D. J. Bernstein

My trip to Russia

The 6th IMACS conference on Applications of Computer Algebra was held in St. Petersburg in June 2000. Victor Pan invited me to speak at the session on Algebraic Algorithms and Algebraic Complexity.


Planes started to fill up in April. The conference web pages still didn't say exactly when the talks would end, or how long it would take to get from the conference to the airport. It's fairly common for conferences to end at noon on the final day; I asked the organizer if a flight leaving at 13:50 would fit the schedule of talks. He said it would. I purchased tickets.

The conference web pages did have some useful information. The $200 conference fee ``will cover the organizing expenses, a car from and to the airport, coffee breaks, cultural events, conference party,'' they said; I had already been told that the taxis in St. Petersburg were all operated by the mob, so I was happy to hear about the car. Rooms had been reserved at two hotels, the Oktyabrskaya and the Sovetskaya, with the Sovetskaya ``not close'' to the conference site. The Oktyabrskaya had $30 rooms and $40 rooms, with the $40 rooms having ``slightly higher quality furniture and wallpaper.''

I filled out the web registration form. Who am I? What is my address? When am I arriving? Leaving? What hotel room do I want? Oktyabrskaya, one of the $40 rooms, please. Do I need a visa? What is my citizenship? Passport number? Passport expiration date? Date of birth? They asked for a faxed copy of my passport. What is my talk title? I gave them my final title, replacing the tentative title that I had provided earlier. (Later, when they wrote the schedule, they used the tentative title.) I also provided my credit-card number for the conference fee.

The Euler International Mathematical Institute faxed me an official-looking Russian invitation on 2000.05.24. I found the visa application procedure on the web at http://www.russianembassy.org/CONSULAT/BSN-VISA.HTM and the visa application form at http://www.ruscon.com/forms/visa-app.pdf. I FedExed an application to the Russian Embassy on 2000.06.05, with an $80 cashier's check, three passport pictures, a photocopy of my passport, a cover letter, and a FedEx return slip. The visa arrived from Washington on 2000.06.14.

2000.06.23: Signs from God

It took me an hour longer than I expected to get from downtown Chicago to the O'Hare airport, thanks to a major accident on the freeway. United gave my seat to a standby passenger.

There was a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt two hours later. It was scheduled to arrive in Frankfurt at 8:00 the next day, so I figured I could still make my St. Petersburg flight at 8:50. I caught the Lufthansa flight. The plane sat next to the runway for more than half an hour. Finally it took off.

2000.06.24: Welcome to the Evil Empire

A few hours before we arrived in Frankfurt, I asked one flight attendant if we would make the scheduled arrival time. He said we would.

I reviewed a map of the Frankfurt airport and asked another flight attendant if I could find out our arrival gate. She said that our arrival gate wouldn't be assigned until we were on the ground.

Shortly before 8:00, we were still hundreds of miles away from Frankfurt. I explained to yet another flight attendant that I had an 8:50 flight, and asked if she could find out the arrival gate and the departure gate. She came back a few minutes later with the arrival gate. They didn't know the departure gate, she said, but there would be a sign immediately inside the airport that showed the departure gate.

We were on the ground at 8:25. Several minutes later I finally escaped the plane. I saw the sign. It was full of departure information for other flights. Obviously St. Petersburg was not their most popular connection.

People were checking in at another gate nearby. I skipped in front of the line and finally learned where the St. Petersburg flight was. I made it with ten minutes to spare.

The gate attendant insisted on taking my carry-on bag. The plane must be full, I thought. It turned out to be only about 2/3 full. My seat was occupied by several toys belonging to the child in the next seat. I sat in another row.

The plane sat at the gate for another fifteen minutes. ``We're looking for the luggage of someone who did not make the flight,'' the captain announced. That had better not be my bag, I thought.

After we took off, the flight attendants gave everyone two copies of a Russian customs form. I decided that my Dristan Cold probably wasn't what they meant by ``drugs and psychotropic substances.'' I wasn't sure about ``printed editions and information media'' so I wrote down ``MATHEMATICS PAPERS.''

Eventually we landed in St. Petersburg. The plane drove for a while along badly paved roads and finally stopped. ``All the gates are occupied,'' the captain announced. ``We are at an outer location. Buses will take you to the terminal.''

There was a stone building some 60 yards away. I guess that isn't the terminal, I thought. I got on one of the buses. Ten minutes later, the buses drove to the stone building and dropped everyone off.

There was a WC sign inside the building. I decided to wait. Ten minutes on line at passport control, half an hour waiting for my checked luggage, two minutes on line at customs, and finally I was in Russia.

I spotted a local with an EIMI sign. There are six of you on this flight, he said, and three of them are over there changing money; we'll meet over there. I saw another WC sign and headed for it. A woman at a table barked something at me in Russian and pointed to a sign. 3 PYb, the sign said. I sighed and joined the money-changing line.

The other two people arrived a few minutes later. Our guide said that we could change money at the hotel. We left the airport.

Half an hour later we were at Hotel Oktyabrskaya. ``Don't forget to get your passport back,'' our guide said, during a lull in his negotiations with the front desk. Apparently we had to give the hotel our passports and exit visas for two hours; the hotel would fax the information to the police, and then the police would decide whether to throw us in jail.

In exchange for my passport and visa, I received a card showing my name, departure date, and room number. ``You have to pay in advance for at least the first night,'' our guide said. The rate looked like $30. Two of us tried to explain that the web pages had mentioned better rooms. Our guide didn't know what we were talking about. The hotel receptionist pointed us to a sign with various rates. Some of the rates looked like the double-room rates on the web pages; none of them looked like the $40 rate. I gave up and paid $30 for four nights.

The Oktyabrskaya has only five floors but is extremely wide, stretching around a busy street corner and most of the way down the block. For some reason the hotel doesn't have any doors near the corner; the lobby is halfway down the block. My room was on the fourth floor, above the corner. I exchanged my hotel card for a room key at a floor desk near my room.

The room was extremely stuffy, with no air conditioning and apparently no ventilation of any kind, though fortunately there was only a slight smell of cigarette smoke. I tried to open the main window. I could see wood warping around the window as I pulled, no matter which way I turned the handle. I moved to the small side window and it opened without trouble. I decided that I had enough air and that it wasn't a good idea to risk breaking the main window. Two days later I would pay dearly for this mistake.

The room had a TV, a chair, a lukewarm fridge, a small table with a phone, and a poor imitation of a bed. The door had to be locked from the inside with the key. The bathroom had a sink, a towel, a shower without a curtain, toilet paper slightly softer than cardboard, and a toilet that must have dated from czarist times. On the bright side, the TV was not quite as small as I had expected, and it picked up CNN with only minor interference.

I stayed awake long enough to retrieve my passport, change real money into Monopoly money, and buy a half-liter bottle of Coke from a street vendor. Then I crashed.

The phone woke me up. It stopped. I went back to sleep.

The phone woke me up again. It stopped. I could still see sunlight outside. I went back to sleep.

The phone woke me up again. This time I managed to drag myself out of bed long enough to unplug it. Confused wake-up computer? I thought. They use Microsoft software in Russia, don't they? I went back to sleep.

2000.06.25: Can't beat the real thing

The Coke was at least five Celsius degrees colder than the rest of the room. Mmmm.

I left the hotel and started down Nevsky Prospect toward the conference site a mile away. Nevsky was a large, busy street, full of cars and pedestrians even though it was early in the morning on a Sunday; but the sidewalks were badly paved, and many of the buildings were obviously falling apart.

I found the registration desk in the Shuvalov Palace. The woman handling the beginning of the alphabet asked me for $250 for registration. I told her that I had paid by credit card two months earlier. She consulted with someone else and didn't argue, though she obviously didn't have a record of my payment. She then confirmed my departure date, asked me whether I wanted to go on the excursion, and sold me a banquet ticket for $35. Wasn't this included in the conference fee? I thought.

I thumbed through the conference abstract book. It was organized by session, and by time within session, with no table of contents and no index; did it not occur to the organizers that some people were interested in more than one session?

The conference opening speeches were scheduled for 9:00, with technical talks beginning at 9:15. The opening actually started at 9:35, sending waves of confusion through the schedule for the rest of the day.

I went to one of the conference rooms. The door opened with a screech. There was a transparency projector with a portable screen. The curtains, walls, and ceiling were obviously designed to absorb sound. A small cat was looking around the room. I settled in for the morning talks.

As the last morning talk finished, one of the locals announced that we would meet downstairs for lunch at 13:30. We were all surprised to learn that the conference organizers were providing ``free'' lunches at a nearby restaurant. The food at the restaurant wasn't bad.

The afternoon coffee break featured coffee, tea, and some huge, heavily carbonated bottles of mineral water. Four people managed to spill mineral water on the floor while opening the bottles. There had been various soft drinks at the morning coffee break, but apparently that was the palace's entire supply for the year. I bought a bottle of Coke at a bar next door.

When the afternoon talks finished, there was another surprise announcement: the conference party would take place that evening. Finally I understood that the conference party was not the same as the conference banquet.

The food at the party wasn't bad. The only drink provided at first was wine, but we eventually convinced the palace workers to bring us some bottles of water.

Back at the hotel, the towel hadn't been changed. I stuck a new bottle of Coke into the freezer and went to sleep.

2000.06.26: Maybe jail isn't such a bad option

The second day of the conference started only fifteen minutes late. Lunch was at the same restaurant. I had dinner at a KFC on Nevsky, returned to the hotel room, practiced my talk a few times, and went to sleep.

I woke up suddenly a few hours later. I was barely able to breathe. Had I been poisoned by the Russian water? My eyes stung as I opened them. I took a huge breath to get enough oxygen, then ran for my medicine kit in the bathroom.

I threw open the bathroom door and stepped in front of the sink. Suddenly I could breathe again. Something in the air, I thought. I slammed the bathroom door shut. Are they pumping poison gas into my room? It took me thirty seconds to catch my breath. I rinsed out my eyes with cold water and left the water running.

I considered my options. I still didn't know the right way to open the main window. Should I break the window? I thought. Should I try to escape to the hallway? I can't open the hallway door without the hotel key. Where is the key? On the table, with my glasses, next to the phone.

I wet the towel, held it over my nose and mouth, and ran out of the bathroom, slamming the door shut again. My eyes began stinging immediately, and the smell seeped through the towel. Ammonia? I thought. What could be generating so much ammonia? I scooped up my glasses and keys and ran back to the bathroom.

It seemed to take longer this time for my eyes to recover. Is more gas building up inside the room? I thought. The air in the bathroom seemed fine, with only a hint of the smell.

I made another trip into the death zone to grab a pair of pants. My glasses seemed to help keep the gas out of my eyes. Back in the bathroom, I put on my pants, and decided that I would have everything I really needed if I grabbed my backpack on the way out.

I abandoned the bathroom for the last time, shutting the door behind me. Seven seconds later I was in the hallway. There was a woman at the hotel desk twenty yards away, working on something. I caught my breath.

A minute later I convinced the woman to come to the room. She wrinkled her nose as she approached the room. She opened the door and quickly shut it. She backed away. Then she turned to me. ``Move,'' she said. Good idea, I thought.

My new room had better toilet paper, a better toilet, and a real bed. The main window opened smoothly. I left it open. Obviously this was one of the $40 rooms that I had asked for in the first place. Higher quality furniture, and no poison gas, I thought. I saw a mosquito and smacked it with my wet towel.

I came back to my original room. The hotel woman had summoned a maid, and bravely sent her in to open the window. The maid had trouble with the window for a few seconds, finally shoved it open, ran out of the room, and stood coughing for a minute.

Eventually I retrieved the rest of my stuff from the old room and moved it to the new room. I gave back the old key and went to sleep.

2000.06.27: Of course, but will she fit through the luggage sizer?

There was no hot water in the new room. It wasn't that the hot water was cold; the hot water knob simply didn't do anything. I took a cold shower.

I wasn't sure if the hotel would be able to figure out why there were clothes in this room. I left a piece of paper with my name, an arrow from the old room number to the new room number, ``POISON GAS'' next to the old room number, and ``NO HOT WATER'' next to the new room number.

I left the room and approached the floor desk. ``Key,'' the woman said. Apparently I was supposed to trade my key for the hotel card each time I left the hotel. I explained that there was no hot water in my room. ``Turn on, wait twenty minutes,'' she said. I tried explaining a few more times and then gave up. I ended up arriving at the palace ten minutes late, but the talks hadn't started yet.

After lunch was the conference excursion. Two buses---oops, not everyone fits? wait while we order a third bus---took us to the Summer Palace an hour away. I wasn't much of a sightseer back then, and nothing I saw at the Summer Palace seemed spectacular enough to justify two hours of walking. The fountain wasn't as impressive as the Chicago fountain. The best part of the excursion was a quiet moment looking out upon the sea.

Our guide moved quickly and didn't make any effort to keep the group together. She seemed unhappy when we returned to the fountain with a noticeably smaller group. Several stragglers arrived over the next half hour.

``Have you lost many people at previous conferences?'' I asked Stanly Steinberg, one of the organizers.

``This is revenge for when we lost twenty Russians in the mountains,'' he said.

Eventually we gave up and piled onto the bus. We arrived at the banquet an hour late. There was lots of food left, and it wasn't bad. I told my tale of poison gas. I was shocked to learn that there was a Sheraton in St. Petersburg, even closer to the conference than the Oktyabrskaya was. Did the organizers not understand that some conference participants were from the civilized world?

I checked the hot water when I returned to the hotel room. Credit to the hotel for doing one thing right: there was a new knob, and the hot water worked fine.

The phone rang shortly after I drifted off. No more jet lag; I jumped out of bed and picked up the phone. Now I'll find out who's been calling, I thought.

``Would you like beautiful Russian sex girl?'' a woman asked.

``No, thank you,'' I said. Couldn't you just hand out forms at the front desk? I thought. I went back to sleep.

2000.06.28: Freedom

The conference organizers didn't have enough cars to take everyone to the airport, so they called a taxi for me. They originally said I would be leaving at 11:00 for my 13:50 flight. I asked how much traffic there was. An hour, they said. So take me at 12:00, I said. I still had to miss the final talk, thanks to the conference schedule continuing past noon, and part of the previous talk, thanks to the fifteen-minute Russian-vodka-hangover morning delay.

The trip took half an hour. No problems at customs. The police didn't even want to talk to me once, I thought, a bit disappointed. Then the SAS flight to Copenhagen was delayed twenty minutes. I would have made it even if I had stayed for the last talk. Finally the plane accelerated along a badly paved runway and lifted off. Goodbye, Russia.

I bought some chocolate in the Copenhagen airport and went to the gate to get a seat assignment for the Chicago flight. Someone was yelling at the gate agent. Apparently he didn't understand the concept of overbooking. Finally he left her alone. I smiled at her. I ended up with seat 5B, in Business Class. He ended up with seat 16B.

Then I was home.