Prisoner of Princess Maria

A Cuban architect was forced to spend 47 days on a ferry cruising between St Petersburg and Helsinki. Luis Vladimir Vega Cespedes, a 41-year old Cuban, was stuck in no-man’s land because of two minor violations of Russian migration legislation, while he was unable to enter Finland because his Schengen visa had expired.

The situation caught the attention of a Russian filmmaker Alexey Zlobin, who decided to make a documentary about the stranded architect and his day-to-day life aboard the ferry that became his temporary home. The Cuban architect helped the crew by working as a waiter in a bar, while working on a new architecture project.

His wife, who is Russian, was able to see him from time to time as she bought return tickets and kept him company on board. His friends were also able to spend time with him in this way. However, every time Mr Cespedes tried to leave the ferry to get back to Russia, border security denied him access.

The Cuban national was born in Ivanovo and has lived in St Petersburg for ten years. He works as an architect, a Spanish tutor, and a Latin dance teacher. Cuban citizens do not require a visa for Russia but are still limited to a 30-day stay. Cespedes had to leave the country every month only to come back the next day.

In October 2011, Mr Cespedes accidentally overstayed his term and had to pay a fine. In February 2012, he violated the rule again because a storm prevented the ferry to Finland from leaving St Petersburg. Mr Cespedes informed the migration authorities, but two breaches in 12 months meant that he was barred entry to Russia.

Given that he had a wife in Russia and was applying for permanent residence status, the authorities said he would still be allowed to go in and out of Russia. In May 2012, however, Mr Cespedes was once again informed that his previous violations constituted an administrative felony and he was again barred entry to Russia.

Mr Cespedes then tried to resolve the matter in court, but the hearing date was set for 7 June 2012, meaning that he would once again have to quit the country so as to not overstay his term for a third time. The Cuban left St Petersburg for Helsinki on 4 June, planning to return on 6 June, just in time for the court hearing.

However, Russian border security prevented him from coming back to the country, saying they had not received the court order annulling the ban. He was unable to enter Finland, as his Schengen visa had expired. He was thus stuck on the ferry, the Princess Maria, until Russian authorities finally let him in on 16 July 2012.

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