended, the embassy shuttered its consulates and hasn’t opened its doors since. It’s been well-documented how the US and Russia have been embroiled in a cycle of intransigence over hacking, meddling and generally conflicting interests that has reduced US embassy staff to non-operational levels. While the State Department may believe it is working to promote American interests, its actions have placed an untenable burden on actual Americans. By declaring Russians homeless, it has also declared the tens of thousands of Americans in Russia to be homeless as well.

The irony though is that unlike other ‘homeless’ nations, such as Libya or Syria, most of which suffer from severe economic and political dislocations, Russia houses its citizens. Home ownership in Russia already exceeds 90%, and Moscow alone added over 5mn square metres of housing in 2019. Even more peculiar is the fact that a Russian company called CIAN, which created a popular real estate application that is all the rage among home-owning Russians, just made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) at a rather attractive valuation.  

In the 1990s, having studied Russian in prep school and in college, I decided to make Moscow my own home. I understood that life as an expatriate requires a different calculus. Normally, an expat is hypersensitive to local laws and customs, constantly assessing changes in visa regimes, for example. However, over the past decade, reconciling US laws has become the primary challenge. Routine services, like banking, have become far more difficult. Since the adoption of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in 2010, I’ve been “fired” by my family’s US-based financial advisor, simply because I work abroad, while banks in Europe and the UK have refused me service as an American. Never once did I expect that my own government would become the largest obstacle to living a quiet life abroad.

While there is a novelty to living your life in another language, contrary to popular portrayals, life in Moscow does not differ that dramatically from the experiences of my friends and family in America. I drive a car built in South Carolina, and I had an MRI recently on a machine manufactured in Wisconsin. Companies like PepsiCo consider Russia to be their second-largest market globally, and Netflix even managed to launch in Russia as the local streaming market percolates. Meanwhile, Russian companies invest in America. According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, Russian investment is roughly $4bn per year, and this may support up to 10,000 jobs in the United States. Russia has also emerged as a major exporter of items such as grain and fertiliser, much of which is harvested or produced with combines, tractors and equipment from Caterpillar or John Deere. Russia isn’t simply “a gas tank”, as commonly believed, and the US-Russia relationship is generally deeper and broader than most people think.

This quiet life abroad has, of course, become a lot noisier as of late, yet the burden of being officially homeless is felt most by actual Americans. Many industries and communities in the United States depend on embassy access by foreigners. I interview prospective candidates for my preparatory school, and invariably, the first question I get from parents is whether or not I can help obtain a visa. A friend’s son recently waited four months for an appointment to apply for a student visa in Kazakhstan, one of the few embassies which have been allowed to issue visas to Russians. He eventually received the visa and showed up for his autumn term at a US university…in late October. Despite constituting only 10% of enrolment, international students finance up to 30% of higher education in America. The inability to issue visas to students is not only a long-term threat to America’s educational institutions, but also its attractiveness as a mecca of innovation and values.

For years I oversaw finance at a leading Russian company, which is publicly listed on the NYSE. Despite the company’s address in Moscow, we carried the same obligations as any SEC-registered company: codes of ethics, FCPA obligations, financial disclosures, etc. Many of the company’s executives had lived and worked in the United States, a key factor that helped them understand the cultural context of such necessities. Much has been written about Russia’s recent IPO boom, and the mix of local executives, bankers and lawyers that bring such projects to fruition often boast educational or professional experiences in the US. The inability to issue visas to the next wave of Russian entrepreneurs naturally raises the question of whose corporate values will they impart in the absence of this critical channel of American soft power.  

On any given day, up to five Aeroflot-operated US-built airplanes take off from Moscow and deliver their passengers eight to twelve hours later in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. In the US, over 3mn people boast recent roots in Russia, and perhaps as many as 500,000 US citizens were born here. As anyone who has heard Russian proliferate on the streets of America, Russians buy homes and support communities throughout the nation. During a recent visit to my mother’s home in Florida, the local Russian ‘produkty’ store was doing a robust business in frozen pelmeni (dumplings) and red caviar. On the return flight, a fellow passenger, a Russian, related how his visa was soon expiring and, despite owning a home in Miami, he was planning a trip to Mauritius to renew his visa. He asked rhetorically, “Who flies to Mauritius from Miami in January?!?”

Consider too the people from neighbouring countries who likewise use Moscow as a travel hub; the Moscow-Los Angeles flight is dubbed the Yerevan Express, as it connects the vibrant Armenian community in Los Angeles with its brethren in Armenia. On any one of these US-bound flights you will also see enrobed rabbis and priests tending to their co-religionists in each country. A local rabbi confided in me that the Chabad community is waiting on ‘literally hundreds’ of visas to support its global activity between Russia and New York. It's worthwhile considering how long these planes may fly and the broader impact if the flight crews’ or spiritual crews’ visas are allowed to lapse.

The frustration though is most felt most by dual-national families such as my own. My wife and I welcomed a beautiful Russian-American daughter into this world in April 2019. While I was able to obtain a passport for her at birth, it has taken me two years to request her social security number, which translated to $6,000 in child tax credits lost. More critically, since my wife’s visa expired in February 2020, we have not been able to obtain another for her. As such, my own mother hadn’t been able to see her only granddaughter since well before the lockdowns began. Naturally, she only wishes that one day soon my wife, daughter and I disembark together from one of those daily Aeroflot flights to Miami.

Whereas diplomacy in this part of the world was once literally defined by marriage, modern-day diplomacy seems akin to being in a marriage. How and why the embassy shut down is not for me to parse here, but I am sure that diplomats on both sides of the divide view one another as at times illogical and intransigent, just like any husband and wife. But the diplomats involved should realise that like in any relationship kids simply complicate things. When what they define as the American interest harms the interests of Americans, it’s the children that bear the burden.  

The last time Biden and Putin spoke, Americans in Russia applauded the progress made in areas deemed of national interest, but absent was a statement about what constitutes the more immediate interests of a wide swathe of Americans. As they intend to speak again today, I would like to remind the US government that my mother just wants to see her granddaughter. My daughter likewise wants to see her baba. So for the sake of the kids, I join the chorus of many Americans here who implore our government to re-engage on this topic and get our embassy functioning again.