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Russians to Receive New IDs, Minus Component Used to Single Out Jews

Reform: With internal passports, czars and Soviets kept control. Now, official anti-Semitism is waning.

October 01, 1997|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — It was the most banal yet terrifying of documents, restricting people to living where police chose. It listed workplace and family status. At its "Fifth Point," it even told the all-powerful authorities whether an individual was, say, Russian, Ukrainian or Jewish.

More than anything else, this "nationalities" clause made the internal passport--the bludgeon of czarist and Soviet totalitarian regimes--unpopular with this country's Jewish minority. In the homeland of the pogrom, Jews have always seen the forced disclosure of such information as an open invitation to harassment.

But today, a new internal passport is being introduced, one that drops the infamous Fifth Point. It comes as official anti-Semitism in Russia is on the wane, and it has been heralded by Russian leaders as a big step away from Big Brother-style Soviet rule.

"Wherever you want to go, wherever you want to live, that's your business now," a beaming President Boris N. Yeltsin told 30 teenagers who were the first people to be awarded new passports, on Tuesday, at a televised ceremony complete with brass band and the glitter of Kremlin chandeliers.

Whether the reform means Russian citizens will be more free of state-sponsored racism, or of state supervision in general, is in doubt.

The anti-Semitic policies of yesterday may have gone, skeptics say, but they have been replaced by a new form of official racism--policies discriminating against dark-skinned peoples from the Caucasus. Critics also say that, despite the reform, the new internal passport will still restrict individual freedoms for all Russians to a degree unknown in the West.

"This is just camouflage," said Alexander V. Liberman of the Union of Councils, a Jewish human rights group. "The national question goes a lot deeper than the nationality clause in your passport. I'm for this reform, or at least not against it. But I don't see any forward movement in it."

Adolf S. Shayevich, the rabbi of Russia, took a more optimistic view, calling the new passport only one of many signs that anti-Semitism is no longer state policy. In a country where unseen barriers stopped Jews from being promoted, another indicator has been the appointment of politicians of Jewish descent to fill highly visible top jobs in Yeltsin's government.

Since the perestroika era of the 1980s, when Jewish mass emigration to Israel was officially sanctioned and many of the Soviet Union's most qualified professionals left, official Russia has looked with new anxiety at the 1 million or so Jews still here and has tried to make life attractive enough to stop the economically damaging "brain drain."

What Shayevich called "everyday anti-Semitism"--desecration of Jewish graveyards, whispers of race hate from extremist, fascist and nationalist political groups--is still widespread, even if it has become taboo, the preserve of people on the uncivilized fringe of Russian society. But though hundreds of thousands of Jews have emigrated, "the overwhelming majority of [those who remain] would like to stay," he said. "Perhaps the introduction of these new passports, without a nationality clause, will be seen by many of them as a new step toward assimilation.

"On balance, I think the passport reform is probably good for all citizens," Shayevich added. Holders of the new document--whose raspberry-colored cover features not a hammer and sickle but the double-headed czarist eagle that Yeltsin has brought back as Russia's emblem--will all be categorized as Rossianye, or "citizens of Russia."

While many Jews might be pleased at the disappearance of the Soviet establishment's way of keeping them down, other Russians have less reason to rejoice.

A new ethnic group has quickly taken the Jews' traditional place as scapegoat in post-Soviet society. The peoples of the Caucasus Mountains on Russia's southern border are now blamed for many of the nation's economic and crime woes. The identification of "persons of Caucasian nationality" as Russians' ethnic enemy was both a cause and an effect of Russia's 1994-96 war in the Caucasus region of Chechnya.

Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, is among commentators who said the passport reform will not help Caucasians avoid widespread police brutality, since their features let them be picked easily from a crowd of Russians--and brutalized.

"Discrimination in Russia is not getting less. It has just changed its shape a little bit," said Lohman. "Before, it was the Fifth Point that was used to discriminate. But now, people aren't discriminated against because of what's in their passport; one look at their face shows they have dark skin."

A September Human Rights Watch/Helsinki report accused police of systematic abuse of dark-skinned men in Moscow. It said police routinely arrest, beat, arbitrarily fine and destroy papers of "people with dark skin and hair who appear to be from developing countries, the Caucasus, the Northern Caucasus or Central Asia."

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