A Happy Move?

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By Stephen Lapeyrouse

Hello expats and friends.

A few ‘words to the wise’ for those of you who might be (considering) leaving Russia, about shipping. It is a bit long, so if you aren’t planning on possibly leaving, you don’t need to read it, unless for entertainment. It is how it was for me personally.

When I finally decided this past spring to leave Russia after 21 years, I got prices from four shipping firms in Moscow for sending my stuff. The prices for my professionally estimated load (~1400k, with no furniture; ~5 cubic meters — best by air) varied widely, both by air and sea. From $5300 to $7800 for the same airfreight.

I chose the lower price, especially since it was also a ‘German company’ (which I assumed would supply German-quality service). The packing was done ‘professionally’ and quickly. In about six hours the job was done. All seemed to be going well… I must go in two days to Domodedeva Customs at 11am to rendezvous with the shipping company men, to sign a few documents, show my passport and face…

But at customs things started to go bad: they decided – because I am an American?, because they were in a bad mood, or vengeful, that day?, because 50 of 69 boxes were ‘Books’ and seemed suspicious…? — to open all the well-packed 69 boxes. And since the shipping company had one man ill, I myself had to carefully repack the 50 book boxes (so that they would still not be damaged in shipment). Took me 5 sweaty hours in the hot hangar. The two shipping company men resealed the boxes.

The custom-agents found 1 book (out of 2,136 books) that had escaped the cull of the packers, which was indeed older than 1915 (the legal limit). It was a book in German about the German Classicists views of religion. They kept out one other book from 1915, even though it had a purchase receipt and proof that I had it shipped to me in Alabama inside the book, which 3 Customs agents saw.

Out of 69 boxes, they found this one ‘violation’ of export rules (or laws). One book. They then told me that my entire shipment would not be allowed to go. There was also a dispute as to whether my brochures, booklets and magazines were ‘books,’ so the claimed number of items was said to be falsified, and that was a criminal act also. I was going to need to take all of my shipment out of the customs area, and bring it back some other time. The two books were to go to an ‘expertise’ at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for a criminal investigation.

Having lived in Russia for 21 years, I asked to speak privately with the ‘nachalnik.’ I (consciously, manipulatively – and I was also very upset) begged them to let my shipment go, that it had been a pure mistake for one book older than 1915 to have been in the boxes, that I had already planned everything about my shipment and departure, that it would be a disaster if my shipment could not go,…that I was booked to fly two days later…

It took about 3 more hours. Those Customs guys helped us to re-file the filed documents so that at least my shipment could go. The 1+1 books were to be sent to MID to see if they were national heritage items. But my shipment could go.

I was there for 11 hours. I did not eat and was nervous the whole time… I arrived back at my place at midnight.

Arriving in Massachusetts, a week later I was informed by email by the ‘German’ company Russian rep that I would need to pay an extra $450 for the long time/trouble that their staff had needed to stay at customs, and because the customs had to open my boxes. There was nothing about this in the contract; no mention of any such possible additional charges.

So, I called Moscow and spoke to the ‘German’ boss about this. Interesting, but emotional fellow. German indeed, but 22 years in Russia. When I told him that I myself had had to repack the boxes at Customs, that I myself had convinced the customs boss to allow my shipment to go, not his staff, that instead of his previously mentioned 4 hours in Customs at Domodedeva I was there 11 hours, he actually said to me in our phone call – unbelievably, since that is what I paid for — that “it had been a courtesy to me for his staff to have stayed with me all the 11-12 hours in the Customs.” I was astonished. “They were just to deliver it to the Customs location…” I could not believe he said that! My contract showed they were to also handle, point 5: ‘Export customs clearance in Moscow including customs control, full set of export documentation’ as in the contract. He really had no good explanations to each of my comments contradicting the validity of this extra charge of $450, but he said it was ‘normal’ for this extra charge.

When I told him that I would be telling my expat friends about this experience, abruptly he said I would receive an invoice, and then he – the German boss cut off our phone connection. Their rep Ekaterina would not even tell me the name of the company that was holding my goods in Boston, only writing that if I did not pay quickly, I would incur additional storage costs in the USA.

So, I paid. There was no other option. But, how to pay? They said either by bank transfer to Germany via SWIFT (which can take a week) or in their Moscow office. Those were my two options. Nice.

So, if you decide to ship your things to the U.S. or out of the country: be very sure to adhere to all rules exactly, even down to a single book. If a problem starts, try to solve it with a bribe at the very start, quietly koneshna. And I especially suggest that you not save your money, by shipping with this ‘German’ company. It’s not worth it.