Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Is a Soviet-Style ‘Nationality Line’ about to Return to Russian Passports?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 26 – Communisty Party Duma deputies have submitted draft legislation calling for the restoration of the sometimes notorious Soviet-era “line five” of Russian passports on which citizens of the Russian Federation can this time around “voluntarily” list their nationality.

            The 18-page bill, which also calls for allowing Russian citizens to declare their blood type and taxpayer identification number, is already sparking controversy with nationalists of various kinds generally supporting it and human rights activists generally opposed. Its text is at$FILE/195001-6.PDF?OpenElement

            While the fate of this bill is far from certain, the fact that it has attracted some support from members of the ruling United Russia Party suggests that it may be adopted in some way rather than ignored or buried in committee as have earlier efforts to restore the nationality line in passports.

            Between 1974 and 1991, Sovie citizens were required to list their nationality on line five of their passports, but after the collapse of the USSR, that line and that requirement were dropped. Some non-Russian republics like Tatarstan, however, did seek to use as a surrogate an insert page in which members of their titular nationality could declare themselves.

                At least one member of United Russia, deputy Aleksey Zhuravlev, who also serves on the Presidential Council for International Relations, has come out in support of that measure. But rights activists like Lev Ponomarev of “For Human Rights,” oppose it saying that it will contribute “to the growth of separatist attitudes” (

            Another supporter of the measure, Aleksandr Shatilov, the dean of the sociology and political science faculty of Moscow’s Finance University, says that “the main opponent of the return of ‘line five’ is the liberal lobby which strives toward universalism in all spheres of life” and wants to make ussia into an American-style “melting pot.”

            Non-Russians are divided. Many welcome the idea of returning the nationality line in the passports, viewing that measure as a means to support and promote their national identities. But some are concerned, like human rights activists, that such a line might be used for purposes of discrimination in one connection or another.

             Commentator Maksim Kalashnikov says that any talk about a nationality line in the passport producing separatism is an “invented” danger. It was included in Soviet passports, and it did not interfere with anyone.  At present, he continues, “no more then five percent” of the population would oppose restoring the line.

            But one of that five percent, writerMaksim Kononenko says there is absolutely no need for a naitionality line in a document which simply “confirms citizenship.” Why should nationality be singled out for special treatment, he asks, “why no have a line on ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘religious belief?”

            And he points out that “the self-identificaiton of an individual ethnically does not come from the passport. A Tatar will not become a Tataar because a corresponding list is included in his documens.  He is a Tatar if he knows the Tatar language and culture, marks the holidays of his people, and calls his children with Tatar names.”

            At present in Russia, Kononenko notes, there are in Russia people who “call themselves elves and hobbits.But this does not mean that such ethnoses have arisen in Russia.”  And while he does not mention it, the 2010 census found that several million citizens of the Russian Federation do not currently identify themselves in ethnic terms at all.

             Three comments from the North Caucasus show just how complicated and how sensitive this issue is. Mikhail Tkhaytsukhov, a historian who works in Karachayevo-Cherkeia, says that the nationality line will help maintain national identities and even “assist the growth of natonal self-consciousness” (

            Amirkhan Magomeddadayev, a Daghestani historian, has a different view.  “Perhaps in Tatarstan, [it] is important” because the Tatars are subject to russification. But for people in the North Caucasus, where there is no russificaiton, a nationality line in passports will signal the restoration of an ethnic hierarchy and open the way to more ethnic discrimination.

            And Akhmet Yalykapov, a senior scholar at the Moscow Center for Ethnopolitical Research, says that restoring the fifth line “will not change anything.”  This is “not the chief problem now.”  What is “much more important” is that citizens in the Russian Federation do not feel they have “full equality in law.” 

            But writing on, journalist Sergey Strakhov probably sums up the attitude of many about the idea of a new nationality line in the passport.  That will not have any real influence, he says.”We’ve survived ‘Russians by passport’ [in the past] and we will somehow or other survive Goblins [in the future].”

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