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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Passports Shackle Russia

Like all Soviet people, I was handed an internal passport as soon as I reached the age of 16. As I was filling out my application for it at the local police station, an officer asked me my nationality, which in Russian is synonymous with ethnicity, and who my parents were. My father was a Belarussian of Polish origin who grew up in Ukraine and lived the rest of his life in Russia. My mother is a native Russian from Saratov, which was once a great Tatar city. I was born in Kaliningrad, formerly the city of K?nigsberg in eastern Prussia, and, like many well-intentioned blockheads of the time, considered myself to be more of a Soviet than Russian person.

In general, it was difficult to be a Russian chauvinist in Kaliningrad. After the deportation of Germans in 1948, the Kaliningrad region was resettled by more than 100 different nationalities. Koreans, Poles, Bulgarians, Belarussians and even Yakuts lived on our street.

The Soviet passport I received recorded my name, patronymic, surname, nationality, year and place of birth as well as a stamp -- the so-called propiska -- that certified where I lived. The propiska was both a dream and nightmare for Soviet people. Today, millions still long to receive a Moscow propiska, or residence permit. I once asked an elderly peasant who was criticizing Khrushchev whether he thought the Soviet leader had done anything good. It took him no time to respond: "He allowed peasants to have passports. Before that, we lived like chained-up dogs, like slaves."

At the police station I was warned that I should guard my passport with my life. I was told that if I lost my passport, I could expect a fine or even criminal punishment. You must show your passport before you can receive a postal order, book a room in a hotel or get married. Without a passport, you don't exist -- a Kafkaesque situation that remains part of Russian reality to this day.

The passport was the first introduction to the Soviet solemn rites that are associated with documents. Trade union cards and military service records would also be carefully kept. This lifelong ritual was epitomized by the relationship Communist Party members had to their party cards. When a friend's house once burned down along with his party-membership card, he told me in absolute seriousness: "It would have been better if I myself had burned rather than allowing my party card to burn."

Already by the start of perestroika in the late '80s, rumors circulated that the propiska would be abolished and people would enjoy freedom of movement and the right to live where they chose. There was also talk that, at the very least, the internal passport's notorious "fifth clause," which defined every citizen's ethnic identity would be dropped.

During the first years of post-Soviet Russia, the authorities managed to put off the campaign by liberals and human rights defenders to remove the clause and abolish the propiska. They did so on the pretext of the need to fight banditry and Chechen terrorism. The Moscow mayor and Communist-dominated State Duma, the lower house of parliament, paid no attention to the accusations of human rights violations that were made against them.

The problem of abolishing residence permits is more economic than political. City authorities would have much trouble coping with the costs of taking in the possible waves of migrants if the propiska were revoked. But there are other motivations for keeping the permits. "If you abolish the propiska, Moscow and St. Petersburg will be bought out by 'blacks,'" so the racist arguments go, referring to people from the Caucasus.

Unlike the propiska, the "nationality" clause is a purely political problem. When President Boris Yeltsin presented young people this October with new passports without the fifth clause, many passions were stirred. Those who opposed the measure, such as Communist Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, argued that the authorities were trying to deprive them of their nationality. Although the arguments may sound ridiculous, politicians should not ignore such sentiments, because they are rather widely shared in Russia.

The problem of identity has deep historical roots. At one time, self-identification was not an ideological matter but a religious one. Orthodoxy defined whether a person was Russian. Thus the Georgian hero of the War of 1812, Pyotr Bagration, who was an Orthodox Christian, called himself a Russian general.

Identifying people by religious affiliation did not suit the Bolsheviks, who bound all the peoples of the country to a universal ideology: communism. But the Bolsheviks soon understood that normal people could not identify themselves by ideology. And so the "Soviet man," which combined ideology with a traditional sense of nationality, was created.

The fifth clause was introduced in 1934. This led first to the bloody repression of the intelligentsia in the former Soviet republics. It also resulted in a series of deportations of entire peoples, the anti-Semitic "doctors' plot" before Stalin's death, and the "fight against nationalism," meaning against national cultural autonomy.

Excluding the fifth clause showed that Russia has chosen democracy based on liberal values and respect for human rights. Is it only a formality? Perhaps. But a law-based government is one of moral formalism.

In the United States, former national security adviser Zbigniew Bzrezinski is sometimes referred to as an American of Polish origin. In Russia, many people would probably laugh if I were to say I am a Russian writer of Russian origin. But this is better than suddenly becoming a "pure-blooded" Russian prisoner in some kind of new gulag.

Yury Buida is a staff writer for Znamya and Novoye Vremya. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.