Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


MY PASSPORT HASN’T had much use recently. Indeed, there was a time when my T&E (Travel & Expense Report) was more than my R&T salary. So Shiela Fitzpatrick’s “File-Selves” caught my eye in London Review of Books, September 22, 2022.

Philosopher Rom Harré described passports as bureaucratic “file-selves,” Fitzpatrick notes. “That is not to say that passports tell the whole truth about their bearer. I have three of them, and they essentially give the same information: name (first, middle and last) and date and place of birth—but one says I am ‘Australian,’ another that I am a ‘British citizen’ and the third, throwing grammar to the winds, that my ‘nationality’ is ‘United States of America.’ ”

Fitzpatrick continues, “While my current passports are all in the same name, that need not have been the case: I could have kept the married name that was in my first British passport, or responded to the cheerful suggestion of the US naturalisation officer that I choose a totally new name for my American self.”

Passport History. Fitzpatrick observes, “Passports as a prerequisite for travelling to foreign countries came in with the First World War.” I recall one of my pre-WWI guidebooks offering translations of “I have no need of a passport; I am an Englishman.”

Russian Passport History. Not so in the Russian Empire: Peter the Great introduced the internal passport at the beginning of the 18th century as a means of regulating movement. Fitzpatrick says, “The Russian internal passport on the eve of the First World War identified its holders (men only) by title or rank, religion, marital status and liability for military service.”

“With the October Revolution of 1917,” Fitzpatrick continues, “the Bolsheviks abolished the internal passport, excoriated as an instrument of tsarist oppression. But by the early 1930s, they were having second thoughts. The immediate problem was the famine in Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan: to avoid the collapse of the urban rationing system, starving peasants had to be prevented from fleeing to the cities…. The new passports identified their holders by social class and nationality…”

So much for Soviet classless society. 

Image from Wikipedia.

Foreigners in Russia. “I was one of those foreign exchange students in the late 1960s,” Fitzpatrick recalls, “and it left me with a recurrent Catch-22 nightmare: my Soviet entry visa would run out without my exit visa having been issued, so I could neither stay nor depart. Like almost everyone else who had dealings with the Soviets over the long term, I had some visa problems. But passports were the biggest issue for me, lasting for many years. I blame the Soviet Union for the fact that I ended up with three of them.”

Along the way, Fitzpatrick got married, one of her “file-selves” named Shiela Bruce. “Even so,” she notes, “the Bruce passport served me well, in that a year or so later it prevented the KGB realising that the female Sh. Bryus who was studying in Moscow on the British exchange was the same person as the (presumed male) S. Fitzpatrick whose first scholarly article had been trashed as anti-Soviet propaganda in a Moscow daily newspaper.”

Russian Divorce and Alimony. Fitzpatrick notes, “Soviet passports, unlike tsarist ones, were issued to women as well as men. Children were compulsorily listed in the passport of one parent, normally the mother, but might be listed in both if the parties so desired. But it was the men’s passports that most often included a notation, introduced in 1938, on liability for payment of alimenty (which, though translated by Dalziel as ‘alimony’, was basically child support).”

An interesting quirk: “Registration of marriage and divorce was also noted in passports, which provided women with a useful way of checking up on the bona fides of suitors. If you liked a man, according to one of Baiburin’s female informants, you would say: ‘Go on, show me your passport.’ ”

Image from Wikipedia.

Patronymic Hassles. I’ve written about including the father’s or mother’s given name as part of one’s moniker: Dennis Algertovich Doe. My imaginary sister would be Swan’ka Algertovna Doe, or maybe Swan’ka Leonaovna, were she the feminist I’d assume. 

Fitzpatrick says, “This brings me, finally, to another characteristic identified in post-Soviet and most other passports: gender. Remarkably, Soviet passports didn’t explicitly identify the bearer as a man or a woman, presumably because it was regarded as self-evident, given that the passport contained a photo and gave the bearer’s patronymic (grammatically different for men and women).” 

This becomes complex for transgenders: Fitzpatrick observes, “As Li Cohen of CBS News reported in March, a 31-year-old Kyiv resident from Crimea, whose identity had already been challenged by Crimea’s shift from Ukraine to Russia in 2014, decided to transition from male to female. She didn’t try to change the entry in her passport, evidently feeling it would be futile. When the Russians attacked Kyiv, she hoped to leave the country along with the other women and children, but hit a snag: her passport said she was a man, and men were banned from leaving because of their military service obligation.”

It used to be so much easier when it sufficed to say, “I have no need of a passport; I am an Englishman.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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