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Propiska in the Soviet Union

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Propiska in the Soviet Union

Propiska (Russian: пропи́ска) was both a residency permit and a migration recording tool in the Russian Empire before 1917 and from the 1930s in the Soviet Union. Literally it means an inscription, alluding to the inscription in a state internal passport permitting a person to reside in a given place. For a state or third-party owned property, propiska meant a person was included in the rental contract associated with a dwelling. Propiska was documented in local police (Militsiya) registers and certified with a stamp in internal passports. Residing anywhere without a permit was prohibited.

In the USSR, there were both permanent (прописка по месту жительства or постоянная прописка) and temporary (временная прописка) propiskas. A third type, business propiska (служебная прописка), was an intermediate type, permitting a person and family to live in an apartment built by an economic entity (factory, ministry) as long as the person worked for the owner of the housing (similar to inclusion of house rent into a labour contract). In the transition period to the market economy, the permanent propiska in municipal apartments was one factor leading to the emergence of private property rights during privatization (those who built housing at their own expense obtained a permanent propiska there by definition).

Etymology and history

The Russian verb "propisat" (Russian: прописа́ть) is formed by adding the prefix "про~" ("pro~") to the verb "писа́ть" ("to scribe, to write"). Here this prefix emphasizes the completion of the action, which supposes permission (like in Russian: "пусти́ть – пропусти́ть", "let [go]" – "yield [the way]") or other related formal action (like in Russian: "дать – прода́ть", "give" – "sell").

Internal passport, issued 1910 in Imperial Russia

Originally, the noun propiska meant the clerical procedure of registration, of enrolling the person (writing his or her name) into the police records of the local population. Dahl's Explanatory Dictionary describes this procedure as "to enrol [the document] in a book and stamp it".[1] Page 20 of the internal passport of the Russian Empire (see illustration) was entitled: Russian: "Место для пропи́ски ви́довъ поли́цiею" ("Space for registration of vids by police"). Five blank pages (20 to 24) were gradually filled with stamps with the residential address written in. It allowed a person to reside in his/her relevant locality. Article 61 of the Regulations adopted on February 7, 1897 (see p. 18–19 of the passport) imposed a fine for those found outside the administrative unit (as a rule, uezd) in which they were registered to live.

As a clerical term, the noun vid (Russian: "вид"; literally, "view") is short for Russian: "вид на жи́тельство". Although translated into English as a "residential permit", in Russian, this combination of words also conveys a presence of the right of a resident to live somewhere. In the sense of a "[legal] right" the word vid also appears in the phrase Russian: "иметь на неё виды" ("planning to gain husband's rights with her"). Among many explanations of "вид", Dahl's Explanatory Dictionary indicates a "certificate of any kind for free passage, travel and living", mentioning "passport" as its synonym.[2]

Propiska stamps (handwritten texts as an exception) in the passports of the Russian Empire used one of two verbs to describe the civil act committed: Russian: "яви́ть or заяви́ть" (to present or to claim). Their non-reflexive form (no postfix "~ся") clearly rules out the binding of this act to the owner of the document so it is not the person who appeared (presented himself) in a police department but the passport itself. Vladimir Dahl mentions both verbs in his description of "propiska" procedure as related to passport.[1] Presenting a passport to the officer implied the claim of a person to stay at a designated location.


In the Russian Empire, a person arriving for a new residency was obliged (depending on the estate) to enroll in the registers of the local police authorities. The latter could deny undesirable persons the right to settle (in this case, no stamps were made in passports). In most cases, this would mean the person had to return to the permanent domicile. The verb "propisat" was used as a transitive verb with "vid" being the direct object.

After internal passports were reintroduced in the USSR in the 1930s, the noun propiska was also associated with the result of residential registration. In common speech, the stamp in the passport in which the residential address was written into was also called "propiska". Permanent propiska (Russian: "постоя́нная пропи́ска") confirmed the housing rights of its owner. Temporary propiska (Russian: "вре́менная пропи́ска") could be provided alongside a permanent one when a resident had to live outside the permanent residence for a long period of time. As an example, students and workers leaving to study or work in other cities received temporary propiskas at their dorms.

When reintroduced in the 1930s, the passport system in the USSR was similar to that of the Russian Empire where passports were required mainly in the largest cities and in the territories adjacent to the country's external borders. Officers and soldiers always had special identity documents, while peasants could obtain internal passports only by a special application.

In the USSR, the term Russian: "Вид на жи́тельство" ("vid na zhitelstvo", residential permit) was used as a synonym for temporary propiska, particularly with regard to foreign nationals. By the end of the 1980s, when emigrants from the USSR could return, those who had lost Soviet citizenship could also apply for an identity document with this title.

The "passportization" of the citizen of the USSR reached its all-encompassing scope only in the 1970s. In the 1930 to the 1950s, the local rural authorities' refusal to issue passports to their residents was an effective way to curb migration to urban areas (according to many Russian people in modern blogs, the rural authorities usually provided such permit after the Second World War and it was usually easy to obtain). Instead, in the 1970s, the right (and obligation) of every adult (from 16) to have a passport promoted the propiska as the primary lever of the regulation of migration. On the other hand, the propiska underlined the mechanism of the constitutional obligation of the state to provide everyone a dwelling: no one could refuse or be stripped of the propiska at one location without substitution with another permanent propiska location.

All employers were strictly forbidden to give jobs to anybody without a local "propiska". To provide themselves an extra labour force, the largest enterprises had to build housing for their workers beforehand. In addition to dormitories, some of them also built conventional apartment blocks for individual resettlement. Registration in these apartments was called "vedomstvennaya" or "sluzhebnaya" propiska ("work-related" residency permit Russian: "ве́домственная" or "служе́бная пропи́ска").

The limit system

The system of a propiska limit existed in the last 30 or so years of the USSR. This was the only means by which outsiders could settle in big cities like Moscow and Leningrad, except by marriage. The meaning of the system was that the large city enterprises were building dormitories at their own expense, to provide them as dwelling place (with "vedomstvennaya propiska") for the migrated workers from smaller towns and rural areas. After the long-time employment at this enterprise (around 20 years), the person was given an apartment (as opposed to a dormitory room, which often shared a single bathroom and kitchen per floor and was ill suited for family life), with permanent "propiska" rights to it. Millions of people were using this system.

The system was introduced with the goal of social fairness in the distribution of the scarce resource of habitable real estate, and in a way replaced the Western system of mortgage (except that service years on the enterprise were used instead of real money).

Nevertheless, conditions in dormitories were often very bad, worsened by the mandatory security outposts on the dormitory's entrance, who would disallow any non-dwellers (without proper documents) to the dormitory. While reducing the chances of the dormitory being used for criminal purposes, it was a major hindrance for love/romantic relations and future family forming. There was usually no official gender segregation in the dormitories, but since many jobs and student specialities are gender imbalanced (the future teacher was usually female, and the future engineer, more or less usually male, with nearly exclusively males in all military schools), there was often de facto gender segregation in the dormitories.

Students coming from rural areas or smaller towns were dwelling in very similar dormitories, with termination of dwelling right in the dormitory on graduation or being fired from their schools.

The native dwellers of the large cities (like Moscow) often despised the limit-dwellers, considering them being rude, uncultural and aggressive. The word of "limitA" (limit-scum) was coined for this.

Some details of the system

The verb "propisat" was used with both the passport and its owner as a direct object. Reciprocally, "propiska" became an object which one can have, e.g.: Russian: "име́ть пропи́ску в Москве́" – "to have a propiska in Moscow".

The propiska was recorded both in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) office, with the Military Comissariate (the draft body) also involved. In rural areas, it was a selsovet, or "village council", a governing body of a rural territory. Propiska could be permanent or temporary. The administrations of hotels, student dormitories, and landlords (very rare case in the USSR, since the "sanitary norm" would usually cause rejection of temporary propiska for such a person) were obliged to maintain temporary propiska records of their guests. The propiska played the roles of both residence permit and residential registration of a person.

Acquiring a propiska to move to a large city, especially Moscow, was extremely difficult for migrants and was a matter of prestige. Even moving to relatives did not automatically provide a person with a permanent propiska because of the limitation of minimum area per each resident of the specific apartment.

Due to Soviet realty-related regulations (officially based on the Universal Right for Housing for everybody), the permanent propiska (which provided the permanent right to dwell in this housing) was nearly impossible for authorities to terminate. The only major exception was a second criminal sentence (after serving the penalty for the first sentence, the inmate returned to the old permanent propiska). If the authorities needed to regulate, they refused permanent propiska for an individual, usually not revoking the existing permanent propiska.

This also caused an interesting effect that if the spouse agreed (at marriage) to provide the spouse with permanent propiska at her apartment, the propiska could not be terminated by divorce, and so exchanging the apartment for two smaller ones was often the only possibility.

Sanitary norm

Spouses could always provide permanent propiska to one another, but explicit consent was required for this. Children were granted permanent propiska at one of the parents' permanent propiska locations, and this could not be terminated during the lifetime of the child even as an adult (with the exception of a second criminal sentence), unless the grown-up child voluntarily relocated to another place (and was granted a permanent propiska there).

It was not this easy for any other relatives. For such cases, as also for any unrelated people, the "sanitary norm" was used: a propiska would not be issued if it would cause the apartment area to fall below 12 m² per person. Also, the number of rooms in the apartment was important: there must not be any case of two persons of different gender more than 9 years old sharing a single room. If the new "propiska" of the new dweller violated some of this, the propiska would not be granted (spouses being an exception). This was officially meant to prevent unhealthy overcrowding of apartments and sexual abuse, but since most Soviet people had only a little over 9 m² per person, it was also an effective method of migration control.

The above norms were very similar to the norms of getting into the governmental (not dependent on particular employer) "housing queue", which was yet another Soviet form of mortgage (again with real money replaced by years—the queue was free in terms of money). The main difference was that to get to the entrance of the housing queue required 9 m² per person in an existing apartment (and, due to the above room count rule, children of different gender raised the chances of getting to the queue). This housing queue was very slow (much slower than employers' queues), and sometimes it took the person's whole life to get the apartment at the exit of the queue.

As a result of the above, practically the only way for a person to legally improve their dwelling conditions was marriage or childbirth. This was also a serious driving force in migration of young people to "monocities", the new cities built from scratch, often in Siberia or the Arctic, around some single facility (factory, oil region and such).

Housing property rights and mortgage

In the USSR, there were some so-called "cooperative" apartments, owned on a mortgage basis, but they were scarce and getting one was very difficult. These were the only apartments which passed down to children by inheritance; in normal apartments, when the last dweller died, the apartment was returned to the government. Since, when the grandparents became older, they usually preferred to live separately from their children and grandchildren, this was usually connected to cheating of the propiska system: the grandparents were registered not for the apartment in which they lived but the apartment of their children, to avoid the return of their apartment to the government after their death.

Violations of propiska system within a single city/town were rarely actually punishable. Also, Moscow employers were allowed to employ people from Moscow Region living in a given radius (around 40 km) from Moscow.

In theory, it was possible to exchange apartments over mutual agreement between parties. Few people wanted to move from a large city to a smaller one, even with additional money, but the exchange of two flats for one in a larger city was sometimes possible. Also, apartment exchange with money involved was something like a "gray area" near a criminal offence, and there was a real possibility that the participants would be prosecuted as for an economic crime, and realty agents arranging such things were strictly outlawed and prosecuted, living in a "gray area" and hiding their activities from the authorities.

Certain "risk groups", such as dissidents, Romani, and former criminals, were often barred from getting a propiska in Moscow and some other major cities. However, many people used subterfuge to get a Moscow propiska, including a marriage of convenience and bribery. Another way of obtaining Moscow residency was to become a limitchik: to enter Moscow to take certain understaffed job positions, such as at cleaning services, according to a certain workforce quota (limit). Such people were provided with a permanent living place (usually a flat or a room in a shared flat) for free. Some valuable specialists could also be invited by enterprises, which provided them with flats at the expense of the enterprise.

At a certain period, residents of rural areas had their passports stored at selsovets (officially "for safekeeping") which prevented them from unofficial migration to the areas where they did not have apartments. This was intended to prevent cities from an influx of migrants who sought higher living standards in large cities but had permanent registration far away from their actual place of residence.

In 1993, propiska was restructured as resident registration, so the modern Russian legislation does not use the terms "propiska" and "propisat" (with the exception of situations where a reference is needed to the facts of the Soviet period). However, it is still used as a colloquial abbreviation for permanent residency registration.

Propiska toll in Moscow

In the early 1990, just after the collapse of the USSR, the authorities of Moscow introduced an official toll for somebody to be permanently registered in Moscow even on their property. The toll was around US$5,000, around a fourth of the small apartment price of that time.

This system only lasted several years, causing major public uproar from human rights protectors and other people of liberal attitudes, and was cancelled after several rulings of the Constitutional Court of Russia. In late 1997, it was cancelled.

Propiska and education

Students not of the city in question were provided a temporary propiska in the dormitories of their university campus (generally, dormitory space was not provided to students studying in the same city as their parents' residence, but they often wanted it to be free from their parents). After graduation, this temporary propiska was terminated.

In Soviet times, this was connected to a "distribution" system: mandatory official assignment of the first job place for the graduate (even from the same city), where the graduate had to work for around 2 years "to pay back for their education". Only postgraduates were freed from this requirement.

This system was despised as a being a violation of freedom, since nobody wanted to relocate from a larger city to a smaller one, but it still provided at least some propiska (and dwelling space connected to it) to a graduate. Also, such a "young specialist" could nearly never be fired, the same as a pregnant woman and other beneficial (in terms of labor laws) categories of people.

After the end of the USSR, distribution was nearly immediately abolished, leaving graduates with the choice of returning to their home town/village (to their parents) or struggling to find work in the large city where the school was located. To do the latter, some people became "propiska hunters": people with an urgent desire to marry anybody with permanent propiska in the large city, just to retain their legal right to stay in the large city after graduation.

Since once provided, the permanent propiska was not revocable, the native people of the large city were very suspicious about senior-age students from smaller towns or villages when it came to marriage.

Modern usage

Signing in and signing out Propiska in a Tajikistan Passport.

Following the Soviet republics, such as Belarus, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, chose to keep their propiska systems, or at least a scaled-down version of them.

Russia changed propiska to registration, though the word propiska is still widely used to refer to it colloquially. Citizens must register if they live in the same place for 90 days (Belarusian citizens in Russia and vice versa, 30 days). There are two types of registration, permanent and temporary. A place of permanent registration is indicated on a stamp made in an internal passport, and a place of temporary registration is written on a separate paper. Living in a dwelling without a permanent or temporary registration is considered an administrative offence.

Registration is used for economic, law enforcement and other purposes, such as accounting social benefits, housing and utility payments, taxes, conscription, and medical care.

Today, registration plays little role in questions of property. In Soviet times, for example, if after a marriage, a wife was registered in accommodation her husband rented from the state, in case of divorce, she could obtain some part of her husband's place of residence for her own usage. In modern Russia, this was mostly abandoned due to apartment privatisation, but if a person has no other place to live, he still cannot be evicted without substitution (Housing Code of Russian Federation, Art. 31, part 4. (Russian)). This makes many people fearful of registering others on their property title.

At the same time, many documents and rights may be obtained only at the place where a citizen has permanent registration, which causes problems, for example, with obtaining or changing passports, voting, obtaining inquiry papers, which are often needed in Russia. Unfortunately, officials tend to ignore laws that allow people to obtain such things and rights if they exist.

For foreigners, registration is called "migration control" and is stamped on a migration card and/or coupon, approximately one third the size of an A4 paper, which must be returned to officials before departure.

Migration control is much stricter than internal registration. For instance, to employ any Russian citizen, even with the permanent registration out of the city in question, the employer needs no special permit; only the employee must be registered.

Employing unregistered people is an administrative offence for the employer, but penalties are rare: sometimes even Western companies in Moscow employ unregistered people (usually university graduates who have lost their dormitory registration due to graduation). The penalty is much stricter in the case of foreigners. To employ foreigners, employers must have a permit from the Federal Migration Service.

The citizens of Belarus have the same employment rights as Russian citizens in Russia.

Nevertheless, if a person with a permanent registration somewhere else living in Moscow on a temporary registration purchases a car, that person must submit the car to police accounting at the location of the permanent registration in order to obtain license plates from the vehicle registration police. Some people drive 1000 km or more and back to their native cities to get license plates for their new cars in order to have their native region code, not the Moscow region code.

In Ukraine, the Constitutional Court ruled that propiska was unconstitutional in 2001 (November 14) and a new "informational" registration mechanism was planned by the government, though it never came to fruition. Additionally, access to social benefits such as housing, pensions, medical care, and schooling are still based on a propiska as are the location for a driving test and the associated lessons.

In Uzbekistan, even though citizens are issued a single passport, severe restrictions on movement with the country apply, particularly in the capital Tashkent. After the 1999 Tashkent bombings, the former Soviet era restrictions were imposed, making it virtually impossible to acquire propiska in Tashkent.

Attitudes for and against propiska

People with liberal attitudes and human right advocates were highly critical of the propiska system. They said the propiska system turned the country outside of Moscow and the other major cities into a bantustan, depriving people of their rights.

On the other hand, police officials were vocal supporters of the system, saying it allowed them to track criminals and suspects more easily. Officials also claimed the propiska system helped prevent overcrowded dwellings of poor people, which were difficult to control by law enforcement otherwise.

Since the general plans of city development of most Soviet cities were designed with propiska in mind, propiska relaxation caused a major migrant flow to the cities, straining infrastructure such as roads and subways.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Прописывать". Толковый словарь живого великорусского языка (Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian language). Vol. III. (6th ed.). М.: Гос. изд-во иностр. и национ. словарей. 1955. p. 503. 
  2. ^ "Видеть". Толковый словарь живого великорусского языка (Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian language). Vol. I. (6th ed.). М.: Гос. изд-во иностр. и национ. словарей. 1955. p. 203. 

External links

  • Constitutional Court strikes down internal passport system—article in The Ukrainian Weekly
  • Russian ombudsman on propiska in modern Russia
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