Roma in Russia: A Personal Documents Disaster

29 October 2003

Leonid Raihman1

During field research in June 2003 as a volunteer on behalf of the ERRC, I met in Volzhsky (a small town alongside the river Volga) Ms N., a 93-year-old Romani woman. She showed me her old passport2 issued a long time ago in the Soviet Union. She explained that she had no place to live and was not registered anywhere. Without residence registration, she has no chance to apply for social aid, state medical care, or other forms of government assistance. She usually begs in public places and policemen don't bother her, possibly respecting her age. Different is the police treatment of thousands of other Romani people in the area, living without passports and/or resident registrations, or holding invalid passports. As a rule, Roma (as well as Chechens and other people perceived as coming from the Caucasus or Central Asia) are stopped in the streets for document checks more frequently than others. The routine way to be left alone or be released from police custody if taken there for failure to produce regular identification documents (IDs) is to pay the bribes demanded by police. Desperate, the Romani people pay those bribes during each of their numerous encounters with police, since obtaining regular personal documents seems to be more difficult than bribing.

The situation will become much worse after December 31, 2003 - the deadline for replacement of old Soviet Union passports with new Russian Federation passports. Beginning in 2004, a holder of an old Soviet passport will no longer be entitled to simply exchange it for a new one. Thus many persons will not be able to identify themselves in the broad range of situations in which showing an ID is obligatory, such as when purchasing plane or train tickets for domestic destinations. As of May 2003, about 18 percent of the Russian Federation population (over 25 million people) still had their old passports.3 There is no reliable data by ethnicity, but on the basis of empirical observation, it can be claimed that many Roma in Russia have not replaced their Soviet time IDs with new ones. It is unclear whether the central and local authorities are aware of this problem facing the Romani community. In one case, the Novgorod district department of visas and passports has stated that the residents who have not yet exchanged their old passports predominantly consist of disabled persons and Gypsies living in a tabor in the town Chudovo.4 Romani leaders recently interviewed by the ERRC place the number of Roma in Russia between 1.5 and 2 million.5 This means that, indeed, thousands of Roma need urgent help in acquisition of personal IDs.

With a few exceptions, the personal documents system in Russia officially recognizes only the internal and international passports as papers identifying a person. The law also requires obligatory registration of residence and stay, and assumes an obligation to live or stay at the place of registration. The law is enforced through administrative (police) control over registration. This system of registration is closely linked with other public registries: taxation, military draft, police records, etc. In practice, the passport system in Russia is very repressive and restrictive and the most frequent victims of this system are people who physically differ from others, particularly migrants and ethnic minorities. Administration officials, especially in housing and immigration departments, abuse the discretionary decision making power given them by the passport system to discriminate against members of certain targeted minorities, including Roma. According to Alexandr Osipov, "The most massive and painful problems of the country are related to the so-called "passport system". It is a classical example of institutional racism, with elements of organised direct discrimination by the state."6

Article 27 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation states that everyone who is lawfully staying on the territory of the Russian Federation shall have the right to freedom of movement and to choose a place to stay and reside. At the same time, Article 3 of the Law on the Rights of the Citizens of the Russian Federation to Freedom of Movement, Choice of Place of Stay and Residence within the Borders of the Russian Federation states that Russian citizens, as well as foreigners, are obliged to register their place of permanent residence or temporary stay. The law further provides that residence/stay registration or its absence may not be a basis of restriction or a precondition for exercise of the rights and freedoms established by the Constitution of the Russian Federation and Russian laws. The obligatory registration is of a notifying character only.

According to the law, the absence of registration constitutes an administrative infringement. Article 19(15) of the Code of Administrative Misdemeanors of the Russian Federation establishes that staying or residing without an identity card (passport) or without residence registration, or with an invalid identity card, or an invalid residence or stay registration, is punishable by a warning or a fine of up to one minimum monthly salary (approximately 20 Euro).

Despite the provision of rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the law, in the non-governmental organisation report "Compliance of the Russian Federation with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination", sent to the 62nd session of the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination in March 2003, Russian human rights activists underlined that, "in practice, the institution of registration technically becomes a condition for the citizens to enjoy their rights: acquisition of the citizenship and formalities in this connection; employment; marriage registration; participation in elections; medical care; higher and occasionally even secondary education; pensions and allowances." Without a residence registration, a citizen cannot receive a passport when he or she reaches the age of 14, or in case of loss or damage, nor can he or she pay taxes, register a vehicle, obtain a driving licence, etc. As a rule, a person cannot bring an action before a court of justice if he/she has no passport.7

The situation is further aggravated by the powers of regional authorities to establish local sanctions for the violation of registration norms. The specification of the size of fines is within the competence of the administrative organ imposing the fine. But in practice, the organ may neglect to issue a receipt, and still accept money: bribes and extortion are endemic. The unlawful practice of taking away passports by the police and keeping them until the fine is paid is also widespread. Sometimes passports simply vanish in the police stations. Control of the passport and registration regime in Russia has, to date, turned into one of the main functions of the police, as well as a major area of corruption.

There are sometimes curious ways in which Roma in Russia are coping and surviving the draconian passport regime. In a small settlement in the northwestern suburbs of Moscow, Mr A.R., a Romani man who had arrived in the early 1990s from Belarus, was living in poverty and unable to afford legal counsel. All his attempts to legalize his family residence in Russia had been unsuccessful. He had his old Soviet passport with a residence registration in Belarus. "It is enough to just go out of here towards the road. I am inevitably stopped by police for passport checks. They then have to be bribed to leave me alone. I am tired of this," he told ERRC in June 2003.8 Finally, the man convinced a policeman to keep his passport in the police station, while issuing him a paper, undated, according to which the passport had been declared as lost. He found it easier to pass police checks with this odd little paper and rejoiced in having obtained, for a while, some freedom of movement. In the meantime, the passport is deposited in the police as if it is a bank. The absurdity of the Russian personal documents reality and the repressive police policies has led to self-help websites, such as, which give legal and psychological advice to people on how to avoid police checks or how to handle them.

Vulnerable groups, like Roma, meet numerous bureaucratic obstacles, some of which are in violation of the law, during the process of applying for new passports. Departments responsible for issuing passports sometimes require a special document certifying the absence of housing debts, including debts for heating, water, gas, etc., in violation of the law. The poor are thus in a very disadvantaged position. They have to overcome bureaucratic hurdles also when trying to obtain residence registration. One typical hurdle is the fact that many Roma live in buildings which they have erected themselves, but which are not registered anywhere. In these cases, which are the rule rather than an exception, residence can not be registered. Thus, the linkage established by the state between personal identification, residence registration and the registration of dwellings, creates enormous difficulties for Roma and apparently leads to human rights violations.

Many Roma arrived in Russia in the past years and decades from other countries of the former Soviet Union, but failed to acquire Russian citizenship through the so-called "simplified" procedure established by a 1991 law covering citizens of the Soviet Union residing in Russia.9 Some of the Roma that I interviewed have residence registration in Belarus, Tajikistan, Ukraine, etc., and are regarded by local authorities in Russia as foreigners. To obtain Russian citizenship, such people must prove that they do not have citizenship of the country in which they lived before their arrival in Russia. The embassies and their offices issuing such certifications are located mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The expenses for traveling to obtain these documents are too high for most Roma and, as a result, many have not attempted to apply for passports according to the 1991 citizenship law. Immigration and other officers have exploited the illiteracy or lack of knowledge of the law among Roma, and not infrequently have suggested to them to go back to their countries of origin or have threatened them with forcible expulsion. The Commissioner on Human Rights of the Astrahan oblast noted in his annual report that the local immigration authorities have decided to expel from Russia Tajik Roma living near Astrahan in unregistered dwellings10 Some of these Roma probably did not even know that they may have been entitled to stay in the area.

The endemic problems with personal documents that Russian Roma face can be partly solved with the support of regional human rights organizations. In the majority of cases, all that is needed is simple advice at the start of the application process: which documents a person must collect, from where, how to fill in the necessary forms, etc. In Samara, the ERRC met with a non-governmental organisation that had been working since 1990 on housing and residence registration issues. At the same time, Romani leaders, particularly those of the organisation Romani Duma, play an active role in the city's public life. A number of Roma in Samara and its adjacent areas have difficulties obtaining their passports and residence permits and will predictably continue to have problems in the future. Surprisingly, however, the two organisations had never heard about each other. ERRC held a joint meeting with representatives of both and cooperation was agreed upon. Similarly, in another large city along the Volga river, Volgograd, the human rights community and the Romani organisations had no links. It is hoped that, with the assistance of the ERRC, bridges can be built throughout Russia between human rights organisations, particularly legal defence NGOs, and Romani communities. It is difficult to imagine that, without legal assistance, Roma in Russia will succeed in dealing with the personal documents headache.

Roma still have time to apply for Russian passports and residence permits until the end of 2003. But all those, predictably thousands, who fail to do so, are at risk of being further handicapped in accessing their rights.


  1. Leonid Raihman is a lawyer and a consultant to the Open Society Institute.
  2. The meaning of the term "passport" in the Russian context differs from the meaning of the term in its Western currency; it stands for two types of documents, an international passport and an internal ID in the form of a booklet, which in Russia is also called "passport".
  3. See
  4. See
  5. European Roma Rights Center telephone interview with Mr Artur Gorbatov, February 2003; and European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms Nadejda Demeter, January 2003, Smolensk.
  6. Osipov, Alexandr. "Europe, Russia, Durban". Available at:
  7. NGO report to the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination.Compliance of the Russian Federation with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Moscow, December 2002. Available at:
  8. European Roma Rights Center interview with Mr A.R., June 2003, Moscow.
  9. With the adoption of a new Law on Russian Federation Citizenship in 2002, this procedure became more complicated. 
  10. On Human Rights in the Regions of the Russian Federation. Astrahan, 2002. Available at:


Challenge discrimination, promote equality


Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal


The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Find out how you can join or support our activities