Every year, the Russian authorities “create” hundreds of thousands of new citizens — 720,000 Russian passports have already been issued to residents of Ukraine’s Donbas alone. In a sense, however, the Kremlin’s actions are not so different from other governments that offer citizenship to foreign nationals in order to (1) expand their sphere of influence abroad and (2) acquire new, loyal electorates. Meanwhile, Russia has deprived nine million of its own citizens of a key civil right — the right to stand for election — and pro-government politicians periodically float the idea of depriving opposition-minded Russians of their citizenship. Meduza “Ideas” editor Maxim Trudolyubov breaks down how citizenship has evolved from a privilege to an instrument of control and manipulation.
Ever since the emergence of nation states, the development of citizenship as an institution has, on the one hand, followed the path of consolidating people in certain territories. On the other hand, it has followed the path of extending rights to an increasing number of people within countries.
In his classic work Citizenship and Social Class, English sociologist T. H. Marshall wrote that citizenship gradually evolved through three main stages: from the establishment of equality before the law, to the distribution of political rights, and, finally, to access to social benefits.
But citizenship is also a tool of governance that allows states to divide people into “us” and “them” — to attach them to territory, keep the border locked, collect taxes, and mandate military service. In some countries, this gives rise to sharp contradictions.
To be or not to be a citizen
A distinctive feature of Russian history is just how great the gap between these two understandings of citizenship — as the right to political participation or as a tool of governance — has always been. The authorities in Russia have long viewed citizenship as nothing more than an instrument of control, seeing citizens as no different from subjects. In independent Russian writing — beginning with social critic Alexander Radishchev, who was a contemporary of the French Revolution — the word “citizen” acquired a meaning bordering on revolutionary. Borrowed notions like the “social contract,” “civic nation,” and “citizen” were literary abstractions that had no legal dimension within an autocratic state.
Because of this, an idea of the lofty purpose of citizenship became entrenched in Russian culture, contradicting the state’s “low-minded” approach, which boiled down to population control. This imaginary citizenship is not a set of rights and obligations enshrined in documents, but an invested person’s calling and duty. One had to emerge as a citizen; to “convert” to citizenship as if to a faith, as a result of a conscious, internal decision.
In his poem The Poet and the Citizen (1856), Nikolai Nekrasov wrote, “We need citizens!” — adding, “You may not be a poet / But you must be a citizen.” A hundred years later, under the totalitarian Soviet regime, poet Evgeny Yevtushenko wrote that “only those in whom the proud spirit of citizenship roams” are destined to be born poets in Russia.
This gap between high-minded notions of citizenship and the order of things established by the state is constantly present in Russian culture. At the current stage of this confrontation, the state is seeking to restrict access to elections for the real opposition and entire categories of citizens, officials are depriving independent organizations of the opportunity to work in the country, and citizens are being punished for protesting and expressing critical opinions.
In other words, in response to citizens’ attempts to change the state, the state is trying to change the citizens. And even creates new, more suitable citizens for itself.
Electing the people
In a satirical poem about the East German uprising of 1953, Bertolt Brecht wrote that if the government is dissatisfied with the people, perhaps it should “dissolve the people and elect another.” Today, many governments are bringing Brecht’s bitter joke to life, and this isn’t just the case in authoritarian countries. Practices aimed at manipulating constituencies and making it more difficult for certain ethnic and social groups to vote fit perfectly with the logic of politicians choosing electorates that suit their needs. The practice in the Baltic states of issuing “non-citizen” passports can be seen as another approach that borders on “electing the people” (non-citizens enjoy a significant set of rights, but, among other restrictions, they are disenfranchised and can’t hold public office). Another example would be countries that only recognize people of a certain religion as citizens.
In many authoritarian states, including Russia, the rigging of elections and the creation of laws that deprive certain people of the right to participate in politics have become part of the system. In such cases, governments actively work to expand the populace that’s under their jurisdiction — and issuing passports to compatriots living outside of the state’s borders is a key tool in this effort. From 1992 to 2017, Russia issued a total of nine million passports to citizens of other countries. Almost all residents of Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia (three breakaway states in Eastern Europe that are largely unrecognized on the global stage) have Russian passports. More recently, Russia sharply accelerated its passportization efforts in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” handing out more than 720,000 passports to people living in eastern Ukraine. And because of Russia’s remote electronic voting system, all of these newly-minted Russian citizens can vote in Russian elections.
Thanks to a 2019 presidential decree that simplified the procedure for issuing passports, Russia is acquiring new citizens at a rate not seen since the early 2000s. According to a study conducted by the consulting company FinExpertiza, the majority of these new Russian citizens are Ukrainian nationals (from the Donbas): since the simplified procedure was put in place, they have received more than 60 percent of the new passports issued. Next on the list are citizens of Tajikistan (around 10 percent), Kazakhstan (7 percent), Armenia (5 percent), and Uzbekistan (3.5 percent).
New citizens are often loyal to the government that “made” them. For example, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary began issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians living in other countries (primarily in Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine) — in the 2014 elections, 95 percent of Hungary’s “non-resident ethnic citizens” voted for Orbán and his party. As studies by Hungarian sociologists show, these votes, in combination with changes to the electoral legislation, made a significant contribution to strengthening Orbán’s majority in the 2014 vote. Croatia, Romania, and Serbia also offer passports to citizens of other countries without requiring them to resettle in their historical homelands. Israel is also well-known for its openness to repatriating Jews and their relatives on very broad grounds.
The ‘birthright lottery’
Today, citizenship is a ubiquitous institution, one that’s often “invisible” to those who remain within the borders of their own country, but essential to all who cross borders in search of a better life or protection from persecution. At a macro level, this attachment to territory essentially fixes profound global inequalities, preventing most people on earth from freely making one of the most important decisions in life — where to live and work. Opportunities to move around the world, and chances at a better education or income, or a healthy life, are determined by what scholar Ayelet Shachar called the “birthright lottery.” According to economist Brank Milanovic, two-thirds of a person’s total income over their lifetime is determined by where they were born.
For most people, citizenship is not a choice. But for some it can be. Indeed, over the past few decades, the institution of citizenship has changed a lot. In a globalized labor market, professionals seek out places where they have more opportunities to earn money and find fulfilment. Politically active people who have given up on the possibility of changing anything in their home countries, move to places where the conditions they want already exist. Members of the small but influential global elite have minimal connections to the countries of their birth, as they often hold several passports. Which not only helps with tax evasion, but also shields them from the authoritarian leaders of countries that don’t protect the rights of citizens. (The paradox is that in Russia, for example, this last group is often made up of people from the authoritarian ruling stratum or members of their families).
Anyone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t live where they have the right to vote and, at the same time, doesn’t pay taxes in the country where they do vote, can no longer be called a citizen in the classical sense. Nevertheless, states continue to manipulate the institution of citizenship, issuing millions of passports to people who have no intention of living in their “historical homeland.” All of this enables us to see that citizenship is an outdated institution, for which we have yet to find a good replacement. For many, citizenship has transformed from a privilege into a burden. It has lost its original meaning as an attachment to a community of compatriots, but maintained its function as part of the system of overseeing people’s movements and behavior.