When my wife and I visited Siberia last fall, we were part of a group of about 50 American tourists. We entered the Soviet Fatherland from Helsinki, landing in Moscow at Sheremetevo 2, the new International Airport. On our arrival, we had found the current issue of the Intourist in-flight magazine. It told how the architect of the newly opened airport had designed it with such functional efficiency that the average arriving passenger could complete all necessary formalities in just a very few minutes.
Well, to put it charitably, it was not quite "just a very few minutes." It was more like three hours before the last of our group had been allowed to pass through the airport into the country.The routine was worthy of its creators. When we walked off the ramp into the terminal, we were herded through the usual magnetic detector. (Moscow is the only airport I have encountered where you are searched for hidden weapons after you have arrived, rather than before you take off). Apparently, the Moscow detector is configured to detect any metal of any size however small, even a paper clip. Getting through, therefore, became a grueling experience.
Of course, it would detect your ball point pen. So you removed it and tried again to pass through. No. This time, it was your belt buckle. You sill didn't pass without setting off the loud warning buzzer. You removed a few loose coins. Still no clearance. The buzzer again went off. The armed militiaman glared at you while you emptied your pockets still further. Keys? No. You already laid them out on the table. Ah, your hearing aid. The man in front of me removed his and finally the buzzer was silenced. The impatient line of our fellow tourists moved a few steps forward to watch the next victim of passage.
But we weren't yet past the airport security barriers. We had to go through a second magnetic detector, presumably a duplicate of the first. This time, they didn't need to tell us what to do. Everything in our pockets - even paper clips - come out on the table to be scrutinized by another militiaman.
But we weren't yet in.
At the point, our luggage appeared. It was on a conveyor belt. Into an X- ray machine it went. Surprisingly, the inspectors didn't open it, at least in our presence. And when itemerged from the X-ray, we saw it carried to a second electronic scanner, of a type with which I was unfamiliar. It bore the markings of Phillips of Holland.
When this barrier was successfully passed, we were next called to face the passport control officers. We lined up behind the painted line on the floor. Uniformed and uniformly unsmiling officers sat in individual booths enclosed
from floor to ceiling. Thick plate glass windows separated them from us. The boothes themselves were dimly lit, each border office had what might have been a computer terminal below our line of sight. I couldn't see for sure. Behind each officer, the wall was covered with a silvered reflecting material. Only a tiny slit, large enough only to insert our passport, broke the seal of the solid heavy glass.
And over our shoulders, behind us, was a most unusual arrangement. It was a horizontal mirror, angled at 45-degrees. Seemingly, this enabled the Passport Officer to look over shoulders as we stood before him.
But, as with many things in the U.S.S.R., the reality differed from the surface appearance. If we are to believe the stories that circulated among our American group, (and indeed I do), the angled "mirror" was a one-way glass hiding from us three cameras that photographed us as we passed through.
Why on earth would the Soviet security officers want photographs of the back of our shoulders? The answer is that apparently they didn't. When you stared closely at the mirror, you realized it didn't directly face our backs, but instead looked at our reflection in the heavy plate glass window. Bare glaring fluorescent lights shining on us above the officer's window produced a brilliantly clear reflected image of each of us as we faced the officer. His booth was dimly lit to avoid diluting our reflection on the plate glass. The silvered rear paneling behind the officer served to reflect light into our shadowed areas and thus improve the quality of the photographs.
In a moment, the word, "Look at the mirrors," was passed up and down our waiting line. Members of our group began pointing conspicuously. And when my wife turned around to look directly at it, the passport officer said curtly, ''Look at me." They're not in a mood for jokes.
It was hardly a friendly welcome to the Soviet Union. As if Intourist cared. Or if the tourist officials did care, their opinion really made no difference at all.