Daily vlog live from the USSR
We're off to the epic trip in Russia, and I'm implementing a new season of the daily vlog. 5 episodes released so far, much more to go. You can follow our adventures on this YouTube playlist. All new episodes are being added there daily.
This is the longest stretch of daily vlogs I've ever done.
Expect Saint-Petersburg, Cherepovets, Vologda region, small villages, countryside, trains, metro, super fast boats from USSR times, lots of coffee, vintage soviet arcade video machines and hunt for rare vintage film cameras.
Freedom of movement
It’s early summer morning. I’m 15 years old. I and my mum are standing in a long crowded queue outside of the embassy of Finland in Moscow. The consulate reception is not opened yet, but the queue is already impressive. Tourists, businessmen, travel agents. Our case is somewhat different - a couple of months ago I was picked as an exchange student to be sent to a foreign country, together with another dude from our college. We’re not from Moscow. We’re from Cherepovets - a small town the size of Helsinki, famous for the density of local factories and purple clouds around the industrial area.
Cherepovets is considered the largest town in the region, and in my first 15 years of life I never been to Moscow. Up to that point, Cherepovets was my biggest town, cultural centre and the place to be. The general path of a career in Cherepovets consisted of finishing the school, getting into a professional school, maybe local university, doing a summer internship at one of the factories, and eventually working for the next 40 years there. Your freedom was largely represented by the variety of factories. You were free to pick from a chemical factory, matchstick factory, ship factory, dairy product factory. Despite that, you would likely and inevitably end up working for a metallurgical conglomerate, one of the largest in the country. In fact, the college I ended up after the school also belonged to that corporation and was in practice an incubator for the skilled people going straight to metal production.
There was a student exchange program however with a small town in Finland. Most of the towns in Finland are small. This one was especially tiny, with around 20k people, far up north, next to the gulf of Bothnia. What made is special is that also had a metal production plant, a professional school and a university.
Let’s recapture for a second. I’m a 15 years old dude from Cherepovets. I need to get to Finland. How hard can this be?
Normally you’d get your passport at the age of 16. You can apply earlier, but you’d need a special reasoning for that. I think it took me about few weeks to get that done.
Passport for travelling
In Soviet Russia, no one needed to travel abroad, since everything was perfect in the place of your residence. If you did need to travel, that would require you a bunch of paperwork, recommendations from you place of work or study, release papers from the army, background checks by the KGB and lots of questioning. This has changed slightly after the USSR was gone, and a new era was begun. Slightly, but not hugely. You would still need to apply for a special passport that would have your name written in latin letters, and be valid for foreign visas.
And of course, you would need to have your “main” passport done first.
It took an impressive pile of paperwork and about a month (I think) to get the travel passport done.
Because I needed a student visa valid for a year, I had to travel personally to the consulate of Finland in Moscow. I should mention that if you’re a lucky resident of Saint-Petersburg, you would also find a local consulate in your town. Everyone else had to travel to Moscow. I mean, I was lucky to live in the European part of the country, just a train day away.
It also wasn’t really well organised at the consulate. No appointments, a live queue outside of the fence, then getting through the security inside of the consulate and queueing to the bulletproof reception windows. Most of us were also hastily filling up the long forms and glueing profile photos. Another impressive pile of papers, forms for myself and the second dude who was also picked to be exchanged. Finally, we’re told to wait for a month, call and check on the status. After the decision is done you’d have to come down again (just a day on a train away) and pick up the passports.
We got visas 2 months later and an extra slice of bureaucracy from Finnish consulate - one of the papers was missing and they delayed the answer for an extra month, up to the point when we already needed to go.
All in all, 4 months of paperwork, and you were good to go.
Sometimes I feel like people don’t appreciate the freedom of movement. This is largely concentrated around people who have always had it. It’s one of those things that feel essential while you have it, but you are shocked once it is taken away.
As far as I know, freedom of movement implemented in the EU is unique and only experience, that no other union or country has done. At least not on the same scale. Can you consider the United States as a bunch of different countries? A bit, maybe. But culture wise Europe is an amazingly diverse package, bundled with a million of different languages, foods and traditions. Yet somehow there’s an agreement to let everyone (within the Union) travel and work freely, anywhere you want.
With zero paperwork.
I remember my first time crossing the border of Finland and Sweden. We were driving in a car. It was forest, then more forest, then a bridge across the river. And a sign saying “Welcome to Sweden”. No delays, no paperwork, no one guarding the border with a barbed wire. I was shocked.
At this point, you want to be a part of this amazing thing. You want to be part of the EU, contribute, and make it even better. You make it the purpose of your life. Because this is one of the most amazing things humanity has ever achieved. Instead of fighting each other - give everyone freedom to live anywhere you want, to be anything you want. Free medicine, free education, social support for everyone in the union, doesn’t matter which language you’re speaking. That’s something that inspires you.
This is humanity at its best.
A very special cookie
First few countries you visit while living in Finland are most likely to be Sweden, Norway and Estonia. This is when you learn that Norway is not in the EU, but somehow the border between Finland and Norway looks exactly the same, as between Sweden and Finland. No one is guarding it, and if you miss the “Welcome to Norway” sign, you might later notice that speed limits have changed, as did colours of the road signs. This is when you start learning about the special status of the Norway. In addition to the EU, there is the Schengen agreement. You might not be an EU citizen, just a tourist (or a student) - but you’re still going to enjoy a good portion of the same freedom of movement as the EU citizens do. Yes, you will not be able to work in another country, but you will be able to freely visit almost all of them. And more - as in the case of Norway, which is not even a part of the EU.
As you progress in your travels and reach the farthest reaches, you are likely to encounter an ancient island of Britain. This will be another eye-opening discovery - despite the UK being part of the EU, they will not let you in with a Finnish visa. The reason being that the UK was never a part of the Schengen agreement, hence you have to apply for another visa. The UK visa. Unless you are a proper EU citizen, in which case you can freely come and go as you please.
My first visit to the UK was in 2009. I’ve filled 36 pages long form - this achievement still holds my personal record for being the longest form I’ve ever filled in my life. Paid 90 euros of processing fees. Arranged an appointment at the UK consulate in Helsinki. Gave up my fingerprints and retina scan. All of this only to find out that they are unable to process my request. The reason being that I was planning to travel in April, while my Finnish visa was expiring in May. According to The Rules, a visa from the origin country must be valid for at least 2 months after my visit to the UK is concluded. I guess the UK was secretly afraid I’d illegally stay on the island.
Now let’s combine the bureaucracy of one country with the bureaucracy of another.
The Finnish visa that was about to expire was, in fact, 3 years long visa. After that, I could apply for a permanent residentship (doesn’t equal citizenship, completely different topic). However, because I had to renew it before full 3 years of that visa would expire, I couldn’t apply for the permanent visa just yet. At that point, Finland gave me 4 years long visa, and I could finally apply for a UK tourist visa.
I’m sorry for the amount of the details, but I really want you to feel the absurdity of the whole system.
The problem is, it doesn’t feel absurd at all, as long as you don’t think about it. This is the way we’ve arranged our travels for a past couple of hundreds of years (we all know that before that you’d simply gallop into another country on a horse while swinging your sword).
London was a nice place in 2009, but somewhat unattractive in terms of interesting software related jobs. And back at home Nokia was still dominating the world - although some signs of the decay were coming through. The most talented software people in Finland would likely be employed by Nokia at a time, and then maybe poached by one of the Silicon Valley -based companies. Fast forward 5 years and everything has changed. Nokia is no more, and London somehow managed to turn things around and became one of the most attractive places to work in the software industry. I also got my EU citizenship and could finally exercise proper 100% pure freedom of movement. You would think that the story ends here with a nice happy ending. That’s a big fat nope.
While I was living in Finland I got married to a girl from Russia. She got Finnish residentship (~6 months of processing and 150 euros in fees). Then we moved to the UK. She got the UK residentship (~6 months of processing with both her and my passports taken by the Home Office). Unlike Finnish residentship, UK residentship sucks at freedom of movement - it is simply not appreciated anywhere beyond the UK borders. Not even in the Commonwealth Countries (a term you learn after moving here). UK residentship allows you to stay in the UK, and that’s about it. If you’d like to travel to the EU, you have to apply for a visa.
I did quite a bit of research on this topic. Technically there is an EU law that allows family members of the EU citizen to travel without a visa. However, people tend to agree that explaining this to a Ryanair employee might not get you on a flight. So, let’s be honest, the law doesn’t work and you need a visa.
Things get more interesting at this point. You can apply for a normal tourist visa (~£60 fee), or a family member visa (£0 fee). You will still have to fill in a lengthy form of a country you want to visit, attach profile pictures (£10), proof of address (free, but you have to order it at least 2 weeks in advance) and marriage certificate (phone call to Finnish magistrate, 27 euros of fees and 2 weeks of delivery). Family member visa only allows you to travel together with your “more entitled” family member. Same-sex partners are ok. If you want to travel alone, you would still have to apply for a normal tourist visa.
Once again you’ve probably noticed how quickly things became complicated. Let’s for a moment compare this to a scenario when you have a residence of a Schengen area country. You want to visit another EU country - you jump on a flight and go.
My wife could eventually get a UK citizenship (7 years of residence, £1200 in fees), and we could both enjoy a freedom of movement. However, Brexit happened. The UK is aiming at the Norway special cookie case. Considering that the UK already was a special cookie within the EU, that makes them a very special cookie. However, it’s not going to be exactly a Norway case, since Norway is a part of Schengen area. Freedom of movement is something the UK residents wants to limit by all cost. This obviously cuts both ways, but sometimes you have to get what you really want. From the freedom of movement perspective, UK citizenship gets massively devalued. You’ll get to stay in the UK, but is it something you really, really want? Home Office is inflating immigration fees and tightening rules, Brexit campaigners want immigration to stop completely and get all the foreigners out. And let’s be honest, the best way to do that is to ruin the country and make it complete unattractive on a global scale.
After living in a few countries you start to view the world from a different perspective. It’s a hugely diverse world, but it should be open for everyone. Freedom of movement should be universal. It is likely not to happen on a global scale anytime soon. But somehow the EU made it work on a significant part of the planet. This is an incredibly huge achievement.
Implementing freedom of movement is considered hard and is opposed by many people. But it transcends us as a humanity. This is when you start thinking about the planet as a whole, and not just about your personal lawn. And we are having global problems on our hands - like the ever heating planet that might as well destroy all of us tomorrow, despite the residence statuses or saving accounts. Should we maybe grow up a bit, develop a sense of empathy and maybe just a tiny bit of tolerance for each other?
And, eventually, cancel all the paperwork.
Agfa Flexilette twin reflex 35mm camera
TLR means twin lens reflex. Unlike SLR:s, TLR features 2 lenses and a mirror. Most TLR cameras are made for medium format film. 35mm film TLR:s are a rare breed, Agfa Flexilette being one of those.
Flexilette itself is a rare find. It’s been manufactured in 1960-61, succeeded by Agfa Optima Reflex camera. Agfa struggled to compete with the growing range of SLR cameras and gave up after producing these 2 models. Today Flexilette represents a unique camera with an unusual design, waist-level viewfinder, twin lenses, durable mechanics, and it is guaranteed to draw at least some attention in today’s world full of technology.
We got Flexilette during one of the recent camera fairs in Westminster. In perfectly working condition, with original case. Since then I’ve been using it as an everyday 35mm film camera, compact enough to always fit into my backpack. It is not the lightest camera, most of the body is made of metal after all. But it feels very good in hands, with no sharp edges, nice and rounded body and easy to press buttons.
Now that you are the proud owner of an Agfa Flexilette twin-lens reflex camera you will be able to take wonderful photographs as a constant reminder of the past. You are to be congratulated on your choice. — Official manual.
A word of warning if you are reading this on mobile connection - this post contains lots of pictures.
Brexit, or let's be more human
There are so many words written on the topic of Brexit that I was going to just ignore the issue and move on.
Especially since I have no vote on the matter.
However, I live in the UK now. I pay taxes. And I genuinely love this place. Well, mostly London. But also rest of the country, the bits I've seen.
The reason I live here is my Finnish passport. I was born in Russia, but then moved to Finland when I was 15. Thanks to free education in Finland I got my degree, found a job, and did quite well for the next 15 years.
Then, thanks to the freedom of movement, I decided to try another country. It is pretty awesome when you can find a job anywhere within EU, move there and start working, with no need for a working permit or any other bureaucratical nonsense. Freedom of movement is one of the essential things in the world, strangely restricted in some parts. If you’re a less lucky citizen of a non-EU country, generally you would have to either stick with that country or spend lots of efforts trying to achieve the same level of movement freedom.
UK has always been a bit of a special fruit of EU. My first visit to London was in 2009 when I only had my Russian passport. Application for a UK visa was 36 pages long (not kidding), cost me around 90 euros and an extra day to travel to the UK consulate in Helsinki. Today they don’t even have a consulate in Helsinki - the closest one is in Stockholm, and you'd have to send your passport there, along with the biometric data. Despite all of that, I remembered that feeling of a huge but cosy megapolis where I could settle for a few years some day.
It’s been 2.5 years now since I and my wife relocated from Finland. If we talk strictly about British things, it’ll be separate cold and hot water taps, electric shower, full English breakfast, jacket potato - although who am I kidding, I love jacket potatoes here. Fish and chips are less relevant since both of us are vegetarians. But London makes up to you with a diversity of cultures brought by immigrants like myself. Most amazing Turkish baklava, Greek coffee, Sichuan food, falafels. I’m talking food now, but actually, to me, London is a place of acceptance. It is the only place in the world where you can come with your accent, and people will say - “Hey, nice of you to come, what would you want to do?”. No one cares about your accent or being a foreigner here. Even if you're a talking bear, it will not make you special here. What matters is who you actually are, what do you actually want. It’s a place of endless possibilities with the most amazing people around.
Again most of the people you’ll meet will be from somewhere else. Either from different parts of Britain or more than often from other countries.
London is a place of tolerance. It is not a funny idea you entertain in your mind, read about it in books or watch in movies. You are surrounded by a thousand of different cultures, every time you step out of your house. Tolerance and empathy towards things different from your views and opinions - you just get it, like a level up, after living here for a while. There is literally no other place in the world like this. (Or maybe is, but I haven’t been there). In here you live in constant realisation how diverse people can be. And it’s a good thing. Diversity and tolerance teach openness toward others.
In my idealistic version of the world, everyone can freely travel, settle anywhere, and do stuff they want. People are friendly and we help each other. Also maybe a universal basic income for everyone, in case you just don’t feel like doing anything today. Oh, also free food, free unlimited energy, robots building stuff for us. Some parts of this dream are already here, although not evenly distributed. EU managed to provide freedom of moving and settling around a significant chunk of countries. You’ll get free health care, social benefits (if eligible), education and language courses. For me, the idea of helping each other and uniting everyone into something bigger just feels right. Breaking this is the opposite of right.
It is highly tempting to compare running a country to running a commercial company. There is, however, a fundamental difference. Countries cannot be run for profit. The main purpose of any country is to provide the best possible environment for its residents. Not pile up money. Not lock down its borders and pretend that there is no one else around. Denial was sort of possible one hundred years ago when communication was largely non-existent, travel was hard and was performed mainly when going to war. Today you can follow up climate change via live HD broadcast from space. This is our planet, it’s the only one we have, no one is getting out of here anytime soon. Denial is a sweet thing, but to me is a sign of ignorance.
Running a country like a commercial company has largely messed up our priorities. Somehow we put monetary gains above humanitarian values. This is happening in the age when we all know that money is highly superficial. We have invented it, it is not backed by gold anymore, it is largely made of overvalued mortgages. Yes, we stick to the idea that money is the most important thing - but mainly because we used to this. In my mind money is very much secondary, and today with all the technological advancements we should be able to provide everyone with free food, shelter and stuff. Honestly, today we have enough stuff for everyone. For the first couple of years while living in London we got all sort of stuff from streets, left by people who couldn’t fit it in the (tiny) apartments.
London is an amazing place, but it wasn’t like this for always. I think it became highly attractive in the past 5-ish years. Suddenly there are small creative companies changing the historical ways of doing things. This is where you want to be - change the world, play a part of improving it. The only way forward really is to completely dissolve borders, welcome talented people from all around the world, with their cultures and ways of thinking. This is certainly an idealistic view, and surely there will be people who just want refuge. This is again where EU steps in, and a coalition of countries can figure out a way of evenly distributing challenges.
Change is good. And we should be able to handle it. It wouldn’t be a problem for me and my wife to move to another country. Let’s be 100% honest - the UK is not on top of the family friendly country list. Today I’d say it’ll be Sweden or Finland. Or even Estonia with their electronic government and a way to pay taxes in 5 mins, online. Full data transparency, a personal chip with a private key for every citizen. Ability to vote online, while enjoying a drink in your country house. I could work remotely too. But there is something here in London that makes me wake up every day, commute for an hour into the city. This something is people - some of the most talented people in the world. Together we are making it better. As one of the founders put it, our tiny company employs people from 20 nationalities around the world. We’re all immigrants here. And all of us will have no problem to move somewhere else, job wise. The world is a big place.
But I’d prefer to stay here. London is one amazing place. After a recent move, we’ve found a bunch of Eastern European food shops selling pretty authentic food straight from my Soviet childhood. In many ways London is like Lego - it gives you an enormous amount of bricks, and you can build out of it any life you want.
And I love building.
Update: there is an ongoing discussion on Reddit for separating London from the UK and keeping it as part of EU.
Update 2: If you haven’t seen the #CatsAgainstBrexit, it will make your day.
GOV UX Proof of address
One of the basic needs when dealing with governmental services for a person is to prove your current place of residency. It may sound trivial, but there are multiple approaches to solving this problem.
In the UK it is called “proof of address”. It is always required when you want to:
- Open a bank account
- Register with a local surgery
- Change your address details with a bank
- Apply for a travel visa
What is it? To prove that you are indeed residing at a given address you must provide a council tax or utility bill, with your name on it, delivered at a given address. There is a catch - it should be issued within 30 days or it is not valid anymore.
As everything in Britain, this rule was probably a brilliant invention in its simplicity at some point of history. Today, not so much.
Your local council will mail you tax bill about once a year. Utility bills will be issued at various intervals. However, all my current utility bills are electronic. I pay for electricity and gas directly from a mobile app. This leaves council tax bill as the main source of being one and only available proof of address.
In practice, you can make a telephone call and order new council tax bill at any moment. They will generally mail it within next couple of weeks. After that, you have a valid proof of address for the next 30 days. Problem postponed.
In Finland, they have a state register with data on everyone residing in the country (as well as citizens living abroad). This register contains your current address, marital status, national security number, and probably a bunch of other stuff. The register is used by the post office to verify delivery address. The same register is used by pretty much every other government agency when they need to verify your residency.
When dealing with Finnish banks, the local version of NHS or any other government agency it is generally enough to tell your national identity number. They will check it on the state register and will verify everything else from there. This comes super handy during phone calls - all you need to tell is your private state ID - which is much easier than spelling out your name, address and phone number.
Handling things with the Finnish Register Office is also not ideal today. Access to the main database is limited to the clerks only, and the database itself is also not very fast from what I can tell. My dream scenario would be some sort of open repository where I can issue key and authorise 3rd parties to access certain parts of my personal data registered with the state. This repository should be international. For example, today marriage should be registered separately in each state of your residence - and in the case of divorce - unregistered separately.
To be fair, this year Finnish Register Office started offering online services - quite a limited subsection of them. They are going to extend the list of online services during this and next years.