Tens of thousands of Russian dual nationals are being effectively stripped of their Russian citizenship via a quiet policy of Russian consulates worldwide refusing to renew their passports.
Under new regulations the consulates are enforcing, anyone seeking to renew a passport who was not registered as living in Russia on February 6, 1992, will be rejected, even if his or her passport had been renewed on previous occasions.
It is unclear just how many people this new policy will affect. But it will certainly apply to thousands of Jews who emigrated from Russia after July 1, 1991 — the date on which the Soviet Union, then in its final days, ended its policy of taking away the passports of Jews who left the country with exit visas to Israel. (The Soviet Union was formally dissolved on December 25, 1991.)
In Soviet times, the only way that Jews were allowed to leave the country was with their Russian passport confiscated — if they were allowed to leave at all. Many actually moved to the United States or to Europe once they got out, despite the Israeli stamp on their exit visa. But under the late Soviet policy, which was continued by the successor Russian government following the Soviet Union’s breakup, Jews could, for the first time, like others, become dual nationals. This allowed them to return freely to Russia to visit — or even move back if they changed their minds.
“I’ve always had two citizenships, two languages, two identities and two cultures. It’s who I am,” said Katya Rouzina, a 27-year-old college Russian instructor and graduate student who expects her Russian passport application will be rejected—as was this reporter’s—because she left Russia before February 1992. Like many Russian expatriates, Rouzina, who moved to the United States when she was 1-year-old, considers her continued tie to Russia a matter of identity. “They can’t just randomly say you’re not a Russian citizen anymore. That just makes me angry,” she said.
Like the United States, the Russian Federation allows for dual citizenship, though estimates of how many Russians have this status vary widely. Konstantin Romodanovsky, the director of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that between 1 million and 6 million Russians have dual citizenship.
Asked about the new policy, which was never formally announced, the Russian Embassy in Washington confirmed the change, which it said was not a matter of any new law passed by the country’s legislature. “Our laws expand, they don’t change,” embassy press secretary Yury Melnik said. “The laws are interpreted better…. An expired passport isn’t considered a valid document.”
The Russian Consulate in New York City acknowledged that in the past, Russia had issued passports to people who had been expatriate citizens of the old Soviet Union, even if they had never registered as residents and citizens of the new Russian Federation, established after the Soviet Union’s breakup. It acknowledged having renewed their passports, as well.
“The people with such passports considered themselves citizens of the Russian Federation,” the consulate wrote in its email. “While we are aware that the persons holding such passports are not to be blamed for the existing situation, we must now, nonetheless, put things in order. We cannot issue passports to those whose Russian citizenship is not properly registered.”
The consulate suggested that those caught in this situation apply for a visa to visit Russia as American citizens instead. Michael Drob, director of a new documentary, “Stateless,” which tells the story of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, said that not having a Russian passport would not only make travel to Russia more difficult, it might also prevent elderly people from receiving their Russian government pensions when they reach retirement age.
Moreover, he said, those caught up in this change, who came to America and became permanent residents but who never applied for citizenship, would now effectively be rendered stateless; so would those who came on more limited visas and stayed in America illegally.
The exact number of people who emigrated from Russia between July 1, 1991, when the Soviet-era passport confiscation policy for departing Jews ended, and February 6, 1992, could not be obtained. But it is clearly on the scale of tens of thousands.
For example, in 1991, 47,276 Jews immigrated to Israel from Russia, while 10,196 left to resettle in the United States, according to Mark Tolts, a demographics researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. These numbers do not include Jews who immigrated to other countries such as Germany, nor do they include non-Jewish immigration.
Journalist Masha Gessen said thousands of people could lose their citizenship as a result of the new regulations, which she described as “really bizarre,” “insane” and “amazing.”
“There cannot be such a thing as a person who was born on Russian territory and is not a Russian citizen,” she said. “It’s blatantly illegal and unconstitutional what they’re doing. I think it goes with the general thinking in Russia today that everyone who is abroad is a traitor and shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the political process.”
She suggested the move might be due to the concern of Vladimir Putin’s government about the voting power of Russian Israelis. “Israel has been a huge voting population, and I think that this may have to do with that,” she said.