Monday, January 16, 2012

What I Read Today - Monday January 16, 2012

From:  The New York Times

January 16, 2012, 8:03 am


Passport for Life

By MASHA GESSEN

A portion of the author’s Russian internal passport.

MOSCOW — As of last Friday, I am an undocumented person in my own country. I cannot open or close a bank account, receive medical care at a state clinic, buy a cellphone, return a purchase to a store or enter into a contract, which my job requires me to do several times a day. All of these operations and many more require a valid internal passport, a peculiar document that may be the most significant vestige of the U.S.S.R. in modern Russian society.

Back when we lived behind the Iron Curtain, these passports entitled us to travel only within the confines of the Soviet Union. Anyone lucky enough to be allowed to travel abroad was issued a special foreign-travel passport just for the occasion and had to surrender it upon returning home. When Russians acquired the right to travel freely, they got to keep their foreign-travel passports. But the internal passport refused to die. So now each adult Russian citizen has two passports. The documents look alike, except that the one for internal use is printed on lighter paper stock, making it feel less substantial.

The internal passport may sound like the identity document that citizens of many European countries are required to hold, but none of those are as comprehensive or as intrusive.

Pages 2 and 3 contain issuing information and the bearer’s name, date and place of birth. This is standard fare.

Pages 4 through 11 are reserved for stamps certifying the bearer’s legal right to reside at a particular address. In Soviet times, this was as close as most citizens got to having property rights: The state issued residential quarters and then, with a stamp in the passport, certified the person’s right to live there. Now, the old residence-permit system and the new private-property system exist side by side. One can purchase an apartment and be denied the legal right to reside in it. Or one can retain the legal right to live on a property that belongs to someone else.

Pages 12 and 13 are marked “Military Duty.” All Russian males and a fair number of the females (those who studied foreign languages and could serve as translators) are subject to mandatory military service. A man under 29 whose passport does not reflect that he has either carried out or been released from his military service may be detained by any policeman and delivered to a draft office to be shipped off. This happens often enough.

Pages 14 and 15 are reserved for marital status. Upon marrying or divorcing, one acquires a corresponding stamp. Pages 16 and 17 are where the names of one’s children go — as long as they are under 14, whereupon they have to get their own internal passports.

The last two pages of the passport contain information on one’s foreign-travel passport, as well as, optionally, one’s blood type.

Every time I initiate a bank transaction in person, return an item to a store or enter into a contract, I share all of this personal information with perfect strangers.

Or shared. Last Friday I turned 45, and my internal passport expired. One gets one’s first internal passport at 14 and turns it in for a new one at 20 and then again, as a government Web site puts it, “in case one reaches the age of 45” — a simple reminder of the fact that a lot of Russians don’t. When I do get my new passport, I am expected to carry it for the rest of my life, probably because the government doesn’t expect that to be a very long time.

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Masha Gessen is a journalist in Moscow. Her biography of Vladimir Putin, “The Man Without a Face,” will be published March 1.

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