Events

The Politics of Containment: Jews, Residence Rights, and the Boundaries of the Law in Imperial Russia

May 05, 2008 // 12:00pm1:00pm

In the late 19th century, the government of the Russian Empire went to great lengths to document, verify, and contain the movement and place of individual Jewish identities, said Eugene Avrutin, assistant professor, Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Title VIII-supported research scholar, Kennan Institute. Avrutin specifically addressed the political tensions and administrative dilemmas of identifying individual Jewish identities in the western borderlands of the Russian Empire, beginning in the late eighteenth century (when Russia first acquired its Jewish population) and concluding on the eve of the 1917 Revolution.

The effort to transform Jews into a legible people was part of a deliberate, yet often unwieldy, attempt to reconstruct non-Russian identities and incorporate ethnic groups into a (relatively) homogenous administrative imperial framework, argued Avrutin. The bureaucratic preoccupation with regulation, containment, and recognition generated massive paper trails that became important tools by which modern states guaranteed public safety and order and at the same time constrained individual freedoms. According to Avrutin, the practice of identifying Jews by paper documents was thus intimately tied to the growth and development of government and police institutions, the creation of elaborate recordkeeping procedures, the preservation of these documents in accessible archives, and the broader, universal challenge of identifying each and every person in the empire.

The administrative practice of documenting individual identities not only constrained spatial movement and facilitated government surveillance, but linked individuals to the body social, reported Avrutin. Passports, service records, and birth and marriage certificates bestowed imperial subjects with a sense of entitlement, political membership, and belonging without which they would not be able to participate in the imperial social order. By recognizing the power of the bureaucratic-legal document, Avrutin explained, individual Jews wrote numerous complaints and petitions in hopes of negotiating what were often perceived to be highly confusing rules, obligations, and special statutes governing Jewish daily life.

For imperial authorities, the mass movement of populations was a source of profound anxiety, observed Avrutin. Even as Russian society became more mobile and less constrained by the fixity of land, community, and family in the second half of the nineteenth century, travel within the empire remained burdensome and heavily regulated due to the number of individual laws comprising the general statute on passports. When traveling outside their permanent places of residence, Avrutin noted, all subjects of the empire were required to carry documents that represented their personal identity and outlined the route of their journey, its purpose, and the eventual destination. But as an unprecedented number of individuals traveled across wide geographic terrains, government officials faced the modern dilemma of identifying individuals based on a series of documents – mainly, internal passports and metrical records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) – which were often unreliable, poorly managed, and easily manipulated. According to Avrutin, errors, omissions, and various forms of irregularities hindered the population's ability to participate in civic life but also challenged the state's ability to regulate mobility and manage its territories.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, imperial authorities passed hundreds of laws to make Jews more knowable and identifiable in the imperial social order, explained Avrutin. Russia, as other European and colonial states, implemented identity control procedures that marked differences, helping divide the more marginal ethno-religious groups from the core Christian population. By forging identity papers, offering bribes, arranging fictitious marriages, converting, and resorting to a host of other tricks to manipulate an unwieldy system of government, Avrutin concluded, Jews continuously frustrated the imperial bureaucratic gaze.

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