Work permit role play, Russian style

July 2015

By Tim Stanley, Russia Director, Control Risks

No one likes sitting exams. So when I found out I was required to sit a new exam as part of my Russian work permit application this year, a familiar mix of emotions – anxiety, fear, tension, competition – began to churn.

The exam is primarily targeted at the large number of migrants from Russia’s ‘near abroad’: the former Soviet states of Central Asia, Ukraine, Moldova, and the Caucasus. These migrants are a visible component of all major Russian cities, and traditionally work at the low income end of the employment scale, as street cleaners, builders, taxi drivers and restaurant workers. According to studies, the rate of migrants with no knowledge of the Russian language has increased sixfold in just five years. Barely half of labour migrants are capable of completing official forms, and almost one fifth have no knowledge of the language at all. Those working here as ‘Highly Qualified Specialists’ (HQS) – white-collar expats earning a minimum RUB2 million per year (about EUR 33,000) – qualify for a three-year visa and are exempt from the test. A minor technicality, however, deprived me of the exemption. I started sharpening my pencil.

The exam tests knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history, and Russian legislation. I have a degree in Russian language and literature, have been using the language on a daily basis for nearly a decade, and take a keen interest in Russian history. So, I reasoned, I should be fine.

On the other hand, with a lot at stake (livelihood, career) it didn’t pay to be too casual. I spent a week swatting up using a website recommended by the testing centre. The site launched a cascade of x-rated pop-ups when I opened it (IT, please note), but proved instructive nevertheless.

The language section tested grammar, aural comprehension, writing, practical use and conversation. My examiner was a Muscovite woman. One of our three conversational role plays required me to call a girlfriend (played by her), ask her out on a date, agree the time and location, and describe what we would do. She recorded our fake phone call, and took (real) notes. As I left the room she said how much she enjoyed our chat. Perhaps she says that to all the candidates...

Next was Russian history, a multiple choice exam requiring an 80% pass rate on 10 questions selected from a pool of 100 provided by the authorities (and available on the aforementioned website). This was a canter through Russian and Soviet history, managing to cram into 100 questions everything from the ancient Kievan Rus civilisation to the Sochi Olympics, with a colourful supporting cast of revolutionaries, tsars, writers, composers, physicists, cosmonauts and patriarchs.

Even as I write this, it’s hard not to be awed by the vast sweep of human achievements this encompasses. The subject of national identity and the teaching of history is a hot button issue in many countries. Some might consider three questions relating to Crimea’s historical destiny within Russia de trop, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by the balanced and apolitical nature of the questions.

The legal questions were a curious mix of operational, administrative and consumer protection law; civil liberties, rights and responsibilities, and general knowledge. Being able to identify the national flag, crest and currency from a shortlist of three is surely something any migrant is able to do. Remembering all the public holidays, however, is trickier, not helped by name changes introduced some years ago. Knowing your rights and responsibilities in dealings with local police is a particularly valuable skill. Negotiating your way through the bureaucratic, Soviet-inspired maze of migration cards and local registration, from the patent (a card giving short-term labour rights to migrants from certain countries), to the work permit, temporary residence, permanent residence and citizenship is sufficiently complex to support an entire industry of consultants and facilitators.

My favourite question in this section related to the work of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), which manages and regulates all national migration issues. “How can the FMS’ answering machine be useful to a foreign citizen?” it asked, casually. While most questions offered three potential answers, this presented a binary choice of either: “The FMS answering machine can help the foreign citizen to determine where and when s/he may come to the territorial FMS to resolve matters of interest” or “Not at all”. When I called a number I found on their website, I reached a recorded voice telling me to leave a message as the subscriber was not available.

Bizarrely, the topic with the largest number of questions related not to migration, but to marriage. Which legislation, this section wanted to know, governs the parties who can get married, where they can marry, how to register a marriage, whether a pre-nup is required (and if so, what it can legally contain), how to dissolve a marriage, whether a husband and wife have equal rights in the marriage, and so on. This barrage of questions appears to be aimed at minimising fictitious marriages.

The day after the test I received a phone call from the centre to inform me that I had passed. My certificate is, I imagine, now on its way to the territorial FMS, who are busy considering my application. And I am now something of an expert on the subject of marriage in Russia. Or at any rate, I’ve passed the theory test. “Come back when you’re ready to do your citizenship test,” my interviewer had called as I left the test centre. Now I know where to go when I’m ready for my practical.

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