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)