I was overwhelmed by the number of responses to my article “Russia Quietly Strips Emigres of Dual Citizenship” that was published in the Forward in June. The article reported on Russia’s new citizenship rules, according to which anyone who was not residing in Russia on February 6, 1992, is no longer considered a Russian citizen.
The comments — 145 of them! — surprised and, in questioning my patriotism, offended me.
While dual citizenship is legal in the United States, readers seem to think that by keeping a passport of the country where they were born, immigrants are betraying America. Others questioned why anyone, and especially a Jew, might want to be a citizen of Russia.
When I think about being a Russian Jew, I think about the Red Army defeating Nazi Germany during World War II and liberating most of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. I think of how my grandmother and grandfather (who turns 100 this year) were freed from a ghetto in Ukraine by the Red Army and how he, and many of my relatives, fought in the Red Army. As an American I’m proud of these roots.
But no commenters seemed to reflect on the arbitrary, even Kafkaesque, decision of a country to suddenly declare as invalid passports that its embassies had issued and reissued for decades.
Yet after the publication of the article, I also heard from other first-generation Russian-American Jews. On Facebook, their responses to the story ranged from “Oooh noooooo” to the incredulous “So what now? We have to get a visa to travel home????” One young woman even contacted me because she is interested in making a documentary film about the issue.
I spoke with three other Russian-American women who, like myself, were taken from their birth country to America by their parents as children. And their stories of Russian bureaucracy were frighteningly absurd.
Filmmaker Masha Vlasova, 28, received a grant from her school to work on a film project, but Russian bureaucracy stopped her when she tried to go to Russia to work on it. At first, Vlasova, who emigrated from Russia as a Jewish refugee in 2002, tried to renew her Russian passport to travel as a Russian citizen.
“But when I went to the consulate to renew my [expired Russian] passport, it was not sufficient proof of citizenship, and I needed some other proof of citizenship,” she said she was told. “I started bringing other forms on a daily basis. My birth certificate and other passports were not sufficient, and they wanted a proof of residence that would come from my hometown in Russia. I sent a request — but I was never registered there, because I was a kid.”
With that, she was told that she should apply for a visa into her American passport to travel to Russia. But then it turned out that she didn’t qualify for a visa either, because her American passport says that she was born in Russia.
“They trusted my American document enough not to give me a visa, but they didn’t trust my Russian birth certificate,” she said.
As a result, Vlasova couldn’t travel to Russia, where her aunt and cousins still live.
“It feels deeply frustrating because it feels like a closed loop, a catch 22,” she said. “It strikes me as something revealing of a larger political force.”
Russian-English interpreter YuliY?a Tsaplina encountered the same problem when she tried to go to Russia with her daughter, who was born in Boston.
“My child knows all the Russian fairy tales. I should finally introduce her to the country of the language that she speaks,” Tsaplina said.
Yet when Tsaplina went to a travel agency to get a visa to Russia as an American, she was informed that she shouldn’t even try because she was born in Moscow, so she will be automatically rejected. Yet, according to Russia’s new citizenship rules, anyone who was not registered as living in Russia on February 6, 1992, is not a Russian citizen. This makes Tsaplina, who immigrated in 1991, not a Russian citizen.
Yet she was told that she had to officially give up Russian citizenship, and only then would she be able to apply for a visa. And that “takes time and costs money,” she said.
As a result, she was not able to travel to Russia.
Olga Mexina, on the other hand, encountered problems with Russian bureaucracy after she was already in Russia. She decided to move back to her hometown of Saint Petersburg after graduating from university in the United States to work in the film industry.
After she arrived, however, she was told that her passport, issued by the Russian Consulate in New York, was invalid.
“This means nothing,” she recalled being told by the officials at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (When she tells this story now, she can’t keep herself from laughing.) “We know how they issue passports in New York.”
The ministry official held on to her passport and told her to go back to the passport office near her place of residence before she immigrated, to find proof that she was living there in February 1992. But when she went there, officials asked to see her passport to confirm her name.
When Mexina told them the ministry took away her Russian passport, and she showed her American passport instead to confirm her identity, the lady at the passport office began yelling at her.
“Go back where you came from!” Mexina said the lady screamed.
In the end, Mexina got her Russian passport and ended up living in Russia for a few years, getting married and giving birth to her child. She is now back in America, but has no regrets about spending time in Russia, she says.
How does she feel about retaining her Russian citizenship as a Jew?
As far as she can remember, she encountered anti-Semitism only once, when she was a little girl.
“Someone wrote a bad word about you on the fence,” a friend told her once.
“Really?” she replied then. “What did they write?”
“They wrote that you are Jewish,” her friend told her.
Mexina didn’t know what the word meant. She went home to ask her parents.
“Don’t worry,” her mother told her. “We will write in your passport that you are Ukrainian.”
As for myself, I am currently traveling through the former Soviet Union, visiting the places where my ancestors used to live — in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. While Moldova and Ukraine are easy for an American without a visa to visit, the country of my birth, Russia, is not. In particular, I would like to go to the village of Voronok, near the town of Starodub, in Bryanskaya Oblast’, where my maternal grandfather was born in 1927. I recently found out that my grandfather’s aunt, uncle and the uncle’s wife and three children were all buried alive by the Nazis there during WWII. My grandfather’s grandmother was murdered in the nearby Starodub ghetto in September 1941.
Will I have a chance to visit the place where they lived and died? The Russian Consulate in New York recently refused to renew my Russian passport, since I was not living in Russia on February 6, 1992.
“An expired passport is not a valid document,” they told me.
The only way I can go to Russia is if I get a visa. The consulate will have the final say on that.
Julie Masis was born in Russia, and has reported from the United States, Canada, Cambodia, Ukraine and Moldova. Follow her on Twitter, @greenelephant88