Russian Citizenship

Russian Citizenship: Borders, Numbers and Intentions

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate passed the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”  The bill’s opening provisions call for doubling the size of the Border Patrol to about 40,000 agents, completing 700 miles of fencing along the southern border, and expanding the use of radar and drone surveillance.  If approved by the House of Representatives, this effort, estimated to cost between 40 and 50 billion dollars, would constitute arguably the most ambitious peacetime border buildup in history.  Those unfamiliar with the politics of U.S. immigration reform may be forgiven for wondering that the proposed legislation is aimed not to secure the country from infiltration by al-Qaeda terrorists, but to turn the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants into U.S. citizens.  It thus seems a particularly auspicious time to consider Eric Lohr’s exploration of the historical relationship between another major state’s efforts to manage its physical borders, its “citizenship boundary,” and the presence of foreigners on its territory, and I am grateful to Josh and Eric for giving me the opportunity to engage with these dimensions of Russian Citizenship.

One of Lohr’s original arguments, however, is about the relative insignificance of the physical border as a demarcating line between the tsars’ subjects and foreigners for most of Russian history: in contrast to countries such as Australia, Britain, Japan and the United States, “where water boundaries facilitated a close association between the physical and citizenship boundaries,” the “physical boundary around the [Russian] empire was not central to the subjecthood boundary.”  While access to U.S. citizenship was “controlled more by Ellis Island gatekeepers than by naturalization laws and regulations,” in Russia “the site of actual control was less along its thousands of kilometers of external border than in the form of documents issued in bureaucratic offices, and inducements, sanctions, and other measures that gave certain groups incentives to migrate or change their citizenship status.”  In short, “[u]ntil the 1920s, the lengthy borders of the state were hardly relevant to controlling movement.” (1, 26-27, 177).

This is a bold claim, and Lohr marshals some compelling evidence to support it.  The figures on illegal emigration offer perhaps the starkest illustration of the porosity of the Empire’s borders: “[b]y the turn of the century, Russian officials estimated that somewhere between half and 90 percent of all emigrants left illegally,” eschewing the expensive and time-consuming process of acquiring a zagranpasport. (94-95, 239n50)  Moreover, “millions of small traders, nomads, and migrant workers were entering and leaving the Russian Empire without documented checks every year.”  At least as far as its borders were concerned, the answer to the “perennial question” about “the paradox of the Russian state” – “[w]as it weak or strong?” –  seems plain enough.  (177)

However, Lohr’s contention about the irrelevance of Imperial border controls remains problematic.  For one, they enjoyed considerably more manpower than Lohr allows (“[b]y 1827, the border guard troop strength reached 3,200, a number which grew steadily throughout the century, reaching 12,100 by 1898.”) (25)  In fact, the number of border guards had already surpassed the latter figure by the Great Reforms; by 1893, a force of over 37,000 men patrolled the empire’s European, Transcaucasian, and Central Asian borders (supplemented in the latter two regions by local auxiliaries and Cossack detachments), while variously-numbered Cossack units kept watch on the Siberian and Far Eastern frontiers.[1]  Soviet border guard officers and customs officials did not exaggerate when they complained – well into the second half of the 1920s – that substantial stretches of the border remained more weakly patrolled than they had been before the Revolution.

A more accurate diagnosis would be that the permeability of the Russian Empire’s borders to human traffic reflected institutional priorities rather than state capacity.  From its inception under Peter the Great until its dismantling by the Bolsheviks in 1919, the Imperial border guard’s stated primary objective was economic: to protect domestic industry and treasury receipts from the threat that contraband posed to both.  Indeed, in 1893 the force was placed under the direct command of Finance Minister Sergei Witte – that “powerful advocate of integration in the global economy and an open door to foreign labor, investment, and talent” (115) – who was also an avowed protectionist. Despite feeling admittedly awkward “playing the role of a military commander,” Witte involved himself closely in the organization and running of the troops that would help enforce his protectionist vision.[2]  Intercepting would-be migrants headed in either direction was simply not a priority.  The border guard’s actual military command understood this well, and its reports took care to emphasize the results of its struggle against economic contraband above all.  This ordering of priorities was not lost on the enlisted men, who were rewarded with a percentage of the value of the contraband goods they captured.

Turning to the Soviet period, Lohr observes that “[b]y the late 1920s, the state had developed unprecedented capacity to control its borders and population movements across them.” (133) The Soviet Union “created one of the most effective border systems in terms of holding its people in that any country had ever constructed.” (151)  “[M]aking great strides toward overcoming the traditionally huge gap between policy intentions and actual practices” (133) at the border, the Soviet state was finally able to achieve what its Imperial predecessor never could.  In a sense, the Soviet border authorities’ task was more straightforward, as the “old formula of ‘attract and hold’ had been reduced to ‘hold.’” (179)  At the same time, the “barbed wire, policed and cleansed border zones, enlistment of vigilantes and informants from border populations, extreme distrust of foreigners, and prophylactic operations against populations with ties abroad all point to a state with remarkably little confidence in its ability to keep its people from leaving.” (178)

There is no question that the Soviet preoccupation with border controls – evolving though it did between fiscal, economic planning, protectionist, security, propaganda, and ideological concerns – was unprecedented in human history.  There is also no question that, primarily out of security and propagandistic considerations, Soviet authorities were more worried about emigration than were their Imperial predecessors.  However, the link between the extensive measures taken to secure the Soviet border and concerns about preventing emigration was generally much less direct than one might expect.  While would-be emigrants faced increasingly daunting obstacles, and successful escapees’ accounts are replete with harrowing stories of near brushes with the border guards, the secret Politburo and STO (Council of Labor and Defense) deliberations about securing the border and the attendant correspondence with the OGPU reveal little concern about emigration as such.

Instead, decisions to reinforce the border guard in the 1930s were motivated by explicit security considerations: suppressing Ukrainian peasant rebellions in the wake of collectivization and preempting Polish intervention; safeguarding a growing number of border-area military installations; and, from the murder of Leningrad party organization chairman Sergei Kirov in December 1934 through the purges of 1936-38, an increasingly aggressive prophylactic effort to seal the border from a mix of real and imagined foreign/fascist/Trotskyite and sundry spies and saboteurs and prevent them from linking up with their domestic coconspirators.  Indeed, the only mention of emigration that I have found in connection with a decision to bolster the border guard was in a March 1930 petition from Iagoda to the STO requesting reinforcements in an ultimately futile attempt to prevent the massive flight of Central Asian nomads with their livestock (fleeing famine, over 200,000 Kazakhs crossed over into Xinjiang alone).  To be sure, the myriad Soviet border security measures implemented over the course of the decade made emigration increasingly difficult if not impossible; but “holding its people in” was not their raison d’être.

With respect to foreigners in the USSR, Lohr finds that 1926 marked a watershed in the institutionalization of Soviet xenophobia; that year, in “a general campaign against foreigners,” the NKVD sought to “uncover the true citizenship status of all people living on the territory of the RSFSR and to re-register all foreigners in the country.”  In the process, “thousands of individuals who appealed to keep their foreign citizenship were forced to relinquish it … It became much more difficult for foreigners to remain in the country.” (154, 165).  Lohr argues that this administrative ‘tightening of the screws’ was engendered by the Kremlin leadership’s growing conviction – first prompted by Pilsudski’s seizure of power in Poland in May 1926 and magnified by a series of foreign policy crises the following spring and summer – that the Soviet Union’s capitalist neighbors were preparing for military intervention.  The connection between foreign threat and stepped-up surveillance of foreigners seems straightforward enough, although one wonders whether the NKVD’s registration drive may have had something to do with the All-Union Population Census (carried out in December 1926), which also sought out detailed data on foreigners in the country.  More problematically, 1926 actually witnessed the sharpest increase in the number of foreign citizens legally entering the Soviet Union during the decade:

Foreign Citizens at OGPU Border Crossings, 1924-1928

























5-yr TOTAL




Sources: S. Korsunovskii, “Migratsiia naseleniia cherez granitsy SSSR v 1927 godu,” Statisticheskoe obozrenie № 11 (1928), 94; idem, “Migratsiia naseleniia cherez granitsy SSSR v 1928 g.,” Statisticheskoe obozrenie № 10 (1929), 106.

Indeed, 1926 also saw the peak net balance recorded, attributable almost entirely to Chinese migrants, 23,962 of whom legally entered the USSR that year, while only 8,059 left.[3]  How did this influx proceed in the face of the NKVD’s “general campaign against foreigners”?  (Alternatively, did it have anything to do with motivating that campaign?) While most Chinese migrants, like their prerevolutionary predecessors, never naturalized, their example suggests that the Soviet authorities’ attitude towards allowing foreigners into the country had more in common with the Imperial administration’s patchwork, “separate deals” approach that Lohr so masterfully untangles in the book’s earlier chapters than he allows for the Soviet period.  Clearly, further research is needed to flesh out the contradictory policy currents (e.g., central vs. regional, economic vs. security) at play here, with close attention to the different nationalities involved.

It is true that the number of foreign citizens leaving the USSR grew much more quickly than the number of foreigners legally entering the country during 1927 and 1928.[4]  Indeed, Lohr reports that the NKVD estimated in September 1928 that there were only 80,000 foreigners left in the country, or “less than one-twelfth the number in 1913.” (166, 262n151)  However, this is a rather puzzling estimate, given that only a few months earlier, Soviet authorities began considering the resettlement of some 80,000 non-citizen Koreans alone away from the border areas. (166)  Indeed, the December 1926 population census had found some 370,700 foreigners residing on Soviet territory, including some 92,300 Persian subjects, 84,000 Koreans, 81,800 Chinese, 25,900 Turkish, and 46,000 Greek, as well as another 31,700 citizens of other European countries and 9,000 other ones. Given the figures on legal border crossings in both directions, it is unlikely that these numbers had dwindled so quickly in the intervening months.[5]

Moreover, while there is evidence that membership in a nationality with cross-border ties (e.g., Polish) increasingly became a liability after 1926[6], other data indicate that even as the OGPU rapidly expanded the scale of its policing activities, its prosecutions of foreign citizens fell off sharply in 1927 and 1928 – just when, following Lohr’s trajectory, we would have expected them to rise:

Citizenship of Individuals Tried by OGPU Tribunals, 1926-1936





% Foreign















































no data









Source: O. B. Mozokhin, Pravo na repressii.  Vnesudebnye polnomochiia organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti.  Statisticheskie svedeniia o deiatel’nosti VChK-OGPU-NKVD-MGB SSSR (1918-1953), 2nd expanded edition (Moscow: Kuchkovo pole, 2011), 380, 387, 394, 400, 406, 414, 427, 432, 443, 456.

To be sure, even at the absolute nadir of OGPU prosecutions of foreign citizens in 1934, their small share of the total population ensured that foreigners remained more likely to be targeted than Soviet citizens.  Nonetheless, the dramatic drops in prosecutions of foreign citizens in 1931 and 1933-34 are hard to square with the picture that emerges in the last chapter of Russian Citizenship of the Soviet regime’s inexorably accelerating xenophobia.  At least before 1936, even as foreign ties and ethnic links with the abroad were invariably more likely to land a person in trouble than the year before, foreign citizenship was not.  While it typically brought OGPU surveillance, a foreign passport also gave its owner a measure of protection that his or her co-ethnic Soviet citizens did not enjoy.

Although Lohr never mentions the establishment of a state monopoly on foreign trade in April 1918 – arguably the most important policy decision in terms of limiting the free flow of capital and people across the Soviet borders – the specter of economic autarky hangs heavy over the final chapter and Conclusion of Russian Citizenship.  “By the end of the 1920s,” Lohr argues, “the Soviet Union had decisively embraced an autarkic path of development.” (173)  This constituted “a distinctly Soviet decision,” one that was “primarily political rather than economic.” (10, 168)  “Autarkic rapid industrialization not only went against Russian historical traditions,” he continues, “but also was unprecedented in the global history of industrialization.  It made little economic sense … Yet, this is precisely what happened,” as Stalin “embraced an autarkic model of economic modernization.” (168, 177)

However, as Michael R. Dohan demonstrated in his seminal 1976 article, “The Economic Origins of Soviet Autarky, 1927/28–1934,” “Soviet planners did not intend to restrict trade during or after the First Five-Year Plan.”  The final version of the foreign trade section of the plan, publicized in June 1929, actually called for exceeding the prewar level of exports and imports by 1931/32. Soviet foreign trade in fact “expanded rapidly between 1927/28 and 1931,” and its subsequent collapse was prompted not by Stalin’s sudden embrace of autarky, but by a host of “[u]nexpected changes in both the capitalist and domestic economies during 1930-32,” including sharply reduced agricultural output due to collectivization, slumping world prices for major Soviet exports due to the Depression, loss of export markets due to trade barriers, and the inability to borrow at desired levels due to the need to pay off short-term foreign loans and a “sudden reduction in the availability and rising real cost of foreign credit.”  Soviet paeans to self-sufficiency merely made a virtue of necessity.[8]  Indeed, as Lohr himself later concedes, “Stalin’s autarky was established in the 1930s, when the world as a whole was restricting immigration, imposing tariffs and trade barriers, and in other ways reversing the globalizing trends of the prior half century.” (184)  Such a less voluntaristic, more contextual explanatory approach, so enjoyable throughout the rest of the book, would have made for an equally compelling ending.








[1] Aleksandr Plekhanov and Andrei Plekhanov, Otdel’nyi korpus pogranichnoi strazhi na granitse Rossii (1893-1919) (Moscow: Granitsa, 2012), 47-48, 66; idem, Kazachestvo na rubezhakh otechestva (Moscow: Veche, 2009), 270-377

[2] Plekhanov and Plekhanov, Otdel’nyi korpus, 55.

[3] Chinese citizens constituted the largest group of foreign subjects legally crossing Soviet borders during 1924-1928, yielding a net positive balance of some 52,000 people.  (Korsunovskii, “Migratsiia … v 1927 g.,” 98; idem “Migratsiia … v 1928 g.,” 106.)  At the same time, thousands of others (and some of the above) slipped in and out across the border undetected.

[4] Korsunovskii, “Migratsiia … v 1927 g.,” 98; idem “Migratsiia … v 1928 g.,” 106.  The surging outflow is attributable almost entirely to Persian subjects, 32,154 of whom legally left the USSR in those two years, while only 16,243 entered; and to Greek citizens, over 3,000 more of whom left than came.

[5] V. V. Obolenskii (Osinskii), Mezhdunarodnye i mezhkontinental’nye migratsii v dovoennoi Rossii i SSSR (Moscow: TsSU, 1928), 126.  The total was only 32,800 fewer than in the 1897 census figures for the same areas.

[6] For a graphic representation of “Foreign Nationalities as a Percent of All Arrests, 1926-1952,” based on Mozokhin’s figures on the nationalities of individuals tried by the OGPU tribunals, see Paul R. Gregory, Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (an Archival Study) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 19.  Note that Gregory conflates nationality with citizenship, referring to all who did not belong to “USSR nationalities (Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Turkmens, etc.)” as “foreigners.”   While Gregory’s puzzling classification of Jews – consistently the largest non-Slavic nationality group to be tried by the OGPU tribunals – as “foreigners” inflates his numbers, the trend would have remained upward (albeit bumpier) without them.

[7] Figures for 1936 show the numbers of individuals arrested (a subset of those tried).

[8] Michael R. Dohan, “The Economic Origins of Soviet Autarky, 1927/28-1934,” Slavic Review, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec., 1976), 610, 635.  For an elaboration on Dohan’s thesis in light of subsequent scholarship and new archival evidence, see Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, “Depression Stalinism: the Great Break Reconsidered,” forthcoming in Kritika: Explorations in Eurasian History (Fall 2013).  I thank Oscar for allowing me to read the article manuscript.

4 replies on “Russian Citizenship: Borders, Numbers and Intentions”

Andrey, this is a very interesting piece, and it made me think of how important it is for us to differentiate between borders and foreigners. It strikes me, from what you say, that the western, southern, and eastern borders (I’m being a little loose here with my directions) were handled differently. The western border appeared more threatening to the Soviets than the eastern border, as the Chinese crossed more easily than the Poles. Similarly, I wonder whether you have a breakdown of the “foreign” category in the chart on OGPU tribunals. Could it be that foreigners on the western border were prosecuted at much higher rates than those on the eastern border (Koreans, Chinese, etc.)? Perhaps Eric’s point about the intensification of xenophobia applies more to the West than the East. Then there’s the southern border and the Greeks, Turks, Persians. In all likelihood, the Soviet regime approached each border and each national group differently, and that “separate deals” became “separate threat assessments” and separate concerns. Perhaps aggregate categories like “foreigners” are less useful here.

I think Golfo is spot-on here. Given the picture that emerges in the final chapter of _Russian Citizenship_ of an inexorably homogenizing Soviet citizenship and border policy in the 1920s, it is worth emphasizing that, as in the Russian Empire, there was no single “Soviet border,” but many different borders subject to different levels of attention and different degrees of policing. Unfortunately, the figures published by Mozokhin do not provide a citizenship breakdown for the arrested foreigners. But there is no question that, at least until the Chinese Eastern Railway Conflict in the summer and fall of 1929 and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria two years later, the Soviet leadership was much more preoccupied with securing its western borders than its eastern or southern frontiers. As a result, as Golfo suggests, “the Chinese crossed more easily than the Poles.” This was not only a question of the distribution of scarce policing resources, however. As elsewhere, Soviet authorities made substantive concessions to local realities and legacies. The Revolution did not abolish labor shortages in the Far East and Central Asia. As they had done before 1917, tens of thousands of Chinese dock hands and gold miners, Korean farmers, and Persian and Kashgari cotton pickers trekked across the Soviet borders every year throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Special agreements facilitating seasonal labor, pasturing, and trade were concluded with Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Tannu-Tuva, and Mongolia as late as 1928. Although it did not put an end to massive smuggling, the relaxation of the state monopoly on foreign trade allowed for a degree of legal commercial intercourse unimaginable on the western borders. I am still working out the speed, degree, and causes of these flows’ abatement in the 1930s; but my general impression is that they were more gradual, more riddled with exceptions (“separate deals”), and less voluntaristic than Eric allows.

I look forward to Andrey Shlyakhter’s dissertation in progress (titled “Smugglers and Commissars: the Making of the Soviet Border Strip, 1917-1939” last I heard). It should be a big contribution to scholarship, adding serious archival work to the sparse literature on the hard border in the Soviet 1920s and 30s. I only wish it had been done in time for me to use. Like many other subtopics within my theme of citizenship, the secondary literature on the hard border is not nearly so strong as one would like. I am sure that scholars will overturn some of my assertions and claims in this “first cut” at the topic (though hopefully not so thoroughly and completely as was the case for Rogers Brubaker’s first cut analysis of citizenship in France and Germany). So I welcome the questions about some of the interpretations and numbers.

I’m not sure I really see the differences in numbers as significant, and I think that the key reason is the frame of comparative reference. I spent many weeks pouring through the records of the NKVD and STO, but in writing the Soviet chapter, my comparative frame was the broad span of Russian history, as well as comparison (more implicit than explicit) to other countries. One of the central goals of the book is to come to some broad generalizations about the Russian and Soviet citizenship tradition to allow others to compare and contrast aspects of Russian citizenship with other countries. Thus, I tended to accentuate differences rather than blur them, trying to be specific about what was different and what was similar about the Russian and Soviet traditions from others.

To begin, the claim that the imperial border was much more policed than I claim rests on a quote from a book by Plekhanov and Plekhanov published after my manuscript was off to press. I haven’t seen it and am unable to assess whether it is more reliable than my sources (Chernushevich’s three-volume 1900 publication and the overview of the RGVIA fond for the Otdel’nyi korpus pogranichnoi strazhi), but even if it is, the difference between 12,000 border patrols and 37,000 is hardly decisive for a country with tens of thousands of kilometers of border to patrol. To claim that Soviet officials claimed in the late 1920s that they didn’t have the resources that imperial officials had raises many questions. Who said this? I suspect it was border officials who were making a case for more resources, i.e. with an incentive to exaggerate their case. In any event, that’s exactly what I’m sure they got a few years later. Certainly Shlyakhter isn’t claiming that imperial authorities had more border patrols than the Soviets at the end of the 1920s? I’m equally nonplussed by the claim that institutional priorities were more significant than state capacity. Perhaps I am missing the point, but I’m not sure how Witte’s policy of preventing illegal imports relates to citizenship policy? He actively encouraged immigration and foreign investment along with an infant industry policy of a temporary tariff to help Russian industry grow, with the intent of gradually reducing tariffs in the long run. This is development economics 101 on how to integrate into the world economy, not evidence that Witte was autarkic in a way comparable to Stalin. Besides, I’m not sure it is state capacity that mattered in the clampdown of the late 1920s-30s so much as the redirection of scarce resources to border control. North Korea has vastly less state capacity than the U.S., but seals its borders vastly more effectively. It is a matter of spending priorities.

The most interesting part of Andrey’s essay is the observation from his research that “the secret Politburo and STO (Council of Labor and Defense) deliberations about securing the border and the attendant correspondence with the OGPU reveal little concern about emigration as such.” I know that Andrey has spent years working in these files—much longer than I did. This finding surprises me. It is quite contrary to the general spirit of everything that I read. However, if true, it may well support my general argument about the xenophobic nature of the citizenship and border regimes and Golfo’s point about the remarkable prevalence of security and police concerns over economic rationality. After all, one would expect that in the throes of violent industrialization and collectivization, the regime would be intensely concerned with holding its valuable workers in. If that was almost never part of the conversation and instead border police were told only to watch out for Poles and spies trying to slip into the country, then wow, what an illustration of the point! On the other hand, maybe internal controls were sufficient to keep large numbers from getting to the border to venture a risky crossing. And perhaps word of 30% unemployment in most of Europe and the end of open immigration to the Americas spread somehow through the fully employed Soviet space and dampened the demand for emigration so much that border patrols didn’t see it as a threat comparable to the first decade of the 20th century, when Ellis Island took in everyone, jobs were plentiful, and paid many times more than jobs in Kiev or Moscow.

Shlyakhter embarks on a long critique of my quote of the figure of 80,000 foreigners left in the country in 1928. This figure comes from a secret internal memo of the head of the administrative department of the NKVD (GARF, f. r-393, op. 43a, d. 1651). Perhaps Shlyakhter is right that the figures Korsunov published in the Soviet Union in 1928 are a better source. I don’t know. But I think that the issue is rather a difference between counting permanent resident foreigners vs. movement across the borders. The point I am making in that sentence is that the number of resident foreigners had fallen to but a small fraction (1/12) of the pre-1914 level. To do this, I compared resident foreigners in 1913 (about a million). If I were illustrating the decline in border crossings using the Korsunov figures, I’d compare to the requisite numbers from the pre-1914 era. In 1909, 3.4 million foreigners left the empire and 3.5 million entered (according to official statistics, which captured only a fraction of the actual numbers; see pp. 198-199). Even these undercounted official numbers show an even more dramatic drop than the number of resident foreigners did. The number of foreigners entering the empire in 1928 was 1/50 (2%) of the number in 1909 and the number leaving was also 2% of the 1909 level–an even better illustration of my point than the comparison I used. The increase of 17,000 foreigners entering the country from 1925 to 1926 (42%) may seem significant if one limits one’s frame to the 1920s, but in comparison to the pre-1914 world, the difference hardly registers (1.1% vs. 2%). The numbers are such a miniscule fraction of the pre-war numbers that it would take a great deal more evidence to convince me that the general turn was not in a sharply autarkic direction in the late 1920s. Small anomalies in year to year statistics are likely explainable by a couple big exceptional cases and hardly undermine the importance of the big causes of the autarkic turn. I welcome debate about those big causes. One of the reasons I stressed the autarkic turn so much in my chapter is that I personally don’t think that it gets enough attention in the broader literature on collectivization and forced industrialization. I want to be provocative on this broader point.

I appreciate that the conceptual, temporal and geographic breadth of _Russian Citizenship_ is such that it would be unreasonable to expect full justice done to every subtopic, especially one’s own. However, precisely because of the book’s deservedly broad appeal, I think it worthwhile to clarify and expand on several of the issues discussed above.

Comparing the efficacy of Imperial and Soviet border controls in the 1920s is a substantial undertaking, given the myriad changes to the length and physical and ethnic geography of the country’s frontiers, to the authorities’ goals and priorities, to the push-and-pull incentives facing would-be border crossers in both directions, and to the border policies of neighboring states and emigrant destinations. Even assessing “border policing” capacity alone is more than a matter of comparing guard-per-kilometer and horse-per-kilometer ratios, weapons and communications, rules of engagement and systems of reward, criminal penalties, secret informant networks and cultures of denunciation – although all of these components are vital. This is because while we might agree that a country’s “border area” ends at its border, there is no objective standard to determine where border areas (not to mention the still more nebulous “borderlands”) begin. To be sure, states have long experimented with arbitrarily-defined bands of territory along their borders for facilitating trade, inviting labor, mollifying nomads, and encouraging settlement; or conversely, for inhibiting movement, mounting filters, and removing “unreliable elements.” However, the actual width of such bands (such as the 50-verst border strip from which Jews convicted of smuggling were deported before 1917) often had more to do with humanity’s traditional reliance on a base-ten counting system than with any “objective” reality.

The implications of this for our discussion is that while border policing begins or ends at the border (depending on the direction of movement), an assessment of border policing capacity should theoretically encompass all of the powers that a state deploys to control movement from any point on its territory, either towards or away from its borders. Indeed, Lohr is keen to emphasize in the Introduction that “while border guards and checkpoints are important, more time will be spent with police officials in charge of settlement policies, conducting campaigns to improve passport and registration systems, deciding which ethnic groups should be allowed into the country, and which should be allowed, encouraged, or compelled to leave,” and notes in the Conclusion that “the “most effective migration control was at the local level, continuing past the era of serfdom through collective responsibility and the internal passport.” (1-2, 177)

However, there is relatively little consideration of the actual practices of controlling internal movement in either the late Imperial or early Soviet period (especially prior to the passportization drive of 1933). This is no doubt in part a reflection of the lacunary terrain, which historians have only recently begun to map.[1] Nonetheless, the existing literature on internal policing might prompt more reflection on the capacity of either the late Imperial or early Soviet state to exercise control “at the local level,” particularly in the countryside. Thus, Neil Weissman has found that “[o]utside the confines of the empire’s towns, the government in 1900 relied upon a mere 1,582 constables and 6,874 sergeants to administer a widely-dispersed rural population that was approaching ninety million” (indeed, over the twenty year period before 1903, the Ministry of Interior languished far behind the Ministries of Finance, Justice, and Education in winning budgetary increases.)[2] Paul Hagenloh finds that the situation improved little in the USSR, as the NKVD’s militsia was crippled by budget cuts until its absorption into the OGPU in 1931.[3]

Compared to the massively understaffed and underfunded Tsarist police, Witte’s 37,000 border guards constituted a significant force, particularly when one remembers that they were not responsible for policing the Siberian and Far Eastern frontiers, which were manned by Cossacks. (Here I should clarify what seems to be a source of confusion; the 12,000 border guards that Lohr lists as the total for the force as a whole in 1898 approximates the number of border guards patrolling the German border alone.)[4] My emphasis on institutional priorities is meant to underscore that the entire Imperial border guard apparatus, from Witte to the lowest-ranking patrolman, was much more heavily incentivized to intercept goods than people. I never claimed that “that Witte was autarkic in a way comparable to Stalin,” although the notion that Stalin was an advocate of economic autarky seems to be one of those old myths that die hard.

I am afraid that Eric misread my critique of his figure of 80,000 foreigners left in the Soviet Union by September 1928. I was merely pointing out that this number seems hard to square with the claim (made on the same page [166]) that only five months earlier, Soviet authorities began planning the resettlement of some 80,000 non-citizen Koreans away from the border areas; and that, as the head of the Central Statistical Administration Valerian Obolenskii (Osinskii) reported in 1928, the December 1926 census had found some 388,700 foreigners residing on Soviet territory (in my first post above I had omitted 18,000 Polish, Baltic, and Finnish citizens). As I have said, given Korsunovskii’s figures on legal border crossings by foreigners in both directions, it is unlikely that their number fell nearly fivefold between December 1926 and September 1928.

To be sure, as Eric convincingly demonstrates, the number of foreigners entering and leaving the USSR in the 1920s was a minute fraction of the corresponding prewar flows across the Empire’s borders. However, I think that the longue duree perspective that informs Eric’s book also leads him to underappreciate the significance of the relatively smaller fluctuations within the context of the 1920s. One reason I brought up Korsunovskii’s figures is because they complicate the notion that 1926 was marked by a pivotal, “general campaign against foreigners.” (165) Navigating as the Soviet leadership did between economic and security concerns, its policies towards foreigners in the 1920s were not consistently more xenophobic. Thus, facing depleted foreign currency reserves in February 1926, the Politburo resolved “to facilitate, to the extent possible, the entrance of foreigners into the USSR,” while also raising the fee for foreign passports to discourage travel abroad by Soviet citizens.[5] As Eric has found, similar valiuta concerns led to further restrictions on foreign travel by Soviet citizens in 1928 (173); but, prompted by the same fiscal motives, the establishment of Intourist in April 1929 brought tens of thousands of foreigners to the USSR over the next decade (in addition to the tens of thousands of others brought in for their technical expertise).[6] None of this undermines Eric’s basic contention that “[o]ne gets the impression” that during the 1930s “the Soviet Union was working toward an ideal end point of having no foreigners in the country at all, and that the few allowed were the result of a distasteful but temporary compromise.” (175) But it does mean that this trajectory was less even (and hence more interesting) than one might otherwise imagine.
[1] See the essays in John Randolph and Eugene M. Avrutin, eds., _Russia in Motion: Cultures of Human Mobility since 1850_ (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2012); and the forthcoming monograph coauthored by Lewis Siegelbaum and Leslie Page Moch, tentatively titled _Moving in Russia: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in the Twentieth Century_.
[2] Neil Weissman, “Regular Police in Tsarist Russia, 1900-1914,” Russian Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 1985), 45-68.
[3] Paul Hagenloh, _Stalin’s Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926-1941_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 35-47.
[4] Aleksandr Plekhanov and Andrei Plekhanov, _Otdel’nyi korpus pogranichnoi strazhi na granitse Rossii (1893-1919)_ (Moscow: Granitsa, 2012), 456-457.
[5] Oleg Mozokhin, VChK-OGPU. _Karaiuschii mech’ diktatury proletariata_ (Moscow: Iauza/Eksmo, 2004), 206-207; V. V. Obolenskii (Osinskii), _Mezhdunarodnye i mezhkontinental’nye migratsii v dovoennoi Rossii i SSSR) (Moscow: TsSU, 1928), 122.
[6] See Shawn Salmon, “To the Land of the Future: a History of Intourist and Travel to the Soviet Union, 1929-1991,” PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2008, 31, 103.

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