Robert Smyth has missed his three sons’ birthdays, his wedding anniversary and now he won’t be able to spend Christmas with his family, who have been stuck in Russia for most of this year.
His wife and their three sons had flown there to bury the boys’ grandmother in January, and had planned to stay for a few months.
But the day before they boarded a plane to fly home to Australia, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to grip the world and governments shut down travel, their flight was cancelled.
Since then, Mr Smyth has tried to bring his family home 13 times.
Each of the flights have been cancelled or delayed, and at this stage the earliest he will be able to reunite with his boys Laurence, Victor and Alexander and wife Tatiana is May.
“2020’s gone, just gone,” he said.
Initially, Mr Smyth expected his family to be at home in Victoria by Easter.
The boys would return to school after a few months staying with their mum in Vologda, a city about the size of Geelong that is about 700 kilometres north of Moscow.
At least, that was the plan.
“And then, of course, COVID came along,” Mr Smyth said.
“We got news that they have got to come home as quickly as they can.”
That was no big problem — Tatiana had dealt with the legalities around her mother’s funeral.
The boys were ready to leave a bit earlier than planned and flights to Melbourne were sorted for March 25.
But as their bookings to travel home were confirmed, authorities around the globe were enacting measures to deal with the spread of the nascent pandemic.
“The day we arranged their flights to come back was the day they stopped all flights into Australia,” Mr Smyth said.
From there, things have only become more complicated.
For months, Mr Smyth has been in touch with Australian authorities, trying to find out how he can bring his family back.
“We’re talking about Australian citizens stuck overseas,” Mr Smyth said.
Back in late March, when the scramble to sort transit home for his family was just beginning, Mr Smyth reached out to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
In response, he said he was told to arrange tickets with a commercial airline.
“Not good advice, seeing as there were no commercial flights,” he said.
That same day, he wrote to the Australian consulate in Moscow.
For a moment, there was a possible path back to Australia — via Moscow, London and Sydney.
“Once in London it was up to Tatiana to arrange a flight back to Australia via commercial means,” Mr Smyth said.
“Also if [there is] no connecting flight then accommodation would need to be found in London until a flight could be found, all at extra cost.”
The problem was, Tatiana had a nine-hour drive between where her and the boys were renting a flat in Vologda and Moscow.
“She’s got three young kids with her, she can’t just drop everything and pack them up and get transport to Moscow,” Mr Smyth said.
The UK was also amid its first wave of infections, and with no guarantees of onwards travel from London, that route home became too risky to pursue.
Mr Smyth kept in touch while his family settled into what would turn out to be a long wait.
He wasn’t too concerned about visas and language issues — the boys were dual citizens and could speak Russian.
They’d even been making local friends in between online learning sessions with their school back in Australia.
Last week, the Government said 36,000 people have registered as wanting to come home and it expects 29,000 of them to be back by year’s end.
Unfortunately for Mr Smyth, it doesn’t seem like his family will be in that group.
During their time in Russia, Tatiana and the boys have been in and out of partial lockdowns.
In Vologda, there have only been occasional requirements to wear masks while shopping despite a national mask mandate.
Otherwise, there are mostly mild restrictions that vary in each region.
Recently, Tatiana feared she had contracted coronavirus but didn’t want to go for a test, which would cost about 1,500 rubles ($27).
Had Tatiana tested positive, she would have been made to quarantine.
“What happens to three kids if she goes into quarantine,” Mr Smyth wondered.
Experts say the Government’s move to lock in four different COVID-19 vaccines is “clever”, but warn of significant hurdles to overcome before they can be distributed across the country.
Having lived in Russia for about five years he had a decent idea of the possibilities and he didn’t want to expose his kids to them.
The boys only have one aunt in Russia, so Tatiana self-isolated and her symptoms never worsened.
According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been 2,303,062 cases of coronavirus across Russia, and 40,050 deaths.
It has the fourth-highest case tally in the world and this week a voluntary vaccination program is set to roll out across the country, with teachers and doctors first in line for jabs of the vaccine, which has been called Sputnik V.
There have been a few cases pop up in Vologda, but nothing like the outbreaks in large cities like Moscow.
Cases have recently been on the rise, but Tatiana said restrictions and other measures were being eased.
“I said, ‘You’ve got more and more cases, why are people getting more relaxed?'” Mr Smyth said.
Throughout months of interacting with airlines, travel agents and authorities, flights were delayed and cancelled so many times Mr Smyth almost gave up hope.
But on October 7, a rare spot of good news came through.
A potential trip back to Australia for Tatiana and the boys on November 25 was cancelled, but they were told they would be on a plane home on December 20.
“They’d given me hope,” Mr Smyth said.
And for a while, it stayed with him.
There was no word of further changes to the flight — until it was cancelled on the last day of November.
“I knew that I wouldn’t see them at Christmas then,” Mr Smyth said.
According to the latest advice he’s received, Mr Smyth will have to another six months to see his family again.
The next available flight leaves Russia on May 1.
“That just killed me,” he said.
And given what he has been through, Mr Smyth has no confidence that flight would depart on schedule, even being months out.
“It doesn’t matter what we did, we couldn’t get them home,” he said.