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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 487-528

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Soviet Citizenship, More or Less

Rights, Emotions, and States of Civic Belonging

Dept. of History
University of South Florida
4202 East Fowler Ave., SOC 107
Tampa, FL 33620-8100 USA

In an otherwise tragic memoir, Eugenia Ginzburg retells the joke of a former prisoner and good friend. Entitled "The Social and Political Structure of Kolyma," the joke describes a microcosm of Soviet society in which "there were no fewer than nine social classes to be taken into account: zeks, ex-zeks without civil rights, ex-zeks with civil rights, deportees for a fixed period of time, compulsory settlers for a fixed period of time, deportee-settlers for life, settlers with special status for a fixed period of time, and settlers with a special status for life. At the apex of this pyramid stood the Germans who were simultaneously compulsory settlers and Party members."1 Like so many Russian jokes, this one contained an element of truth. Soviet society consisted of citizens who experienced various and often paradoxical states of civic belonging. Party members indeed stood at the apex of the pyramid, followed by other "citizens with full rights" (polnopravnye grazhdane)—an official term that itself implied the existence of fragments within the Soviet citizenry. Groups without full rights were situated below: persons without citizenship, citizens stripped of all rights, and citizens lacking certain rights. In the Soviet Union, there were citizens and there were citizens.

That Soviet citizenship reveals itself in fragments is not altogether surprising. Scholars of American and European citizenship have long analyzed how legal discrimination or social inequality on the basis of class, gender, and ethnicity undermined the modern ideal of an equality of citizens.2 Similar [End Page 487] fragmentations can be observed in a Soviet context as well. Party ideology largely denied the presence of inequalities among the laboring masses, but enormous material and social differentiation existed. Members of the party and military elite as well as persons employed in privileged sectors of the national economy enjoyed far greater rights to material welfare than other Soviet citizens.3 Women did not exercise the same rights as men. They faced discrimination in employment, received lower wages, and, in a highly patriarchal society, assumed the triple burden of work, family, and the search for goods in a shortage economy.4 Excluded from political organizations and identified as anti-social elements, homosexuals also experienced restrictions on their rights of citizenship.5 At the same time, the Soviet Union formalized a system of class, gender, and ethnic preferences. Poor peasants and workers received preferential treatment in justice and education; legal inequalities that disadvantaged women in marriage, divorce, voting rights, and employment were eliminated; and designated "backward" nationalities enjoyed the benefits of Soviet "affirmative action" policies.6 The importance of social discrimination in the USSR (both positive and negative) in generating inequalities among citizens and compromising claims to citizenship by certain groups cannot be overstated. [End Page 488]

In the first decades of Bolshevik power, however, it was politics that marked the great dividing line in Soviet society. Persistent fears of anti-Soviet elements and other dangerous enemies produced various waves of political repression in which all citizens became vulnerable to severe restrictions on their citizenship rights and even exclusion from the Soviet polity. At different times and for different reasons, certain groups were targeted more than others, but all Soviet citizens could be subject to accusations of political disloyalty or deviance. The sanctions corresponding to such charges would bear directly on their citizenship status. The four pillars of Soviet citizenship consisted of the following: the acquisition of citizenship (priem v grazhdanstvo); the renunciation of citizenship or expatriation (vykhod iz grazhdanstva); the deprivation of citizenship or denaturalization (lishenie grazhdanstva); and the reinstatement or restoration of citizenship (vosstanovlenie v grazhdanstve).7 The dominant presence of the last two reveals one of the striking elements of citizenship in the USSR—its use as an instrument of discipline...


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