Book: The Soviet Passport by Albert Baiburin

Book Soviet Passport BaiburinBooks on passport history are limited, and it’s always fantastic when a new book on the topic comes up. Albert Baiburin’s book about THE SOVIET PASSPORT was published in 2017 in Russian and, since Nov 2021, has also been available in English as a print version and ebook. I prefer to read ebooks as no shipping is needed for bulky, heavy books, plus functions like keyword search, bookmarks, or references are very convenient. Book Soviet Passport Baiburin

The Soviet and now Russian passport system knows two passports for internal/domestic use and one for foreign travel. The Soviet passport described here is the inner/domestic passport system. Here is a brief introduction and overview of the complexity of the Soviet passport system. There are many more captivating details to explore in the book.

The Soviet passport, introduced in 1932, implicitly contained the demand that the individual identifies him- or herself according to the descriptions laid down within it. In Soviet legal practice, permission to cross state borders was possible only with a ‘foreign travel passport.’

The ‘internal’ passport was a particular phenomenon. Its primary role was to certify a person’s identity, but it was used for far more than simply this. A vast body of evidence illustrates that without it, a person literally ‘disappeared’ from the life of their society. It was impossible to find employment or place your child in a kindergarten or a school; a person could not marry or ultimately die ‘correctly’; or even fulfill what seemed such simple practices as obtaining a library ticket or picking up a parcel from the post office. It was essential on virtually every occasion when there was contact with officialdom (including obtaining any other documents) because it was always necessary to prove that the citizen was the person they claimed to be. Book Soviet Passport Baiburin

The Formation of ‘the Passport Portrait’ in Russia, to this day, is associated by most Russians as ‘the passport’ as an identity document that all Russian citizens aged fourteen and over must hold. (Until 1997, internal passports were issued only from the age of sixteen.) Only about 20 percent of Russians today have a passport for foreign travel.

The actual word ‘passport’ signified a permit to pass through the gates of a city. The term became established in Russian usage only from the beginning of the eighteenth century, but this does not mean that such documents did not exist before this. To travel within Russia, foreigners (principally merchants) were issued letters of passage.

They are known to have been in use at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, but officially they were brought in only by decree of Tsar Peter the First in 1719 (Peter the Great, reigned 1682–1725). They contained the following details: name (or alias); the starting point of the journey; intended destination; title or rank (or occupation); details of any family members traveling with the bearer. Book Soviet Passport Baiburin

The foundations of the modern Russian passport system were laid down under Peter I. In his Decree of 30 October 1719, the word ‘passport’ (to be exact, pashport) is first used to describe a document confirming identity. Under Empress Catherine II, passports were used to control where settlers from European countries could live. Under Tsar Nicholas I (reigned 1825–55), the number of essential details for confirming a person’s identity continued to grow. Alexander II created a Passport Commission under the chairmanship of the Interior Minister, Sergei Lanskoy, which was tasked with simplifying the existing passport regime.

In the final two decades of the existence of the Russian Empire, the primary document which confirmed a person’s identity was the ‘passport booklet,’ which was brought in by the Supreme Decree of 5 October 1906.

Book Soviet Passport BaiburinThe new passport system was brought in by Resolution number 57/1917 of the Central Executive Committee (TsIK) and the Sovnarkom (SNK) of the USSR on 27 December 1932. According to the plan set out in 1933, the introduction of passports should essentially have been completed in 1936. On 4 September 1937, the Deputy People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Vasily Chernyshov, reported to Vyacheslav Molotov: In total, passports had been issued to the whole population of the USSR, that is (in round numbers) 50,000,000 people. Book Soviet Passport Baiburin

With the initial stage of the passport process completed, the NKVD set about perfecting the passport regime and extending it to other territories.

The introduction of the passport system had divided the country’s whole population into those with passports (basically, the urban population) and those without (mainly the rural population); and with time, this division was felt ever more intensely. Reform Projects started in the 1960s. The question of a universal passport system came up again in 1967, linked to a Report from the First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, Dmitry Polyansky, to the Central Committee of the CPSU.

The last Soviet Statute on Passports (1974), which the commission under the chairmanship of Kirill Mazurov worked on, was remarkable not only because it extended the issuing of passports to the whole population. It was also the first time that the document acquired the title, ‘Passport of a Citizen of the USSR.’ It was decided to start the universal issuing of passports in 1976 and complete it by 1981. This was the most extensive campaign to have taken place since passports were first issued at the beginning of the 1930s. Book Soviet Passport Baiburin

As before, issuing new passports was accompanied by measures to try to uncover any violations of the passport system: Between 1976 and 1980, 3,200,000 passports and other documents were collected for special examination. There was reason to doubt that these documents were genuine or belonged to the person named in them, and there was also evidence of forgery. During this investigation, a list was drawn up of 10,600 wanted criminals. Over the five years, more than 66,000 criminals were apprehended; 436,000 people had defaulted on payments to the state, and 105,000 had failed to pay fines imposed by state or social organizations.

The move from the Soviet passport system to the Russian one laid bare all the sensitive issues that the changes were meant to heal. The new, now Russian, passport differed significantly from the Soviet one – not simply in terms of designation, design, and layout, but the ‘passport portrait.’ Book Soviet Passport Baiburin

Albert’s book of 452 pages is a detailed description of the Soviet passport system, and I highly recommend his book.

In this context, it is also worth noting the authoritative study by Valentina Chernukha of the development of the Russian passport over two centuries, from 1719 to 1917. I wish her book would be available in English too.


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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...