Staunton, April 12 – “The struggle for democracy in Russia has always been associated with the struggle for the right to freely leave the country,” Boris Sokolov says. Russians gained that right only in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union; and it is “one of the few conquests of that time which have not yet been eliminated by the Putin regime.”
For many Russians, the right to freely leave and if so desired to return to the country is the most important thing that the anti-communist revolution brought them; and today, many fear the current ruler in the country may strip them of that right, something that he has already done for a number of categories of people.
Given these fears and the fact that the Russian government has a long history of restricting such movements for its own purposes, historian Boris Sokolov presents a useful discussion of Russian government approaches to this issue over the last 150 years (graniru.org/Society/History/m.281493.html).
The specific occasion for Sokolov’s remarks is that today is the 140th anniversary of the decision of Alexander III to allow free exit and entrance into Russia, a move he decided upon out of the conviction that such an arrangement would reduce pressure on the throne by allowing the most radical opponents of the tsarist regime to leave, the historian says.
Over the next four years, 921,600 subjects of the empire left and more than a million people entered Russia. A significant portion of those who left were Jews, a group that was particularly mistreated and that was a major source of recruits for the revolutionary movement. The tsar and his advisors hoped their departure would calm things down.
Between 1881 and the end of the Russian empire, Jews formed 44 percent of all emigres even though they represented about four percent of the total population of that country.
However, the departure of Jews and revolutionaries more generally did not have the effect that the tsars hoped for, Sokolov continues. Instead, many who went abroad expanded their work by publishing newspapers and journals and then using the chance to travel back to smuggle them into Russia, thus expanding the revolutionary threat to the throne.
Under the tsarist regime, the historian points out, there was not complete freedom of exit. Men of draft age were blocked from leaving at least legally, but often they were able to depart by bribing officials. And religious groups like the Dukhobors were similarly restricted because the authorities feared they could become an alternative to the official church.
But there were only a miniscule number of emigres from the empire’s largest population group, the peasantry. And the failure of more of them to leave meant that freeing up emigration did not solve the land hunger problem in the Russian countryside as some Russian bureaucrats had hoped.
Free immigration also did not work as the tsarist authorities expected. Few Europeans came because Russian wages were so much lower, but many Chinese and others from Asia did, changing the ethnic mix in Russia east of the Urals and even creating in the eyes of St. Petersburg a security problem.
After the Bolsheviks took power, they established tight controls over who could leave and who could enter the country. (During the civil war, however, several million people left.) In the early years of Soviet power, the regime expelled some people and attracted a few workers from the West. But both these trends ended badly: the expellees became an alternative source of ideas, and the Western workers eventually were suppressed.
Stalin viewed all Soviet citizens as potential soldiers and thus blocked the emigration of almost everyone lest the country’s security be threatened. He imposed restrictions which meant that anyone who tried to leave would be treated as a traitor. As a result, emigration and immigration too dried up. And those who had entered were executed or imprisoned.
“After World War II, several tens of thousands of Russian emigres and also Armenians returned to the USSR,” and then in the mid-1950s, the emigration of Germans was permitted in limited numbers,” Sokolov says. Between 1955 and 11979, 77,000 Soviet citizens of German nationality left the USSR.
In 1968, a limited program of Jewish emigration began, and between 1970 and 1988, 291,000 Jews left, although many were blocked and became known as “the refuseniks.” Then at the end of perestroika, some 472,000 more Jews were allowed to leave, the historian continues.
After the August 1991 putsch, emigration in fact became free, “but only in 1993 were exit visas officially eliminated and the free distribution of passports permitted.” That right was enshrined in a 1996 law and remains highly valued to this day, even as ever more Russians are afraid that Putin may restrict this right as well.