A. Baiburin: The Soviet Passport

The Soviet Passport. The History, Nature and Uses of the Internal Passport in the USSR

Baiburin, Albert
Cambridge 2022: Polity Press
455 S.
£ 35.00
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Jonathan Daly, History Department, University of Illinois at Chicago; Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Vladimir Lenin famously wrote in his “April Theses” (1917) that Russia was “the freest of all the belligerent countries” in the World War, because the Provisional Government had abolished nearly the entire repressive apparatus of the Old Regime. The Bolsheviks, upon coming to power, contributed to this liberalization process by abolishing legal class and estate distinctions and thereby “automatically precipitated the dismantling of the previous passport system”, as Albert Baiburin states (p. 45). From 1922, after the Civil War, movement throughout the country and even abroad was fairly unrestricted. Among the main questions the author, an anthropologist, seeks to answer in this informative book, is how the USSR transitioned to one of the most closed and regimented societies in the world. The institution of domestic passports in December 1932 is the main answer.

This study, which draws principally upon published and extensive archival documents, memoirs, and interviews gathered from sixty-four former Soviet passport holders, is divided into three parts: the history of the Soviet passport, its use as a “bureaucratic device,” and the experience of passport holders.

After 1917, the first identity documents were employment books intended above all to keep track of “non-working elements.” Without them, one could not move around the country or receive ration cards. Nevertheless, by a law of January 24, 1922, citizens of the Russian Federation had the right to unrestricted travel within its borders.

The collectivization of agriculture changed everything. It curtailed the production of food, increased popular dissatisfaction, uprooted millions of people, and precipitated mass demonstrations and rebellions. Baiburin argues that the introduction of passports was “the result of a search for a way out of the systemic crisis” (p. 58). A big part of this project was purging urban areas of “antisocial elements,” above all “kulaks,” mostly peasants who resisted collectivization. The authorities were terrified of such floating populations and regarded as essential to banish them from urban areas and to register, tie down, and control all remaining population groups. The result was a passport system instituted in December 1932 consisting of a passport booklet combined with a registration of domicile (propiska), without which one could not find a job or live within 50 or more kilometers of cities, international borders, and other sensitive areas. Although the rules were very precise as to who could receive a passport and a propiska, many details were never publicized. Officials knew the rules, of course, and could bend them or implement them strictly, at will. This aspect of the system is what the author calls “Legal System-2” and many other scholars encompass under the terms “legal dualism.”

Imposing the passport system required a massive bureaucratic operation involving military terminology and rhetoric of “hidden enemies.” It was, according to the author, “another version of the Civil War, this time between that section of the population which was ‘aware’ and that which was ‘irresponsible’” (p. 74). The result was hundreds of thousands of people driven from major and minor cities, including so-called “former people,” that is, nearly anyone listed in prerevolutionary city directories and ranging from “former factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers, and landowners” to “nomadic gypsies, and others” (p. 381 n. 9). Also important in this regard were denunciations by covetous or ill-disposed neighbors. In the process, the passport “became the privilege of a limited number of citizens” (p. 93). An important part of the story was the concept of “the regime,” in the sense of regime territories, regime enterprises, and other facets of Soviet life subjected to especially stringent regulation and control, for which the passport was the key tool. In some regions the swath of territory falling under regime strictures stretched to 500 km. The strictures, moreover, were organized in a hierarchy of strictness, from the “gray zone,” where peasants and the banished resided, to the border zones, access to which required special passes. Ensuring that the detailed, but often secret, passport rules were enforced was the primary job of the militia. In 1974 only, collective farm workers were given passports, though they still needed permission from their supervisors to leave the kolkhoz.

In Part 2, Baiburin carefully analyzes the various features of the Soviet passport. Gone was the prerevolutionary religious-identity marker, replaced by the equally important ethnic identity. From the point of view of Marxist internationalists, it was necessary to root out “Great Russian chauvinism” and to win the trust of the previously oppressed and disrespected national and ethnic minorities of the former Russian empire. The Bolshevik leadership therefore pursued throughout the 1920s and early 1930s a policy of korenizatsiia, or “indigenization,” that is, promoting their language and culture, while depriving them of political and economic autonomy. Even after this policy was partially abandoned from 1932 onward, and Russian language and culture was favored, the cultural patterns and institutions of largest ethnic minorities were still consolidated and reinforced. Therefore, the Soviet passport indicated the holder’s ethnic belonging, displaying a two-tiered identity that consisted of both Soviet citizenship and an additional nationality (natsional’nost’), such as Russian, Ukrainian, German, Jewish, or other.

Since the institution of passports coincided with a fear of internal and external enemies, the ethnic question soon took on a potentially sinister aspect. At first, the determination of ethnic identity was rather fluid. From 1940, ethnicity of the parents was determinant, though in the case of mixed background, passport officials went by the claim of applicants: a young woman with a Russian father and a Jewish mother might opt for a Russian identity for pragmatic reasons. Also, the Soviet passports never indicated sex, apparently assuming it would be obvious from the name or other data, such as the gender of the ethnic identity. Highly important also was the social status designation, which derived from one’s relationship to work, “the main criterion for receiving a passport” (p. 177). Within this framework, the “nonworking elements” were the most suspicious. The author considers the passport an essential tool of Soviet governance, “the pinnacle of bureaucratic surveillance and moulding of the individual” (p. 203).

Part 3 contains the most fascinating information. Lengthy excerpts from memoirs and interviews convey many feelings: terror from being unable to obtain a passport or residency permit, discomfort when the official ethnicity status made one stand out, hurt from the unavoidable rudeness of passport officials, cold sweat during occasional passport checks or worse the loss of one’s passport, occasional joy when those officials bent the rules and re-issued a “clean” passport without negative official comments, and pride many felt at the solemnity of the passport issuing ceremony. Other details of people’s experience with passports are surveyed, such as naming children, petitioning to change one’s name, using forged documents, marriages of convenience, children playing “militia and passport control,” requesting to see a person of interest’s passport to determine their marital status, and kindred topics.

Despite the author’s thoroughness, one would have liked to see more statistics, for example exactly how many people lived in the regime territories over time. Statistical tables for such data would have been useful. A list of archival repositories and collections appended to the bibliography would have been welcome. Comparative analysis could have helped the reader understand where the Soviet passport and registration system fit into global surveillance regimes.

Despite these caveats, the book significantly advances our understanding of a crucial institution of Soviet governance and will be read with profit by students and scholars in many social scientific disciplines.

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