Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Nationality Line and Official Nationality Still Exist in Putin’s Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 5 – One of the aspects of Soviet life many were especially happy to get rid of was the so-called “nationality line or paragraph in Soviet passports and in almost all official documents which in almost all cases defined an individual’s ethnic status for life and in many cases determined his life chances.

            Russia banned such “lines” at the start of post-Soviet era, and that ban was enshrined in the 1993 Constitution which specified that any citizen of the Russian Federation could choose his or her own nationality (or none at all) and could not be required to give it or have it recorded in passports or other documents.

            But as in almost all other things post-Soviet Russian, what many had thought had happened hasn’t. The nationality line in passports has indeed disappeared. But in many other official documents, it remains, including birth certificates and marriage licenses. Moreover, “official” national identities exist as well, as the authorities won’t allow people to change them.

            This reality of Putin-era Russian life has been highlighted by the case of Aleksandr Lavrenov of Kolomna. He decided that he would like to change his nationality from Russian to German on an official document as he has German roots. The registration people refused. He went to court, and he was turned down again.

            Now, Yelena Aprelskaya of Moskovsky komsomolets has recounted “the details of this anything but banal history,” one that says a great deal about how officials in Russia today think about nationality (mk.ru/social/2019/02/05/pyatyy-punkt-smena-nacionalnosti-v-dokumentakh-obernulas-dlya-russkogo-sudom.html).

            All his life, Aprelskaya says, Lavrenov, 55, assumed he was a pure-bred ethnic Russian. But in 2005, shortly before the death of his grandmother, she told him that “the grandmother of your father was a German. We concealed this out entire lives because we were afraid of repression.”  His brother confirmed this, and Lavrenov began to explore his genealogy.

            Finding information about his family was very hard.  “Many Germans in the 1930s,” he says, “if they spoke Russian well, falsified documents and represented themselves as Russians because there was a genocide. In those times, the NKVD hunted them down, they were shot, and Germans sought to hide under Russian family names.”

            Lavrenov registered as a Russian when he got married in 2002, and it was that marriage document that he hoped to change his declared nationality from Russian to German. Officials at the registration office refused and told him he’d have to go to court. That is what Lavrenov did; and after many attempts, he succeeded in getting a local court to hear his case.

            Both that court and an appeals court ruled against him because he was not able to produce any documentary evidence that his ancestors were German. He couldn’t do that, Lavrenov says, because his ancestors had had to hide their nationality in order to survive under Stalin. But the courts ignored that argument.

            Lavrenov says he had grown up as a Russian and was taught to believe in internationalism, but he was also taught to seek the truth. Now he knows he is of German origin and wants that recorded in official documents. Unfortunately, he continues, “time is passing, I’m getting older and I simply can’t wait until justice triumphs” on its own.

                He tells Moskovsky komsomolets that he has a good reason for seeking to change his nationality: he plans to emigrate to Germany and having a German identity officially recognized by the Russian authorities will ease his way.    

            What he doesn’t say and what the Moscow paper doesn’t say either is that this is precisely the reason why such official nationality has continued. In Soviet times, many Jews whose families had declared themselves to be Russians in order to escape persecution wanted to recover their Jewish status officially when it became possible to emigrate to Israel.

            And it also happened, although not nearly as often, that Russians sought to re-identify as Jews so that they could do the same thing.  Often they did so by marrying a Jew. The author of these lines remembers to this day one of the early personal columns in the USSR. A Russian declared he was looking for “a single Jewish woman” to marry and was ready to relocate.

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