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Thirty-year-old Sasha is a happily married man. He and his wife Natasha live in separate apartments. They see each other only every couple months, rarely talk, and she lives with another man. Then what is it in this relationship that provides such marital bliss? Natasha’s propiska — her Moscow residency permit that allows husband Sasha to live and work legally in Russia’s most desirable city.

Sasha grew up in Volgograd, a city on the top of the Volga River delta in southern Russia. But Sasha left home at age 20 to study at the prestigious Moscow State University. He thrived in the city, and, as graduation neared, he knew he didn’t want to go back to Volgograd.

“After Moscow, I couldn’t think about going back home,” Sasha says. During Sasha’s matriculation, the Soviet Union fell, and Moscow became a booming metropolis — with discos, shopping malls and a whopping two-thirds of all foreign investment in Russia. To stay and work legally in the capital, Sasha had to do something drastic.

“Natasha and I were friends in university,” Sasha says. “I knew that if I married her, I would be automatically registered and I could pursue a career and stay in Moscow.”

Two years later, Sasha is logistics manager for a major Western pharmaceuticals company. He’s the guy who gets shipments through the maze of Russian customs and out to far-flung regions. With a base salary of $1,500 a month, supplemented by overtime work, Sasha earns nearly 10 times the average monthly wage in Russia.

“I go to clubs, I travel — I’ve been to Europe and the U.S.,” Sasha says.

Back in Volgograd, his friends are earning a bare minimum — $200 a month. The rent for Sasha’s two-room apartment in central Moscow costs four times that much.

“Only in Moscow are things happening. The smaller towns are slowly catching up, but they still don’t compare. If I went home to Volgograd, I’d earn nothing, and my job would be boring. There’s no reason to go back; jobs are scarce,” Sasha says.

But Sasha’s future in Moscow is now uncertain. Natasha and her boyfriend may be ready to tie the not for real. “We’ll get divorced, and will lose my propiska,” Sasha laments.

Sasha says he’ll figure out a way to stay — at any cost. “I just don’t know what exactly it will be.”

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