Russia Abandons a Relic of Serfdom

September 06, 1992

No American can fully gauge the importance of the recent announcement in Moscow that Russian internal passports will be phased out by 1994. This move will abolish a nefarious control instrument that dates back to the times of serfdom and was perfected by Stalin.

Virtually no official business could be conducted in czarist Russia or the Soviet Union without an internal passport, which listed the holder's name, ethnic group, marital status, domicile and criminal record. Without it, one simply did not exist legally. For long periods in history, the mere ability of a person to obtain this essential document divided Russians into people with or without basic rights.

Curiously, the one group of people without basic rights under both the czars and communists were peasants. After the 1861 emancipation edict, former serfs were not issued internal passports but were required to petition their communes every time they wished to absent themselves from their domicile for a long period.

Before and after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, Leninists called the system of internal passports "the most effective instrument of police pressure and of extortionist policies in so-called police states." But by 1932, a new passport system was in place, strictly limited to city dwellers. Since collective farmers could not get internal passports, they became veritable serfs again, tied to the land, not allowed to quit their employer, move or travel.

This internal passport system became a corner- stone of a control mechanism that also included residence permits, another feature that was in practice in czarist Russia. As flight from the primitive countryside acquired proportions of a flood after World War II, a residence permit particularly in Moscow became a much-coveted plum.

Thousands of ambitious young men and women from the provinces took menial jobs in the capital as night-watchmen and traffic police officers, hoping to wangle a permit that way. Others sought bogus marriages. Meanwhile, hundreds who had married a Muscovite out of love but lacked a residence permit lived in legal limbo because a Soviet citizen could stay in the capital without a special authorization only less than a week.

The planned abolition of the internal passport system will be welcomed especially by those who felt their ethnic identification targeted them for discrimination. At the same time, this relaxation of central governmental controls is likely to be fought fiercely by bureaucrats fearful that cities will be flooded by rural residents in search of more food and better living. That fear can best be allayed by improving conditions in the countryside by encouraging private farming.

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