‘Man lives in the real world; but there’s also a parallel world: a paper one, a bureaucratic one. So the passport is the person’s double in this parallel world.’ The comment comes from a Russian woman in her thirties interviewed as part of a study in St Petersburg in 2008. She might have been channelling the philosopher Rom Harré, who called these bureaucratic doubles ‘file-selves’. It mattered a lot to Soviet citizens what their file-selves looked like: the wrong social class or nationality entered in an internal passport, or a notation restricting movement, could be a disaster. But file-selves matter elsewhere too. The Anglosphere – the UK, Canada, the US, Australia – may have eschewed the Russian/Soviet path of a compulsory internal passport, distinct from the passport required for foreign travel, but drivers’ licences and credit records often serve the same functions, and electronic identity cards may not be too far away. The British, while skittish about mandatory ID cards, have the largest number of surveillance cameras per capita of any country except China.
Identity theft, the electronic appropriation of a file-self for nefarious purposes, is now a well known hazard of the internet. More trivial, but often stubbornly resistant to correction, are the random mutations of file-selves caused by typos in data entry. Of all bureaucratic identity documents, the passport is undoubtedly the most rigorously proofread. That is not to say that passports tell the whole truth about their bearer. I have three of them, and they essentially give the same information: name (first, middle and last) and date and place of birth – but one says I am ‘Australian’, another that I am a ‘British citizen’ and the third, throwing grammar to the winds, that my ‘nationality’ is ‘United States of America’. While my current passports are all in the same name, that need not have been the case: I could have kept the married name that was in my first British passport, or responded to the cheerful suggestion of the US naturalisation officer that I choose a totally new name for my American self. When I leave or re-enter Australia, I present my Australian passport, but if my trip is to the US, it is the American passport I show on arrival and departure. Dodgy as this all sounds, it is actually the procedure recommended in the respective governments’ instructions to their dual citizens. How right T.S. Eliot was, if on a more mundane level than he intended, to advise travellers that ‘You are not the same people who left that station/Or who will arrive at any terminus.’
Passports as a prerequisite for travelling to foreign countries came in with the First World War. Previously, most European countries had used internal passports to control mobility and identify bearers by social estate, but these were being phased out in the name of economic liberalism. In the Russian Empire, however, the trend was in the opposite direction: the internal passport regime introduced by Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century was long retained as a regulator of movement. The Russian internal passport on the eve of the First World War identified its holders (men only) by title or rank, religion, marital status and liability for military service.
With the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks abolished the internal passport, excoriated as an instrument of tsarist oppression. But by the early 1930s, they were having second thoughts. The immediate problem was the famine in Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan: to avoid the collapse of the urban rationing system, starving peasants had to be prevented from fleeing to the cities. ‘Passportisation’ was the clumsy term for the process of issuing internal passports to citizens judged worthy, starting in the biggest cities at the beginning of 1933. The new passports identified their holders by social class and nationality, since these were important indices for the Soviet regime, which practised affirmative action for workers, peasants and members of ‘backward’ nationalities (and its opposite for those from the old privileged classes).
Passportisation was as much about exclusion as inclusion. Inhabitants of Moscow and Leningrad who were judged to be parasites (in contrast to ‘toilers’) weren’t eligible for passports or the city registration permits (propiski) that went with them, but were summarily evicted from their homes and the city. ‘Former people’ from the old upper classes, including many Leningrad intellectuals, were among those abruptly cast out. If a person didn’t have a passport in the Soviet Union, the essayist Boris Khazanov wrote, ‘it is as if they are no longer a person … It’s as if a man no longer has his penis. He is a nobody.’ But peasants on collective farms, a substantial proportion of the total population, had to wait more than forty years to gain entitlement to passports, and until 1988, even with passports, they could only depart with the permission of their kolkhoz.
Foreigners residing in Moscow didn’t have internal passports, of course, but they were subject to their own special documentary regime. They had to arrive with visas which indicated the purpose and length of their stay; these were often difficult to get and virtually impossible to prolong. Departure required an additional exit visa. In the de facto Soviet system of social estates (‘workers’, ‘collective-farm peasantry’, ‘intelligentsia’), each with its own rights and obligations, resident foreigners were in effect an estate unto themselves, ‘marked’ in a host of everyday situations and transactions. Foreign diplomats and businessmen lived in special apartment blocks and were provided with maids, interpreters and other service/surveillance personnel by a special agency. All foreigners, including students, were forbidden to go more than forty kilometres outside the city in which they were registered, and had to make a special application, providing a detailed itinerary and justification, for travel within the country.
I was one of those foreign exchange students in the late 1960s, and it left me with a recurrent Catch-22 nightmare: my Soviet entry visa would run out without my exit visa having been issued, so I could neither stay nor depart. Like almost everyone else who had dealings with the Soviets over the long term, I had some visa problems. But passports were the biggest issue for me, lasting for many years. I blame the Soviet Union for the fact that I ended up with three of them.
When I got my first Australian passport, before my departure for postgraduate work in the UK, I was a total innocent about bureaucracy. I didn’t realise that I already had a file-self: I discovered only later that ASIO, the Australian intelligence service, had opened a file on me when, as a student at the University of Melbourne taking Russian as my mandatory language, I bought some books in Russian. This file-self may well have accompanied me to Britain when I arrived in 1964 as a Commonwealth Scholar, the last event recorded in that ASIO file. But in those first years away from home it wasn’t the multiple file-selves being created for me by secret services that were uppermost in my mind: it was citizenship and passports. I needed a passport to get me to the Soviet Union for my dissertation research, and the Australian passport wouldn’t do.
It was comparatively easy by the 1960s to go to the Soviet Union as a short-term tourist, looked after by Intourist or its youth counterpart, Sputnik. I did it myself, on my Australian passport, as a graduate student at Oxford in 1965, and my Sputnik guide – a ballet-loving Leningrad university student whose family belonged to the intelligentsia – later reassured me that he had given a good report on me to the KGB. But the only way for a Western scholar or student to stay and do research for longer was through a state-to-state cultural exchange. Britain had such an exchange arrangement with the Soviet Union, administered by the British Council, and so did the US, but Australia didn’t. So I needed to get on the British exchange. A few years earlier, that might not have been too difficult for a Commonwealth citizen whose Australian passport identified her as a ‘British subject’ as well as an Australian citizen. But things were now trickier, since British authorities wanted to restrict the immigration of Black migrants without explicitly mentioning race, and the only way to do it was to restrict white Commonwealth immigrants as well. ‘Sorry, love,’ kindly immigration officials would say to us young Australians, directing us to the long non-British entry line at Customs. ‘It’s a shame, but we have to do it.’
I tried appealing to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for special permission to go on the British exchange, but my application was refused. A marriage of convenience to a man with a British passport was my next gambit. Actually, that term itself is a convenient simplification, because in my case, and probably in many others, convenience was only one of the factors involved. I told the British Council of my marriage plans, and they warmly congratulated me and agreed to send me to the Soviet Union on the exchange, subject to my showing up with a British passport in time to depart in September 1964.
I was in Oxford; Alex, my future husband, was in Tokyo. I managed to get myself to Japan (on cheap flights that almost stranded me in Omsk), get married, return to the UK, and use my new marriage certificate to acquire British naturalisation and a British passport, all in little more than a month. But I was a wreck at the end of it as I staggered onto the Soviet SS Krupskaya, bound for Leningrad.
This wasn’t just because of the very tight schedule, the sudden uprooting, the asthma attacks (how was I going to get asthma tablets in the Soviet Union?) and the sheer fear of venturing behind the Iron Curtain on my own. What really traumatised me was the loss of my Australian passport. It turned out that, in accordance with the Australian Citizenship Act of 1948, passports of Australians who took foreign citizenship were automatically cancelled and retained. My UK passport, according to the inflexible British rule of the time, was in my newly acquired married name: Mrs Sheila Bruce. I mentally repudiated this British ‘Mrs Bruce’ as a meaningless bureaucratic construct without a history or a place in the world. (Was she English? Scottish? Northern Irish? Did she take on Alex’s working-class South Shields origins, even without the accent?) She was a usurper, responsible for the cancellation of the real person that used to be me, the Australian Sheila Fitzpatrick. In the spirit of a much discussed British novel of the era, Nigel Dennis’s Cards of Identity, I felt I had collaborated in an identity theft on myself.
Even so, the Bruce passport served me well, in that a year or so later it prevented the KGB realising that the female Sh. Bryus who was studying in Moscow on the British exchange was the same person as the (presumed male) S. Fitzpatrick whose first scholarly article had been trashed as anti-Soviet propaganda in a Moscow daily newspaper. My personal encounter with the world of file-selves also had the advantage of alerting me to the interesting effects of revolution and social upheaval in cancelling old identities and requiring the creation of new ones. But I never thought of writing a whole 400-page book on the Soviet internal passport, which is what the Russian anthropologist Albert Baiburin has done.A professor at the European University at St Petersburg, trained at the great semiotic centre in Tartu (Soviet Estonia) in the 1970s, Baiburin came to this topic through a general interest in symbolism and ritual. His book is essentially a study of Soviet everyday practices, particularly those involving the manipulation, bending and breaking of rules relating to passports.
In the early days of the Soviet passport, the touchiest attribute listed in the passport was social class. This isn’t Baiburin’s central interest, perhaps fortunately, since his story loses some of its clarity through the English translator’s conflation of two Soviet designators of class, ‘social origin’ (sotsial’noe proiskhozhdenie) and ‘social position’ (sotsial’noe polozhenie), under the common rubric of ‘social status’. By the end of the 1930s, however, class had become less of a contentious subject, since the class war associated with the revolution had now been won and it was no longer so important to identify ‘class enemies’. Its place as the prime site of contestation and manipulation was taken by nationality (natsional’nost’ – rendered by Baiburin’s translator, Stephen Dalziel, as ‘ethnic origin’, which doesn’t do justice to the essentialist overtones of the Russian word).
‘Soviet’ itself wasn’t a nationality: rather, it was the citizenship shared by all denizens of the multinational USSR, each of whom, in addition, possessed a nationality – Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Tatar or any number of others. If both parents had the same nationality, that was the nationality of their children; otherwise, the child could choose at the age of sixteen (when their first passport was issued) which parent’s nationality to take. Some nationalities became problematic at particular times, as they did for those designated ‘Chechen’ or ‘Crimean Tatar’ after the deportations of the 1940s, or ‘Jewish’ during the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign of Stalin’s last years. In such circumstances, a 16-year-old with one Russian and one Tatar or Jewish parent was likely to choose Russian for their passport nationality: it was plainly the safest option. ‘Just write Russian. It will be easier’ is often cited in Baiburin’s interviews as advice received from relatives and even friendly passport clerks (these, by the way, are generically female – pasportistki – in Baiburin’s narrative). There were exceptions, of course: Jewish nationality became a desirable commodity for some when the possibility of emigration opened in the 1970s for Jews, while remaining closed for almost all other Soviet citizens. It would be interesting to know what nationality was written in the Soviet passport of Albert Kashfullovich Baiburin himself, who was born in 1947 in southern Russia with a non-Russian first name and a Tatar patronymic. But Russian academics, unlike their sloppy Western counterparts, avoid the self-referential in their scholarship, so he doesn’t tell us.
Soviet passports, unlike tsarist ones, were issued to women as well as men. Children were compulsorily listed in the passport of one parent, normally the mother, but might be listed in both if the parties so desired. But it was the men’s passports that most often included a notation, introduced in 1938, on liability for payment of alimenty (which, though translated by Dalziel as ‘alimony’, was basically child support). Registration of marriage and divorce was also noted in passports, which provided women with a useful way of checking up on the bona fides of suitors. If you liked a man, according to one of Baiburin’s female informants, you would say: ‘Go on, show me your passport.’
Names could be legally changed in the Soviet Union, and Baiburin has an interesting section on the rise and fall of ‘revolutionary’ names in the 1920s: Oktyabrina, Kim (the acronym for the Communist Youth Festival), Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards) and so on. Roy and Zhores Medvedev, twins born into a communist family in 1925, were named respectively for the Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy and the French socialist Jean Jaurès, assassinated in 1914 for his anti-war views. Some people changed their names so as not to sound too Jewish or ethnic. But the names most frequently abandoned in the 1930s were peasant ones such as Matrena and Kuz’ma (regarded as ‘uncultured’), and their most popular replacements were formerly upper-class Russian names like Natasha and Andrei that might have come out of War and Peace.
Marriages of convenience were well known in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, a woman from a noble family might seek to remake herself by marrying a worker. From the 1930s, with the introduction of mandatory urban registration in the big cities that accompanied passportisation, most marriages of convenience were to acquire a residence permit. The nicest of my roommates in Moscow State University in the late 1960s, Lida from Stavropol, made no secret of the fact that in choosing to pursue her tertiary education in Moscow her main aim had been to catch a husband with a Moscow propiska. She hadn’t succeeded by the time I left, perhaps because she was too open about her purpose. If she did have to return to Stavropol, I hope at least she married into the local nomenklatura and was able to ride back into Moscow on Gorbachev’s coat-tails in the 1980s.
The Soviet passport was formally replaced by a Russian Federation one in 1991, but the old passports remained valid until they expired. Baiburin says that even after the receipt of a new Russian passport, some people continued to use the leather covers that, as a mark of respect, many Soviet citizens used to protect their passports. In post-Soviet times, ‘passportisation’ has acquired a new meaning (discussed by Sadakat Kadri on the LRB Blog, 3 August), referencing the offer of Russian citizenship, first in 2019 to residents of Donbas, and now to any Ukrainian, whether or not they had previously identified as Russian by nationality, and without sacrifice of their Ukrainian passports. This inclusivity, clearly intended to further Russia’s foreign policy goals as well as improve its population statistics, is in sharp contrast to the original exclusionary purpose of the Soviet passport. But it continues the tradition of treating the award of a Russian/Soviet passport as a privilege.
Citizens of the Russian Federation, in contrast to Soviet citizens, are allowed to hold a foreign passport as well as their Russian one, and many members of the elite have no doubt obtained one as insurance. Once a dual passport holder is on Russian soil, however, only the Russian passport is considered valid: the same situation as my own in Australia (I recovered my Australian passport after the rules changed with the Australian Citizenship Act of 2007). Though it has to be said that the likelihood of my needing to call on the British or American consulates for help in Melbourne seems more remote than that of a Russian/Australian dual passport holder in Moscow. There are now all sorts of disadvantages for those in Russia with foreign connections, including the possibility of being required to register as a ‘foreign agent’. But in one respect, Australia was ahead of Russia in the suspicion-of-foreigners stakes: in 2017 and 2018, following a High Court ruling on the ineligibility of those holding foreign passports for elective office, a raft of Australian parliamentarians and even some ministers had to resign because they were found to be dual citizens (sometimes unknowingly, through birth or parents’ citizenship), whereas it wasn’t until 2020 that a referendum amended the Russian constitution to prevent dual citizens holding ‘important positions for the country’s security’. This was the same Russian referendum that legitimated Putin’s staying in office beyond 2024 and defined marriage as a legal relationship between a man and a woman.
This brings me, finally, to another characteristic identified in post-Soviet and most other passports: gender. Remarkably, Soviet passports didn’t explicitly identify the bearer as a man or a woman, presumably because it was regarded as self-evident, given that the passport contained a photo and gave the bearer’s patronymic (grammatically different for men and women). I had never noticed this absence before I started thinking about passports, and it set me wondering about Russia’s stance on those who wish to change their gender. Russian law now seems to recognise the possibility of gender change, particularly after surgical intervention, but all reports suggest that the chances of making such changes official are very low. Few transgender cases in Russia have made it into the international media, but there is one intriguing story from Ukraine, which has similar laws to Russia and probably reasonably similar public attitudes. As Li Cohen of CBS News reported in March, a 31-year-old Kyiv resident from Crimea, whose identity had already been challenged by Crimea’s shift from Ukraine to Russia in 2014, decided to transition from male to female. She didn’t try to change the entry in her passport, evidently feeling it would be futile. When the Russians attacked Kyiv, she hoped to leave the country along with the other women and children, but hit a snag: her passport said she was a man, and men were banned from leaving because of their military service obligation.
Cohen wrote up the story in a spirit of sympathy for someone hindered from realising her true self, but this is not the way it would be read by most Russians and, I suspect, Ukrainians as well. Their reading would be that it was a case of malingering, an attempt to avoid military service in the nation’s hour of need. In my unsystematic study of Soviet legal archives, I came across several cases of women passing as men and vice versa. It was generally treated, quite indulgently, as a kind of confidence trick, not serious enough to prosecute. Now, in light of the rise of LGBTQ activism in the West, Russian reactions may well have sharpened. Putin has said that the fact that children in the West are ‘taught that a boy can become a girl and vice versa’ is ‘on the verge of a crime against humanity’. It is also his opinion that ‘a woman is a woman, a man is a man’ – and most Russians undoubtedly agree with him.
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