Russian Senator Wants to Restore Nationality Line in Russian Passports

February 5, 2015
Screenshot from public service ad from Sverdlovsk Region Inter-Ethnic Public Library titled "Nationality is a Human Being." 2014.

Staunton, February 4 – A proposal by Federation Council member Zhanna Ivanova to restore a nationality line in Russian passports has sparked concern among many who remember how such a line was used against Jews in Soviet times, worry that it may become a test of loyalty under Putin, and amusement about how Russians might in fact fill it out now.

Ivanova has called for a new law that would allow Russian citizens to indicate their ethnic nationality in their passports, something she says will guarantee “the preservation of the uniqueness of each national (ethnic) community of the multi-national people of the Russian Federation.”

According to the draft legislation, those who want to declare their nationality (ethnicity) will have to pay a premium, will have the right to change their nationality or drop any reference to it by filing a written declaration, or can have their nationality defined at birth by their parents. And some deputies, including the KPRF, want to add a line for “religious affiliation” as well.

One writer old enough to remember Soviet times is concerned that this measure, offered in the name of supporting ethnic identities and traditions, might be once again used as it was then most often against Jews as the basis for discrimination against this or that group, including ethnic Russians in non-Russian areas.

A second commentator is fearful that when Ivanova talks about nationality, she is in fact thinking about loyalty; and that in turn will mean that some people will be forced to identify as members of one nationality when they feel themselves to be members of another in order to show that they are loyal to the state.

And a third suggests that in the current environment, officials are going to discover that people will declare all kinds of things as nationalities that the officials won’t be happy about, just as they have objected when people identified their nationality in the census as Cossack or Siberian.

Yevgeny Ikhlov gives one possible scenario: A 14-year-old comes in to get a passport. Asked his nationality, he responds “I don’t know. My mommy is a hobbit, and my old man is a pure orc!” One can only imagine what the officials will do with that.

While Ivanova’s proposal may not go anywhere, it will divide both Russians and non-Russians and thus exacerbate the Russian Federation’s always sensitive ethnic issue. On the one hand, it will undermine the chance Moscow will be able to successfully introduce a non-ethnic Russian identity, something the regime has been trying to do for almost two decades.

And on the other, it will simultaneously help some small groups to survive while giving added incentive to Russian officials to promote the re-identification of members of such groups as Russians in the name of integration and political loyalty. A better way to anger members of both sides would be difficult to imagine.