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Friday, August 25, 2006

Masha Gessen on Neo-Soviet Racism

Time magazine, see above, gave the big picture on Russian racism, while Masha Gessen of the Moscow Times gives a more personal account in her column this week:

I had to get a spravka recently and, when I got it, I stared at it in disbelief. In this case the spravka, or certificate, was a document showing who was registered as residing in my apartment. It listed me and my two children. But instead of looking like a list, as one might expect, it looked like a chart.

The chart had a number of columns with headings, some of which were predictable -- like name and date of birth -- and some a little less intuitive. One heading was "arrived from." For me, it listed my previous address in Moscow; for my daughter, it listed Falmouth, Massachussets, where she was born; and for my son, it said, "born" (which is the definitive bureaucratic answer to the question of where children come from: They are born). Another column was titled, "Ethnicity" (национальность [phonetically, "nationality"]). Opposite my name, it said, "Jewish." My children's "ethnicity" fields were, mercifully, left blank.

I am a returned emigre. When my family left the Soviet Union in 1981 we were all stripped of our Soviet citizenship. Since this was illegal according to Soviet law, in the early 1990s the Supreme Soviet decided to restore justice by giving all emigres their citizenship back. I was one of the few who actually went to a Russian embassy to reclaim their passports.

The application form was just like ones I had filled out as a U.S. citizen applying for a visa to visit the Soviet Union. It asked for my "nationality." I wrote United States -- as I had always done, as a matter of principle, when applying for a visa. Then I remembered all of the people I knew back in the Soviet Union who had lied, cheated and bribed their way to ensuring that their passport did not say "Jewish." I crossed out "United States" and wrote down "Jewish."

"Those bastards!" I thought. They have trapped me into identifying myself as Jewish by nationality, which is absurd. I crossed out "Jewish" and wrote down "United States."

"Coward," I thought. "Liar." I crossed out "United States" and wrote down "Jewish." The embassy issued me a foreign-travel passport, which said nothing about my being Jewish. But in another couple of years I was living in Moscow and I got my internal passport. Back then, they still used the old Soviet passports, which specified the bearer's ethnicity. "Congratulations," a colleague said to me back then. "Now you know you are Jewish."

Nor would I be allowed to forget. A couple of years after I got my new old passport, the magazine where I worked was getting its affairs in order, which involved creating personnel cards for all staff. I was asked to sign a piece of paper that contained all the information from my passport, including my Jewishness. I refused, explaining that my ethnicity had nothing to do with my job. The personnel manager couldn't understand why I was being obstinate. She just kept repeating, "What are you so ashamed of?" and "Don't worry, we won't tell anyone."

I held on to that passport as long as I could: I thought it was an artifact. A couple of years ago, I had to surrender it in exchange for a new Russian passport, which does not list the holder's ethnicity. But the traces of that old passport live on -- in the spravka, and elsewhere.

I raised my eyes from studying the spravka and saw a bulletin board that displayed samples of applications for Russian citizenship and residence permits for foreigners. Question 6 on those forms is "ethnicity"; Question 7 is "religion." The laws on citizenship and residency say nothing about ethnicity or religion. But those old application forms, and the ways of thinking they demonstrate -- just as with the spravka and the personnel form -- never die.

Which is just one of the many ways we know that when the people who rule this country start speaking about the threat of fascism, they are lying. Otherwise, their first priority would be to purge those applications and spravkas.

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