Out of Russia: End of a passport to nowhere

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Whenever the suggestion is made that British citizens should carry identity cards like other Europeans, true Britons object with full fury against any such encroachment on their freedom. But for Russians, their government's announcement this week that they are soon to carry small plastic IDs, amounts to a significant improvement in their human rights for it means the abolition of the hated internal passport.

Passport. The word in English is rich with associations of opportunity. A passport to travel. A passport to success. A passport to a better life. But in Russian, the same word has meant the citizen's subjection to bureaucracy and harsh social control. Only an idiot would imagine that an internal Soviet passport entitled him to go anywhere.

The Soviet poet Mayakovsky wrote in the 1920s a eulogy to the little red book issued to the citizens of the new socialist state. 'I take from the pocket of my wide trousers my red-skinned passport, the priceless object I carry, read it and envy me] I am a citizen of the Soviet Union.'

But his enthusiasm was hardly shared by future generations, who quickly realised that the passport - detailing among other items the bearer's ethnic origin, place of work and place of residence - only enabled the authorities to keep tabs on them and restrict their movement. The new laminated cards, to be introduced in 1994, will drop all reference to a citizen's nationality, family status, regularity in making alimony payments, criminal record and standing vis-a- vis the army, although they will continue to show his or her permanent address.

A tentative reform to the passport system was made back in 1975. In order to look good at the first Helsinki Conference on Human Rights and Co-operation in Europe held that year, the Soviet Union changed its internal passports so that they no longer specified where the bearer was employed. The police had used this information to arrest the jobless as 'social parasites' for, in those dark days, it was illegal not to work.

After 1975, 'parasitism' remained a criminal offence but one that became harder for the authorities to prove. But the place of residence continued to be shown, which helped the authorities to enforce the propiska regime, which was about as cruel as the pass laws in South Africa.

Propiskas, or residence permits, were introduced by Stalin, supposedly as a temporary measure, to stop millions of peasants - dying of famine in the provinces because of forced collectivisation - from flooding into the cities in search of food. The famines passed but the requirement remained that a Soviet citizen live in the place where he or she was registered.

If you wanted to visit another town, you could only stay there three days without registering with the police before you were in breach of the passport laws and risking jail. For a provincial, moving permanently to Moscow, Leningrad or one of a handful of other desirable big cities was virtually out of the question. Only if a Siberian, say, got a job so skilled that no Muscovite could do it or so degrading that no Muscovite would do it, could he come to the capital. The outsider could also gain entrance by marrying a Muscovite, which helps to explain why there were so many fictitious marriages among Russians.

The passport, then, opened no doors to Soviet people but at least those who had it were better off than a class of people who did not - the workers of collective farms.

Last summer, I visited a village in the Valdai lake district between Moscow and Leningrad and was astonished to be told by the old people there that they had received their internal passports only when they retired. Throughout their working lives, they had been unable to leave the farm, they had been tied to the land exactly like the serfs in Tsarist Russia. They had no rights whatsoever. They were like cattle. As far as the state was concerned, they did not exist as citizens.

A new law due to come into force when the identity cards are issued will grant Russians the right to 'freedom of movement and choice of place of location or residence'. In the capitalist Russia of the future, people will live where they can afford to live (and Moscow will continue to be beyond the reach of many because it is expensive).

As for travel abroad, long the impossible dream of Soviet citizens, this will become easier when Russians get proper foreign passports, valid for a set number of years, instead of the documents they now have, which require fresh exit visas for each trip. Then all they will need will be an entry visa from the country they are visiting.

Ironically, as freedom of movement is increasing within Russia and between Russia and the West, new obstacles are going up to travel between now-independent republics of the former Soviet Union.

The Baltic states, for example, fearful of a flood of Russian immigrants, perhaps, or bitter about their years under Soviet occupation, now demand visas from Russians visiting Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius. It seems a petty action by people who fought so bravely for their freedom.