In this remarkable book, Albert Baiburin provides the first in-depth study of the development and uses of the passport, or state identity card, in the former Soviet Union. First introduced in 1932, the Soviet passport took on an exceptional range of functions, extending not just to the regulation of movement and control of migrancy but also to the constitution of subjectivity and of social hierarchies based on place of residence, family background, and ethnic origin.
While the basic role of the Soviet passport was to certify a person's identity, it assumed a far greater significance in Soviet life. Without it, a person literally 'disappeared' from society. It was impossible to find employment or carry out everyday activities like picking up a parcel from the post office; a person could not marry or even officially die without a passport. It was absolutely essential on virtually every occasion when an individual had contact with officialdom because it was always necessary to prove that the individual was the person whom they claimed to be. And since the passport included an indication of the holder's ethnic identity, individuals found themselves accorded a certain rank in a new hierarchy of nationalities where some ethnic categories were 'normal' and others were stigmatized. Passport systems were used by state officials for the deportation of entire population categories - the so-called 'former people', those from the pre-revolutionary elite, and the relations of 'enemies of the people'. But at the same time, passport ownership became the signifier of an acceptable social existence, and the passport itself - the information it contained, the photographs and signatures - became part of the life experience and self-perception of those who possessed it.
This meticulously researched and highly original book will be of great interest to students and scholars of Russia and the Soviet Union and to anyone interested in the shaping of identity in the modern world.
Albert Baiburin is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the European University at St Petersburg
'Remove the document - and you remove the man'
In the English-speaking world, the word 'passport' signifies a document that permits free passage beyond the boundaries of the state where the holder resides. The concept is distinct from that of an identity document (ID), which demonstrates to the satisfaction of officials within a person's home country that they actually are who they claim to be. A passport may sometimes be used in the latter capacity, but does not have to be - in the US in particular, a driving licence is the regular form of ID.1 In Britain, perhaps partly because the right to roam is seen as an essential freedom (the history runs from protests against enclosure in the eighteenth century through the foundation of the Ramblers' Association in 1935 to campaigns for access to private landholdings and community buyouts in the 2020s), and because of ingrained notions of personal privacy as sacrosanct, the imposition of a unified state ID system has met fierce resistance. In 2004, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett's plan to introduce compulsory identity cards provoked uproar, and by 2010, the plan had been scrapped.2 It has not been revived.
The resistance to generalized ID means, in turn, that English-speaking observers are by and large peculiarly ill-equipped to understand political and social cultures such as Russia and the USSR, in which the use of identity documents is elaborately institutionalized, and forms an embedded element of everyday practices.3 In a travelogue about a visit to the former USSR, Colin Thubron recorded a meeting with Stepan, an elderly man from the Evenk people (a former hunter-gatherer community in Eastern Siberia). Stepan was Thubron's neighbour in the local cottage hospital while recovering from being burned during a fire at his house. He described how suddenly the fire had happened:
'I had time to run in once, before it was too late. Only once.'
What had he carried out, I wondered, in those few seconds? Had he salvaged a few hoarded roubles, a precious garment, a sentimental photograph? 'What did you save?'
I strained to catch his voice. It came tiny, self-satisfied. 'My passport.'
He pulled it from his jacket as if to be sure it remained. [.] It was a sensible choice to retrieve, I knew; but I felt his degradation. His hand was trembling, until I held it in mine. And I realised I was angry: angry that even into this remote life Moscow had intruded its ossifying order, grounding and claiming him. Without his passport he could not move, did not live. He had risked fire for it.4
To the outsider's gaze, the situation was simply 'degradation', the symptoms of an 'ossifying order'. Yet, as even Thubron noticed, the man's voice was 'self-satisfied'. For Stepan, the ownership of his pasport (the Russian spelling) was not a source of humiliation, but an object of pride.
It is the central ambiguity of a document that was at once a weapon of state control and an instrument for the creation of identities, and even for self-assertion, that lies at the centre of Albert Baiburin's history of the Soviet 'internal passport', or state identity card. As the intricate and sophisticated discussion in the book shows, the Soviet document, especially in the Stalin era, acted as a very real obstacle to freedom of movement. Large categories of the population, particularly in the Soviet countryside, were migrationally disenfranchised, to all intents and purposes tied to their place of residence (this is the reason why political dissidents frequently referred to the political order as a 'serf system').5 Denial of passport-holding rights, as we discover, also kept in place other important sections of the population, for instance, former political prisoners or common criminals and their immediate families, and those who were considered actual or potential subversives. In border areas, on the other hand, you could not reside without an internal passport. Some were filtered out by the document and others filtered in. The pasport was without doubt a major factor in the efficient running of the police state.6
Yet possession of the document also acted as a powerful force of social and cultural unification, as a token of citizenship in a positive sense - a resonance that became particularly significant in the post-Stalin era, as the numbers of those entitled to passports broadened, and its repressive function was to a large extent eroded by a constructive one. For Stepan, his passport was not just essential for proving he had the right to leave his village. Nomadic groups registered as members of reindeer, horse-raising or camel-breeding collectives were, like the Russian rural population, migrationally disenfranchised under Stalin. For them, the possession of a passport became an important sign of state favour, a recognition of equality attained. Similarly, it was vital, in the post-war years, for Kalmyk 'special settlers' (the population displaced in 1943 as a punishment for alleged large-scale collaboration with the Nazi invaders) both to obtain passports (which signified the right to move about as opposed to the duty to sign on with the local military commandant, as before), and to contest any restrictions that were imposed upon these.7 'Opting out' of the passport system was the last thing the socially disenfranchised wished to do.8 The writer Mikhail Bulgakov's famous dictum, 'Remove the document - and you remove the man', was an acknowledgement not only of the impotence of the individual unsanctioned by a stamped piece of paper, but of the personhood that could be derived from a document.
The enormous resonance of the Soviet passport meant that it became a familiar symbol. Schoolchildren learned by heart Mayakovsky's boastful celebration of the glories of the Soviet passport, concluding in the ringing lines:
Read this and envy me -
I am a citizen of the Soviet Union!
Mayakovsky's 'passport' was in fact a 'service'-class foreign passport for travel outside the USSR, an item available to a narrow elite even in the USSR's last decades, let alone in the isolationist 1930s. However, the schoolchildren who crammed these lines were expected to identify the object of celebration as the passports that they actually received at age sixteen - their state identity cards - and to feel pride in holding a document9 that would prove them a Soviet citizen among Soviet citizens. Just so, the ideal way of granting passports to sixteen-year-olds, as promoted by the Soviet media, advice brochures, and organisations such as the Communist Youth Movement (Komsomol) was a public ceremony at which young people publicly received their new identity documents from the hand of some Party or city dignitary.
It is no wonder that people acquired a sense of specialness verging on awe about the document in a physical sense. As Baiburin records, every element of the pasport, from signatures to the question of what to look like in your photograph, was surrounded by popular mystique. Unlike some present-day passport regimes (e.g. the United Kingdom), the USSR did not in fact explicitly regulate people's appearance in their photographs; however, the citizenry firmly believed that there were rules, and behaved accordingly.
In other countries too, the national passport can and has easily become the object of sentimental fixation and symbolic resonance. From its inception in 1923, the Irish Free State passport was emblazoned in green, and carried a bilingual text (Pás - Passport, Saorstát Eireann - Irish Free State) and the image of a harp. More recently, the 'dark blue' (supposedly)10 cover of the British passport prior to 1988 (when dark red, machine readable passports were introduced) has become a symbol of 'sovereignty' in its own right, leading to the post-Brexit introduction of a cover whose hue does not resemble the shade of the original, and which is constructed to different dimensions - as well as being designed in France and manufactured in Poland. In the USSR, such patriotic associations were tied less directly to the colour of the cover (which changed at different points and only in the country's final decade approximately echoed the scarlet of the Soviet flag), than to the emblem of hammer and sickle and the word ??????? itself, alongside, of course, the abbreviation of the country's title, CCCP. The first Soviet passports included the word 'passport' not just in Russian, but in the languages of the different Soviet republics (a multilingual style also employed for cardinal numbers - one, two, three, five, etc. - on the obverse of rouble notes). The final, 1974, version of the passport was bilingual (Russian plus the official language of the given republic). Yet if this practice acknowledged linguistic and cultural difference, Baiburin also shows how the pasport was, among other things, a conduit of russification, both because of the pressures on holders to assimilate to Russian as the most 'convenient' ethnic group, and because they were required to supply a patronymic even when the particular republic or ethnic community was historically devoid of this linguistic and...
'The Soviet passport's antiphonal role, as both technique of oppressive state control and as a positive sign of equal rights and status for citizens, gave it extraordinary importance in everyday life and made it a quasi-sacred object. Thoroughly researched, vividly written and moving, this book is essential reading for an understanding of changing citizenship regimes in Russia.'
Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge
'In this meticulously researched and powerfully argued book, Albert Baiburin mines the history of the Soviet passport as both an instrument of social engineering and control and a totem of individual experience and cultural creativity. The result is an innovative and fascinating account of the Soviet experiment.'
Daniel Beer, Royal Holloway, University of London
'For Soviet citizens, the passport was a crucial possession that both enabled and restricted them. Albert Baiburin's exhaustive and lively account, fluently translated by Stephen Dalziel, shows why passports were so central to the maintenance of the party dictatorship.'
Robert Service, University of Oxford