As reported, VC ‘Artist’ Josef Spacek last week had his Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin seized by Russian airport officers – as he was leaving the country, following a concert performance in Yekaterinburg.
The officials had made claims the 29 year old had failed to complete proper documentation of ownership, upon entry – and subsequently seized the 1855 instrument for more than 5 days, whilst validations were being made.
In a VC-exclusive web blog, Josef explains the distressing saga:
“I am almost 29 years old and have traveled to more than 40 countries around the world for concerts. I am accustomed to traveling with my violin wherever I go, so I’m used to dealing with all the hassle around visas, negotiations with airline representatives (“No, I cannot check my violin…”), and the like.
This would be my first time traveling to Russia for a performance. The Italian orchestra I would be playing with had sent me templates of documents to fill out and bring with me. I had heard from peers that Russia has particularly strict procedures with customs, so I prepared the documents carefully. I provided them to the orchestra thinking everything was ready and set. Typically, when an orchestra travels (as I know from my experiences with the Czech Philharmonic), they provide a list of all the instruments to the respective countries’ customs offices. I expected my violin to be reported prior to my arrival, so with only a slight hesitation did I enter customs at Yekaterinburg through “the green line”, indicating I had nothing to declare.
Everything went smoothly at first. I had a wonderful experience performing Concerto Gregoriano by Respighi (a hidden gem!) at the Euroasia festival. I played with a great Italian orchestra in front of a wonderfully responsive Russian audience.
The next day, while I was packing in my hotel in preparation for my trip back home to Prague, one of the festival’s administrators called me to check that all was well. I only realized something was wrong when she said, “Just don’t forget to go through the red line.” When I explained that I had entered Russia through the green line, I sensed she started to worry. She wished me luck and suggested I go back the same way I came in and hope for the best.
I went to the airport, walked through the green line and put my violin on the x-ray scan. Right away, one of the customs officers on duty requested I provide documents, so I handed over everything I had carefully printed out before leaving for Russia (including photos of the instrument, copies of the violin’s certificate, descriptive information from the seller of the instrument and the appraisal of the violin’s value). She inspected them with a frown and brought over four of her colleagues to determine how to proceed. None of them spoke English, and the small amount I understood from the translator I had with me did little to calm my nerves.
They told me the documents were not sufficient and asked me to follow them to their office. They explained that because I had not declared the violin upon entry to Russia that the violin would have to undergo an expert inspection to determine whether the instrument was really the violin made by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume that I claimed it was and not a fraud. They also needed to verify that I had brought the same instrument into the country that I now wanted to take out. They told me the verification process takes up to 20 days and would require them to seize the violin.
During the next 6 days, I was caught in a cycle between hope and disappointment. Things would look promising (“We can expedite the process and have you out of here by tomorrow”) only to be followed by bureaucratic complications. At one moment, it seemed I would need my wife to send me original copies of every document necessary, only for the customs office to change their mind. I quickly learned that relationships were key to managing the Kafka-esque process, but luckily, I had a team of support from the Czech consulate to the Czech Philharmonic who did everything possible to contact the right people. I also discovered that the customs officials particularly respected symbols and statuses. Stamps, signatures, color print and words like “power of attorney” became critical. Everything needed to be printed and signed. Anything electronic or digital was disregarded.
All in all, I faced three distinct problems.
Firstly, because things were moving slowly, my Russian visa was about to expire. This problem was solved the quickest, yet a new visa extension required a lot of paperwork. Among other documents, I had to provide a letter of invitation from the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic (which organized the festival in which I performed), another letter from the Ministry of Culture, and a statement from the hotel I stayed at upon arrival in Russia. Furthermore, the payment for the visa had to go through a special bank terminal and so on. Luckily, the Czech consulate was extremely helpful in this and in every other problem regarding administration, so this problem was promptly resolved.
Secondly, the customs officials realized or decided on Day 2 that I had committed an offense by not declaring the instrument, and this became the biggest problem of all. Now I had to go through the process of clearing my offense before I could get the violin back. This meant writing more protocols, which would have to be translated to Russian by a certified translator, checking the evidence that my act was unintentional and verifying that I use this same violin for personal use and with the Czech Philharmonic. They reviewed the airport surveillance video and also requested witnesses from the philharmonic to claim that they saw me play this violin at the concert.
It took 3 days to be cleared of the offense, and ultimately I was charged with 1500 Rubles (24 USD). There apparently was a second offense at some point (I don’t know for what reason), but I was pardoned that one. Like every other document, the clearance had to be signed and verified by witnesses. Even the fee ticket had to be signed about 10 times. Nonetheless, I would be able to get my violin back, and they finally could admit that it was mine.
When the Czech General Consul, the translator and I finally arrived at the right office to see the violin, the officer asked for identification. I gave him my passport, but he insisted he couldn’t take it, because it was not in Russian (!). At that point, we finally lost our cool. I had never seen anyone reject a passport as identification, and eventually our opposition convinced him to let us through.
The customs officials informed me the violin was ready for me; however, they insisted it would only be returned to me in the airport main hall so the handover could be done in front of the press. We firmly refused; it was our right to get the violin without a press show. The refusal only cost us another 30 minute delay as higher ups needed to decide whether to respect my privacy.
Finally, the violin was brought to the room. I was supposed to inspect it and sign that everything was in place. Photos of my hands were even taken when signing and examining the violin as further evidence of my identity. In a long marathon of events, this was one happy moment. I played a few notes in gratitude for the customs officials, most of whom were friendly and not to blame for following the procedural rules they did not create.
The third problem I faced was that the customs officials pronounced my violin a ‘cultural valuable.’ In Russia, cultural valuables need a certificate from the Federal Ministry of Culture in Moscow to be allowed to leave the country. After many phone calls and long waits, the Ministry sent us a letter where they defined the criteria for a ‘cultural valuable.’ My violin was not in accordance with a single one of them. Most importantly, I am not a Russian citizen and according to the already made expert inspection, the violin did not come from nor did it belong to Russia. The Ministry could therefore not issue a certificate to allow the violin to leave the country; it was out of their jurisdiction.
Armed with this letter, we came to the airport for my thrice rebooked flight and hoped for the best. On the way to the check-in area, we filed a few more papers regarding the declaration of the violin with the customs department, who by this point all knew about the violin. I successfully went through the red line and boarded the plane to go home.
Despite all the troubles I experienced, I loved going to Russia. It had exceeded my expectations in a positive way. The people I met, even at customs, were kind and warm. Some had recognized me from the media fuss and were sorry for what I had to go through. I would especially like to thank the Czech Consulate and Czech general consul who spent the whole six days with me helping with everything from flights, hotel reservations, translations to keeping up my social well-being. I’d like to thank the director of the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic and others from the festival. I am also grateful to the Czech Philharmonic, who did everything they could to help me from Prague. I’d also like to thank my agent, who was unwaveringly supportive, and my family who were there for me, albeit remotely, 24/7. Finally, I could not have gotten through the ordeal so quickly without the 30+ supporting team members who helped navigate me and supply me with all the right documents.
I will definitely want to come back to Russia – next time through the “goods to declare” red line!
– Josef Spacek”