Russian Citizenship: From Empire to Soviet Union

By van Meurs, Wim | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Russian Citizenship: From Empire to Soviet Union


van Meurs, Wim, Canadian Journal of History


Russian Citizenship: From Empire to Soviet Union by Eric Lohr. Cambridge, Massuchetts, Harvard University Press, 2012. 288 pp. $59.95 US (cloth).

Not only the Soviet Union but also the subsequent brief debate on the added value of Soviet/Russian-area studies has long since ended in the dustbin of history. The present study on Russian citizenship policies is one out of many recent studies to accept comparisons between Soviet/Russian and "European" polities and policies as a fruitful and legitimate endeavour. Eric Lohr, author of a much-acclaimed study, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003), argues that every modernizing state of the nineteenth century had to define a strategy of citizenship, naturalization, and migration.

The debates whether or not the individuals living in the czarist empire should be called "subjects" or "citizens" and what rights and obligations Russian citizenship entailed, seems less relevant for the present study than what the author dubs "the citizenship boundary" between citizens and foreigners (p. 11). The author uses a minimalist definition of citizenship (membership in a country, p. 3) that is oblivious to contrasting concepts of the nation and political regimes. In other nation-states and empires a similar shift to Russia's from group-based regulations by the state authorities toward the ideal of universal equal rights for all citizens occurred, albeit earlier. In order to approach such a complex and dynamic policy field, Eric Lohr makes some sweeping statements in the introduction: Czarist policies since the 1860s were motivated by the urge to attract new citizens as part of Russia's modernization drive; and Soviet policies constituted a radical break with these traditions and strove for autarky, keeping/driving class enemies and unwelcome nationalities out. Having thus laid the ground for the book, the author identifies three aspects. In-between a short introduction on pre-1860s policies and two longer chapters on wartime and Soviet policies, the book focuses on the naturalization of the inhabitants of annexed territories, the naturalization of immigrants and vice-versa the revoking of the citizenship of emigrants.

The condensed presentation of the book's core research findings on half a century of czarist policies in a mere one hundred pages testifies to the academic courage and, fortunately, sovereign command of the subject. Typically, the Russian state relied on social and administrative controls as well as a unique passport system restricting travel abroad rather than on closely guarded borders.

The author is interested both in the legal framework--but acutely aware of its limitations as a sources of historical realities--and in actual practices of migration and naturalization. Fortunately, he managed to resist the temptation of the numerous colourful anecdotes and examples he must have found in police and military archives. The spectacular and detailed dossiers in the archives, he argues, tend to be a-typical and a transnational comparison requires a painstaking search for the general trends and common practices rather than exceptional cases (pp. 23). In the empirical chapters, nevertheless, some arguments are based on the legal provisions, whereas others focus on actual practices of those days, which deviated from the stipulations of the law. …

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