How the column “nationality” appeared in the passport

If the name and place of residence became the main means of individualization of a person, then social status, and before that – class affiliation, acted as a means of categorization, that is, the distribution of the population into separate social categories: nobility, clergy, merchants, philistinism, peasantry. Such categories were introduced in order to create a sort of ranking for various groups of the population, since they are based on the different status of these groups and, accordingly, different rights.

Indication of class affiliation (rank, occupation) in identification documents was included in the minimum set of necessary information about a person and was as mandatory as indicating a name. The title was considered a kind of “innate” characteristic of a person, his breed, forever assigned to him and determined by origin, that is, who were parents and deeper, ancestors. Only with the advent of the possibility of transferring to another class (and this opportunity in the aftermath of Peter the Great was given by the achievement of certain ranks in the service, and in addition, education and honorary citizenship) does the attitude to this characteristic begin to change.

At the turn of the XIX – XX centuries, the official point of view on the social structure of Russia was less and less consistent with real social identities. Judging by the materials of the First All-Russian Census of 1897, the population of the empire was classified according to traditional estate categories. At the same time, citizens themselves used mixed definitions of their social status, among which there were very common indications of occupation – for example, “teacher of a gymnasium” or “engineer”, “bank employee” and so on.

A new era began with the abolition of estates and ranks. One of the first decrees of the Soviet government abolished all existing “class divisions of citizens, class privileges and restrictions”, as well as ranks and titles: “… one common name is established for the entire population of Russia – citizens of the Russian Republic”. The chaos caused by the revolution in the social space demanded the introduction of new principles of categorization now outside the class society. The basic principle from the Bolshevik point of view lay on the surface: the class struggle itself presupposed a division into the now former exploiters and the advanced class — the proletarians and their allies. It is characteristic that the first documentary registration of citizens of the new state was carried out precisely on this basis: already in 1918 the so-called work books for non-working people (that is, for former exploiters) were introduced in order to introduce them to socially useful work.

Systematic work to determine the current class composition began only after the Civil War. By the mid-1920s, a “methodology” was developed for identifying social affiliation, depending on who the person was before the revolution. However, it could be applied only to a certain age category – to those who were adults before the revolution, so they soon switched to more “flexible” methods.

One of the first instructions for determining the social status came out in 1925, belonged to the NKVD and had a notable name: “On the introduction of a new system for familiarizing with the personality of a prisoner and the results of his stay in a place of detention”. It was prescribed in the following way to describe the social status of the prisoner: “He grew up in a family, a) rich, average, poor; b) a worker, artisan, peasant, small, medium, large merchant, official, intellectual, etc.”. The meaning of this classification is quite obvious: to separate the “socially alien” from the socially close. Uncertainty of borders did not bother anyone. If a person said that he grew up in an “average” family, he was more likely to be classified as “rich” than “poor”.

Already in the next year, 1926, the so-called labor lists were introduced, which established the following nomenclature of social types: “worker”, “collective farmer”, “peasant individual farmer”, “employee”, “student”, “writer”, “artist”, “sculptor”, “handicraftsman”, “pensioner”, “dependent”, “without specific occupations”. Actually, in this classification, it was not so much the “social position” that was explicated as the occupation area. It is easy to see that nobles, merchants, persons of a clergy and other places were not found in it. One way or another, by the time passports were introduced in 1932, certain attitudes towards the social differentiation of the population had already formed in government bodies.

The introduction of the passport system took place under the slogan of cleansing cities from “socially alien elements”. The working masses were explained: “The passport provides an opportunity to “show” the true social face of its owner. As it becomes the only document giving the right to live in cities, the passport system will thereby help to trace the scum formed here”. Actually, the same thing was contained in the service instructions for the introduction of the passport system: “The main purpose of issuing passports is to accurately establish the social status”.

If you follow this logic, the column “social status” was to become the main one in the Soviet passport, but it did not. The fact is that the main intrigue – namely, the determination of social status and separation of oneself from “strangers” – was decided at the approaches to the passport, since only those who corresponded to the nomenclature of socially acceptable types could receive a passport. Only one of the legitimate options was recorded in the passport. All other “socially alien” categories of the population were automatically excluded from the passport classification, and their representatives were entered on special eviction lists.

An official social hierarchy was established and recorded in passport documents, with workers at the top. Of these, police assistance teams were formed during certification, designed to establish the “true social face” of applicants for passports and, accordingly, for living in a restricted area. The enthusiasm with which the detachments of “experts” acted was explained not only by ideological considerations and class hatred, but also quite pragmatically: the liberated living space was populated primarily by the active proletariat and the so-called responsible workers. The passportization commission was overwhelmed by a wave of denunciations: “They reported on neighbors: former worshipers, on those with “bourgeois inclinations”, or on those who allegedly engaged in some fraud”. In doubtful cases, the OGPU proceeded to verify the declared social origin.

Actual social identities for governing bodies were much more diverse than officially declared ones. In addition to the approved categories, it included those groups that were just not on the passport list: fists, merchants, crooks, prostitutes, parasites, and so on. The efforts of the organizers of certification were directed to their identification. In fact, the passport nomenclature of social provisions did not reflect the existing, but officially approved and currently prescribed social structure. Thus, social groups that did not enter it turned out to be non-existent in the official social space. This invisibility of the “exploiters” and the “asocial elements” was reinforced by their lack of passport. More precisely, it was assumed that they should certainly be revealed and manifested, but in a different spectrum of social space – as enemies, which should be supplied with a different kind of documents, namely the affairs and certificates of prisoners. When receiving a passport, the main thing was not even a specific position on the scale of social conditions, but what part of the spectrum a person fell into and, accordingly, he received a passport or not.

After the sorting of the population carried out during the passportization, the hype around the definition of social status has noticeably subsided. In the Stalinist Constitution adopted in 1936, all citizens of the Country of the Soviets gain equal rights regardless of “social origin, property status, and past activities”. Despite the proclaimed equality, the “class approach” was maintained, but in a specific way. After a long search, three social non-antagonistic categories were distinguished: workers, collective farmers and the intelligentsia, which replaced the employees. And only in 1974 did the paragraph on fixing the “social status” be excluded from the Passport Regulations. The project “USSR as a class society” was actually completed. In the implementation of this project, a special role was assigned to the passport – to be the main tool for constructing and maintaining a new social structure.

A difficult history was experienced in Russia by the category of national, that is, ethnicity. In pre-revolutionary Russia, nationality was not recorded in documents, and if required, it was determined, as a rule, by religion and/or language. The official practice was such that, for example, Lutherans were considered Germans and vice versa: yesterday’s German automatically became Russian after he converted to Orthodoxy. The famous scene from “Ladies with a Dog” by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov:

– I now recognized your surname below in the lobby: von Dideritz is written on the board, said Gurov. – Is your husband a German?
– No, he seems to have a grandfather was a German, but he himself is Orthodox.

In the last decades of the empire, nationality (in those cases when there was a need for its fixation) was increasingly determined not so much by religion as by “native language”.

The development of the Soviet project “nationality” was complicated by the fact that a significant part of the population did not have or had very vague ideas about their nationality, and there was no stable list of “nationalities” living in the USSR (actually the lists are still being “specified” at each census). To the questions “Who are you?”, “What nationality?” They usually answered: “We are local” or “We are peasants / Muslims / Catholics” and so on.

When considering this category, it should also be taken into account that immediately after the revolution the former estate structure was abolished, and from 1918 all indications of religion in identity documents were canceled. The new government required permanent categories, with the help of which it would be possible to divide the population into certain groups for more effective implementation of their policies.

The introduction of the category “nationality” in the Soviet passport at first glance is not very consistent with the principle of equality. Formally, all nationalities had the same rights, but in reality the situation was different and in subsequent years this will fully manifest itself. The idea of ​​equality of all nationalities of the USSR at first was supported by the virtual absence of official rules for determining nationality. The “Regulations on Passports”, published in 1932, did not regulate the procedure for determining nationality: the record was made according to the owners of passports. In other words, all those who received passports could indicate their nationality, guided by their ideas. In the Instruction for employees of the points on filling out passports and temporary certificates dated January 26, 1933, no difficulties are provided for in this column: “Box 3. Nationality. The nationality of the passport holder is written — Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Belarusian, Jew, Latvian, etc.”. The filling in of this column was practically not controlled in any way and neither the owners of passports nor the police paid special attention to it.

However, by the mid-1930s, the situation began to change, which was directly related to the formation of the image of a country surrounded by hostile forces. The main threat was posed by neighboring states that had their diasporas in the Land of Soviets – primarily Poles and Germans. Representatives of these diasporas (“foreign nationals” in the terminology of the NKVD) were considered as potential and real spies and saboteurs. The task of the organs was their identification and disposal. Numerous testimonies speak of the nature of “disinfecting the spy network”. The regional archives contain data on how the NKVD officers, trying to fulfill the plan to detect Polish spies, arrested people of other nationalities and knocked out the necessary nationality from them. For instance:

“By order of the executive officer of the Donetsk ONKVD Volsky, by beating from 60 arrested Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians, testimonies were received that they were Poles.”

The NKVD officers suspected that, taking advantage of their freedom in determining their nationality, many Poles were listed by their passports as Russians and Belarusians. Large forces were mobilized in search of “foreign nationals”, and not only from auxiliary services. For example, an investigator Vaclav Gridyushko disguised as an electrician got access to house books and wrote out five to eight non-Russian surnames daily. The plans had to be fulfilled – without further ado, all the people with surnames ending in “skiy” were written to the Poles.

The Chekists needed clarity on the issue of nationality and it was introduced by the NKVD of the USSR Circular No. 65 of April 2, 1938, which prescribed: “Record of nationality should be made in accordance with the actual national origin of the parents”. The catch was that the parents were far from always imagining their “actual national origin”. I’m not talking about the descendants of mixed marriages. In addition, I remind you that in your documents you could indicate any nationality before, and since this was not given importance, they wrote who was what. But, perhaps, no less important was the fact that this circular did not become a fact of public law and even those whom it directly concerned did not know about it.

Generally speaking, Chekist officials did not come up with anything fundamentally new. Determination of their belonging to a particular tribe, people was carried out by parents (although there were other important signs: religion, language, culture). Just one of all the possible signs was allocated one – for the reason that he, apparently, seemed to them the most “objective”, almost visual. With its help, if desired, you can establish the origin, and therefore nationality.

Despite the fact that the definition of nationality by parents seemed obvious to officials, as soon as they began to demand just that, problems arose. Hundreds of letters came to different authorities asking: “Who am I? Help me figure it out”. But it turned out that there are much more letters from those to whom, from their point of view, they were assigned the “wrong” nationality. For example, a person considers himself a Belarusian and suddenly upon receipt of a passport discovers that he was recorded as a Pole. This was a common practice: passport office workers wrote in passports what they thought was right. Naturally, the citizen tried to achieve justice and prove that the recording was made incorrectly.

The authors of the letters tried to justify their “correct” nationality on the grounds that they considered convincing in the current situation. The main emphasis of the correctness / incorrectness of the attributed nationality was made on upbringing, customs and, more broadly, culture. This is formulated, for example, in a letter from citizen Ramich:

“Formally, I am a German by nationality, but essentially there is nothing German in me. I don’t know either the German language or the German customs and mores, all the time I talked and brought up among the Russians”.

I note that since that time, different strategies have been used to determine nationality in passports and in censuses: in parents – by parents, in censuses the previous principle remains – according to self-determination.

A new procedure for determining nationality was introduced into the Instructions for the Application of the Regulations on Passports in 1940, but it, like all passport instructions, was marked “Secret”. Letters of citizens and requests from official bodies continued to be received, but the NKVD was in no hurry to openly publish it. Only in the Regulations on Passports of 1953, published in scanty circulations, did the corresponding explanations about filling in the column “nationality” appear. Thus, the gap between the free definition of nationality and the prescribed “nationality by parents” was not 20 years old, as one could understand from the published documents, but only five (from 1933 to 1938) and this was caused by “operational” considerations (that there is a repressive) character.

This situation perfectly illustrates the functioning of the legal system in the USSR. Officially, for all these 20 years, the Regulations were in force, according to which the column “nationality” was filled in according to passport holders. However, the Soviet people had to believe not written, but specific practices. We can say that the content of the “top secret” circular was broadcast to the masses by the actions of police officers and was easily assimilated by these masses, accustomed to this form of perception of Soviet legislation. Moreover, the procedure for determining nationality by parents has become common: not only for “doubtful”, but also for all citizens of the USSR. We can only say that in a very short time, “nationality” from something optional and obscure has turned into something quite definite – a property that every person receives at birth, inheriting it from his parents.

The new procedure for determining nationality became an effective tool for ethnic deportations unfolding in the late 1930s and 1940s. One of the many effects of ethnic deportations has been a sharp increase in the number of fake entries in the “nationality” column. The entries “German”, “Pole”, “Kalmyk” most often changed to “Russian”. Of course, not all owners of “dangerous” records resorted to fakes. There were those who tried to “correct” nationality by legal means, but not many expected success. For example, a report on the work of the passport police department in 1944 noted:

“In accordance with the NKVD circular … dated December 29, 43, 65 police applications were received and considered by citizens of the police regarding a change in the nationality record in passports. Of these, 4 were satisfied, 42 were refused, the rest were sent to the periphery for clearance”.

Post-war generations perceived the procedure introduced by the NKVD for determining nationality by parents as a given. After the campaign to combat cosmopolitanism (1948-1953), ethnic discrimination moved from the sphere of public policy to pure everyday life and took various forms. Perhaps, only those whose parents were Russian in their passport did not have any particular problems with the “fifth point”, in particular with their perception by others. All others to one degree or another felt their belonging to a “different” nationality.

Concluding the review of official requirements for this category, it should be noted that the introduction of the category “nationality” in the passport was carried out in two stages. At the first stage (1932-1938), nationality was determined from the words of the passport holder and was not given much attention. But when the NKVD needed clarity in this matter, the usual principle (by the example of establishing social affiliation) was applied of the definition of “origin”, that is, by parents. Such an almost biological definition of nationality as a hereditary trait allowed the authorities to somehow control the entry in the passport box. Strictly speaking, the equal legal status of nationalities proclaimed by the Soviets contradicted the requirement of mandatory fixation of nationality. However, the category of “nationality” has become not just an accounting (statistical, as it was in the Russian Empire), but just legal, because different communities were given a different status: some of them had their own territorial entity, others not; some were considered nations, while others were considered nations, and so on. As a result, the strict bureaucratic prescriptiveness of determining nationality entered into complex relations with group and individual identities. Some perceived it as the natural basis of their individuality, while in others it caused various forms of rejection, up to the desire to get rid of the prescribed stigma.

The cancellation of the nationality record in the new Russian passport, which was introduced in 1997, showed all the ambiguity of the attitude of wide circles of the population to this category. Judging by the unfolding disputes, at least two positions were formed during the Soviet era. For the cancellation of the recording were mainly those whose parents belonged to different nationalities. As a rule, they argued that their nationality depended on the cultural context in which they were born and matured. Against the disappearance of the entry in the passport were those who were accustomed to determine their nationality by parents and whose ethnic identity coincided with the entry in the passport. It would seem that the cancellation of the record did not affect their identification in any way, but for many, the record in the passport was that support, in the absence of which there was a direct threat of loss of roots, loss of connection with their people.

Concern for the preservation of ties with historical roots is a common place in the settings of opponents of the abolition of columns. At the same time, it is significant that, according to an ethnosociological study conducted in 1988, almost a quarter of Russians found it difficult to answer that they were related to their people, except for the corresponding column in the passport. We can say that the entry in the Soviet passport (a kind of “passport nationality”) ultimately acquired independent value and in itself became an essential component in the formation of ethnic identity.


Good luck in finding.