Russian Citizenship — A View from the Empire (and Canada)

Thanks to Josh for inviting me to take part in this blog conversation, and to Eric for allowing us to read and discuss his book. It’s a pleasure to write about a book in a way that’s less formal and more conversational than a book review. In particular, I found myself thinking about Eric’s book on a personal, as well as on an academic level, something that’s hard to talk about in more formal settings.  But here I can note that this topic holds particular resonance for me, in part because my Lithuanian great-grandmother was one of the emigrants from late Imperial Russia whose life was affected by the policies he describes, and also because I myself, as an American living and working in Canada, have thought much more about citizenship, borders, and the act of naturalization in recent years.

With my academic’s hat on, I am of course most interested in Lohr’s book because of the ways it intersects with my own research into soslovie, and into the ways that membership or belonging into particular societies—in my case local ones, in Lohr’s case national ones—evolved over the Imperial era. I find Lohr’s description of early imperial subjecthood policy as one based in “separate deals” compelling, as it shows one of the ways that structures that helped govern the Russian population—separate deals via soslovie identities—were also used in ways to help incorporate newly annexed territories and to attract new immigrants.  The idea that the era of the Great Reforms created a broader sense of citizenship that challenged some of these separate deals also resonates with the story of sosloviia.

That said, I found myself thinking mostly about the persistence of separate deals, or perhaps better, the weakness of citizenship, in the late imperial era. In particular, something I’ve noticed is the way that during that era, conflict between imperial Ministries could often highlight trouble spots within imperial society. In my research, this most often shows up in the Ministry of Internal Affairs wanting to keep soslovie identities in part out of a desire to control the population, and the Ministry of Finance interested in relaxing those identities in pursuit of economic growth. Something similar seems to be going on in Lohr’s story, as different Ministries or Departments show up to argue for or against strengthening or weakening state policies. Even if the arguments seem resolved in one particular direction, the persistence of such arguments always suggests to me that autocratic Russia was far less monolithic in its attitudes than we often thing.

I also wonder if this is somehow related to the issue of dual citizenship, a concept Lohr describes as increasingly suspect during the nineteenth century. The idea that this was a significant issue for much of the international community during this period seems clear, but I wonder whether this issue had particular resonance for Russia? I could argue about its long history of tricky borderlands where uncertain allegiances were a perpetual source of instability. But I also think again about the ways that the Imperial Russian state legislated social status, and was always a bit uncertain about whether it was possible to be two things at once: keeping nobles noble and merchants merchants and peasants engaged in agriculture was often part of the legislation on soslovie and on moving between them.  Knowing that individuals had one place in society was both a source of social stability, and also a way to know what service those individuals owed. Those who took up more ambiguous social positions—though they were likely many—were unsettling to the regime’s sense of its own population. Dual nationality created a yet more unsettling situation, as it meant not just that the state wasn’t sure what kinds of resources it could extract from given subjects (or citizens), but even whether it would be able to extract any resources at all.

On top of all this, my personal experience makes me think most of all about the kinds of borders involved in discussions of citizenship.  (Seriously, the electronic border that makes my Netflix subscription substantially different than my sister’s would make anyone think about borders more.) There are, of course, the spatial borders, sometimes marked by physical barriers, but often, at least in the Russian (and, actually, in the American/Canadian) case, marked by things much less practically present. Crossing these borders is a major part of the story here, as people enter and leave the Russian Empire, legally and illegally, permanently and not. And the borders themselves are, too, as they are built up in times of war or uncertainty, shifting in their form and their protection.

At the same time, though, a more conceptual, or even emotional, border also plays a role in decisions about naturalization. This may by only my own modern selfhood playing a role, but I have found the act of living as a permanent resident of a different country a more mentally and emotionally complicated situation than I expected it to be. Decisions about residency (and even more, about citizenship) are at least as bound up in emotion as they are in practicality. Perhaps this is a mark of the success of nation building, and one that might be less relevant in earlier eras. But I do rather wish that that element of citizenship, and of the decisions made by individuals, as well as by the imperial state, could have been more of this discussion (as hard as I know it is to find those decisions).

About Alison Smith

Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History
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One Response to Russian Citizenship — A View from the Empire (and Canada)

  1. Eric Lohr says:

    Many thanks to Alison Smith for her ruminations on citizenship, soslovie, and her own U.S–Canadian existence. One of the most appealing things about the topic of citizenship (and one of most frustrating) is its capaciousness. As one of the smartest authors on citizenship, Andreas Fahrmeir, put it, “citizenship is at once everything and nothing”: it has so many different meanings for people that it loses analytical or descriptive value. I dealt with that issue in the book by defining my “citizenship” topic rather strictly, as the boundary between members and non-members, between the body of citizens and foreigners. That relegated issues of soslovie, packages of rights and obligations, and the like to independent variable status. Those themes do appear in the book, but not as the focus of attention. We should all look forward to Alison’s next book, which I believe will put those questions front and center. Her remarkable article: “The Freedom to Choose a Way of Life”: Fugitives, Borders, and Imperial Amnesties in Russia,” The Journal of Modern History 83 (June 2011): 243–271 provides a foretaste of the feast to come. As for including a bit more emotion, ah, well that is simply something the sources did not really allow. When individuals appeared in the archives, I was only able to get a glimpse, and certainly could not see into their hearts. There is not to my knowledge a genre of citizenship poetry or naturalization novels to help out. That said, I did gather some material on individual cases of naturalization, denaturalization, emigration, and immigration. However, I ended up not including most of them for a couple reasons. Most importantly, I never really had sufficient material to create a full picture of an individual’s motives and decisions. I also had a hard time finding examples to illustrate normative patterns. One of the great difficulties in researching citizenship is that almost by definition anything that appears in the archives is an exception rather than an example of the usual practice. Petitions for exemption from the normal rules are interesting but misleading in a narrative trying to explain normal practices. Perhaps my personal predilection for rational cost-benefit analysis in making decisions (I typically draw up elaborate lists of arguments for and against a decision, score them, and go with the side with the highest points) led me to overestimate rationality in both policymaking and individual decisions. But I also do think that for most of the period I deal with in the book, decisions about citizenship were much more consequential than in our current era where people’s Netflix accounts may differ, but really life as a Canadian or American is not so very different. One can afford to choose citizenship on a whim or as an expression of one’s sense of identity today. Not so much for Jews in the 1880s or anyone in the 1920s or 30s. States now tolerate dual or multiple citizenship; not then, when universal military conscription made citizenship a vital national security issue. Emotion surely played a part in everyone’s citizenship choices, but the stakes were so high that I suspect rational cost-benefit analysis usually led the head to prevail over the heart.

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