Documents that control Russia: Effort to drop 'nationality' line from internal passports creates a backlash.

October 31, 1997

ONE OF THE most insidious instruments of state control in the Soviet Union was the internal passport. Virtually no business could be conducted without that identity document, which revealed to officials all they needed to know about its bearer: name, date and place of birth, nationality, marriage and divorce, dependent children, military service and place of residence.

Such information sounds relatively harmless. But in the Soviet Union -- and in czarist Russia before 1917 -- officials could with one glance determine whether a man or a woman was outside his or her permitted domicile or was of foreign origin.

The passport's fifth line, denoting ''nationality,'' broadened the category of foreign origin to include any non-Russian ethnic groups, particularly the Jews.

Russia is now revising the internal control system. It wants to retain the passport as a national identity card, but wants to get rid of the controversial ''nationality'' line. Interestingly, that has produced quite a political flap.

On one side are such unlikely allies as the parliament's reformists and the ultranationalist demagogue Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, who describe the Soviet-era ''fifth line'' as ''barbaric.'' On the other side are Communist deputies who want to retain the ''fifth line,'' even though they say bearers of the passports should be given the option of not choosing a nationality.

On the sidelines of the row are leaders of Russia's ethnic republics. Led by Tatarstan, they say a Russian internal passport that does not give its non-Russian bearers any chance to express their ethnicity ''violates citizens' constitutional rights.''

This is a strange squabble.

In the 1950s, the Soviet internal passport system was duplicated in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were required to carry their identity documents at all times and present them to any white who demanded to see them. After Nelson Mandela's African National Congress came to power, that shameful system was simply abolished.

Russia ought to do the same.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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