Lady in mourning behind bars for faulty passport

Irina Kablukova
, Den za Dnjomi ajakirjanik
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Photo: Den za Dnjom

Inhabitant of Estonia fails to attend funeral of brother after a fault, spotted by specialist eyes alone, is found in her passport on Russian border.

For ever, January 12th will remain a dark day in the memories of Irina Ristmägi (74). By profession and story of life, the lady has seen and experienced a lot. 

Ms Ristmägi was born in the pre-War Leningrad, survived the blockade, ended up in Estonia for family reasons, serving as editor-in-chief at Molodjozh Estonii (the most popular Russian langue newspaper in Estonia) as the Soviet Union was falling apart. On purpose, she never applied for Estonian citizenship, choosing to share the fate of numerous readers by obtaining residence permit, the grey passport.

Still a noncitizen today, Ms Ristmägi had not run into too much inconvenience. And what transpired was not caused by the colour of the passport; rather, by the passport as such.

Last journey

Ms Ristmägi got her new passport at Sõle St bureau of Police and Border Guard Board, last October. According to the lady, the official issuing the passport suggested she check and see if all is correct in the document.

So check she did: the name was right, the date of birth as well; the photo looked all right. So all seemed OK. 

For two months, she never needed the document; till, as the New Year begun, bad news came from St Petersburg: he brother, Vladimir, had passed away.

«We were close. He has helped me a lot, in life, and that’s why the ties were still strong despite the border and the age. It all happened so suddenly! Just some days ago we talked over the phone, exchanged holiday greetings, made plans who would visit whom once summer comes around... I did know his health wasn’t the best, but still was shaken by the death,» said Ms Ristmägi.

So she started getting ready for the funeral. No need for Russian visa, recently got her new passport... For the day her brother was to be cremated, there were no tickets. Nothing doing – holidays. Therefore, Ms Ristmägi agreed with brother’s family: she’d not be there for the cremation, but would arrive by January 12th as the urn would be buried.

«Boarded the train, in the morning. Got myself comfortable, put on my slippers, and rode towards my homeland to see the closest person I hah on his final journey. Till Narva, all was normal. There, border guards entered, took the documents...» recalls the lady.

Off the train, bags and all

Promptly, Estonian border guards saw Ms Ristimägi’s passport was outright faulty: no number on the front page. All other pages do, but the most important page – where one starts the check – has not. At printing, something went wrong.

«They took the passport, went someplace, and came back and said it was none of my fault: they had received assurance the passport had verily been issued to me. They said I could ride on; even so, on my way back, the passport would be taken from me – I would get a replacement in any bureau,» continued the lady.

«Naturally, I asked if I would not run into trouble once in Russia. They said all should be okay, letting me travel on,» she added.

In Ivangorod, Russian border guards came into the car and, of course, promptly spotted the fault. The lady explained where and why she was travelling, that she’d survived the blockade, showed the return ticket. But...

«The border guards said I had to pack my stuff and follow after them,» said Ms Ristmägi.

At the station, the elderly lady was led to some building, the function of which she did not know. A large empty hall, windows with bars. The passport was taken away, she left alone to wait.

As she saw the train leave, Ms Ristmägi lost control. Clearly, she’d not make it to St Petersburg. The brother would be buried with her not there. She got hysterical.

«Tears, sobs, hard to breathe. Sharp pain in the chest. People rushed into the room, having obviously heard my grumbling. They talked about calling an ambulance; I told them there was no need, asking for medicine from my bag. They were quite startled themselves. They called my son-in-law, announced what had happened,» recalls Ms Ristmägi.

«Thereafter, the same border guard that had decided to lift me off the train took me straight to the border, by car. I was taken via passage for employees, so I would not have to stand in the line, and so I got back to Estonia,» she adds.

Understand and forget

Having recovered somewhat, Ms Ristmägi wrote a letter to Police and Border Guard Board director general Elmar Vaher. She wanted to know how she could have been issued a passport like that, and what she was supposed to do now that she had to experience the intimidation of being lifted off the train for a fault not her own, never making it to her brother’s funeral. The Estonian side knowing the passport wasn’t in order, neither forged. So why did they not warn the Russian colleagues?

Mr Vaher answered speedily. They asked for Ms Ristmägi’s pardon, assuring her it was a regrettable shame that happened. An internal investigation was promised, wherefore the sufferer was asked to visit any bureau and hand over the passport, to be replaced for free. Also, they promised she’d be compensated the train and bus ticket money (the latter Ms Ristmägi had purchased to get from Narva to Tallinn – I. K.).

«Of course I accepted the apology. Still, the experience took a toll on me, so I decided to tell others, to warn them things like this might happen,» said Ms Ristmägi.

Error overlooked by officials 

According to Karin Rohtla, Police and Border Guard Board press representative, the missing number in Irina Ristmägi’s grey passport was a printing error: one element missed. As a rule, documents are checked both in print shop and Police and Border Guard Board; this time, the fault went unnoticed. To their knowledge, an error like this has ever happened before.

According to Ms Rohtla, the border guards at Narva border checkpoint, on the Estonian side, noticed the error in the passport and notified the owner. «She was advised to leave the train while still in Estonia; even so, the passenger explained she had to stay on that very train. The border-guards checked that the document was not a counterfeit and was issued to the very Irina Ristmägi. Therefore, she was allowed to ride on, warning her of possible risk.»

Why then did the border guards call the Russian officials, having learnt about the error and verified the person? «Regrettably, Estonian border-guards have no rights, on such occasions, to secure a person’s passage across the border.»

Ms Rohtla said the quality of Estonian travel documents is excellent, as a rule. To the Police and Border Guard Knowledge, 203,205 passports were applied for last year; of these, only ten had to be replaced due to faults.

«A passport with a fault like this should never come into any person’s hands; therefore, Police and Border Guard Board apologised for the inconvenience caused. The document will be replaced free of charge,» said the press representative.

Whoever wants to avoid a situation as described above, yet unaware what ought to be checked in addition to name and dates, are advise by police to visit the website, presenting samples of correct documents.