Ethnicity line axed from Russian passports

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MOSCOW — It is the end of an era.

A dreaded vestige of the Soviet past has faded away in Russia — leaving in its wake, perhaps, some of the same, difficult choices for Russian Jews that their American counterparts have long faced.

In September, Russia began issuing new identity papers emblazoned with a double-headed eagle instead of the communist-era hammer and sickle.

The new papers include one change particularly welcome among Russian Jews. Now gone is the infamous "fifth paragraph" — the declaration of nationality that reinforced Soviet-era discrimination against minorities.

For the first time in Russian history, those who receive the papers will be identified simply as residents of Russia.

The clause was dropped after complaints that it contributed to ethnic discrimination against non-Russians.

"The idea was to bring the practice in line with the Russian Constitution, which says a person cannot be forced to indicate nationality," said an official with the Russian Interior Ministry.

Although communist leaders spoke of creating a "new historical commonality" that would replace dozens of nationalities that inhabit the country, they, like the czars before them, officially labeled residents by ethnic identity.

An individual's nationality was known as the "fifth paragraph," or the "fifth line," because when it was first introduced by Stalin in 1932, it was listed fifth on the passport, after full name, date of birth, place of birth and social status — such as worker, peasant or serviceman.

Ethnic Russians, who made up half of the Soviet Union's population, profited in the areas of education, work and politics.

Others — including Jews, Tartars and Germans — suffered the effects of prejudice.

Jews were among those who suffered the most.

"I've always been embarrassed to show my passport," said Grigoriy Shiller, a 73-year-old former worker at a Moscow printing house. "So many bad things in my life had been connected with the `fifth line.'"

Children of mixed marriages could choose which parent's nationality to declare when they turned 16.

Taking Russian nationality was considered the smart option. For children with one Jewish parent, the choice was especially critical because admission to many universities and government jobs was off-limits to Jews, and travel abroad was difficult for those who held "Jewish" papers.

Viktoria Osipova, 26, is three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter Armenian. When she applied for her identity papers, her family insisted that she list her nationality as Armenian — to avoid possible discrimination in the future.

"My parents knew that putting down `Jewish' would bring inevitable complications in life and career," said Osipova, a real estate broker in Moscow.

Osipova was not alone.

According to Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va'ad, the Jewish Federation of Russia, no more than 5 percent of those born to a family with one Jewish parent chose to put "Jewish" on their papers.

Said Vladimir Shapiro, a leading Jewish sociologist in Russia, "For three generations of Soviet Jews, the `fifth paragraph' was a constant trauma and stress.

"People believed that what was written on the `fifth line' was like a curse, that it marked you for an entire life."

While being listed as "Jewish" is unlikely to lead to any discrimination in 1997, Shapiro said, "Historic memory is so strong that people will be happy to get rid of this almost demonic identifier."

But the change also brings with it the worry that Russian Jews might become subject to the same threat of disappearance that currently plagues the American Jewish community.

Paradoxically, the "fifth line" — and the discrimination that came with it — often helped people remember their Jewishness.

With the high rates of assimilation, intermarriage and secularization among Soviet Jewry, it is hard to overestimate the importance that the "fifth line" had for the survival of Soviet Jewry, experts say.

The passport change brings the Russian Jewish community closer to the Jewish communities of the West, said Chlenov.

"This is a step toward gradually changing the nature of the Jewish community here," he said. "Now, it is going to be a community of Jews-by-choice."

Demographer Mark Kupovetsky predicted, "It will take a maximum of two generations of such families to forget about the Jewish roots."

Chlenov said the change could lead to the creation of a new identity among Russia's Jews.

"Dropping the fifth line will make me think harder how should I explain to my children what being Jewish means," said Savely Belenkiy, a 33-year-old Moscow engineer.

"Before, the `fifth paragraph' was doing much of this job for me."