Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet “Concerning the Removal of Restrictions in the Choice of Place of Residence Stipulated in the Past for a Separate Category of Citizen” (November 3, 1972)
“Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet ‘Concerning the Removal of Restrictions in the Choice of Place of Residence Stipulated in the Past for a Separate Category of Citizen’ (November 3, 1972).” Translated and Edited by Eric J. Schmaltz, Istoriia rossiiskikh nemtsev v dokumentakh, (Moscow: MIGUP, 1993).
Translated and edited by Eric J. Schmaltz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Co-Executive Director of the NWOSU-Masonic Institute for Citizenship Studies, Department of Social Sciences, Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Alva.
The original Russian source: “Ukaz Prezidiuma Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR 'O snyatii ogranicheniy v vybore mesta zhitel’stva, predusmotrennogo v proshlom dlya otdel’nikh kategoriy grazhdan' (Nov. 3, 1972),” in Vladimir A. Aumann and Valentina G. Chebotareva, eds., Istoriia rossiiskikh nemtsev v dokumentakh (1763-1992 gg.) (Moscow: MIGUP, 1993), p. 179.
By the early 1970s, the Soviet regime tried to respond at least to some emigration pressures as well as certain demands for freedom of travel inside the country. On November 3, 1972, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet issued a “rehabilitation” decree, which removed remaining domestic travel and residency restrictions on the ethnic Germans and several other deported peoples.
This legal measure produced mixed results for ethnic Germans and other exiled nationalities, however. In the case of ethnic Germans, the Kremlin at this time understood that decades after the war this group found it difficult to reclaim their homes in the former “homelands.” The younger generation of ethnic Germans would have had little or no memory of the old villages. Two generations of Russians and Ukrainians, the postwar beneficiaries of government-confiscated German homes, also had been occupying some of these places. As for the evacuated former ethnic German villages that remained unoccupied, local Soviet authorities during the Khrushchev period already demolished many of them in order to discourage possible German resettlement.
Changing the legal residency status, the 1972 decree listed three important clauses. First, it removed remaining restrictions on the choices where one could live—at least on paper. Second, as Soviet citizens, the ethnic Germans held the same rights as others in choosing their place of residence, which also depended on their work assignments. This formal policy of “registration of residence” or “permission to reside” was known as propiska. Third, the Ministries of the Interior and Justice, together with the KGB in association with the Council Ministers of the USSR, were at least in theory to enforce the decree.
The 1972 decree, unlike the 1955 and 1964 “rehabilitation” measures, was not published. Six days after its signing, the USSR public prosecutor’s office in Moscow instead enacted it as a governmental order.1 For a while, only a small number of ethnic Germans learned about the new policy through official channels.2
Despite the new legal provisions, Soviet authorities could still hinder the ethnic Germans’ freedom of movement. Certain local Soviet officials, when noting the German surnames of applicants, at times refused them permission to register at a new address or to gain employment elsewhere. This travel policy offered new and better domestic travel and employment opportunities for ethnic Germans and other previously deported peoples, but the Soviet government’s policy enforcement often proved inconsistent with the official proclamation. The lack of publicity inside the Soviet Union concerning the residency decree also did not escape the attention of more outspoken ethnic Germans either.3
Thousands of ethnic Germans tried to use these new assurances to move to the USSR’s western regions, such as along the Baltic. The desire to move to European parts resulted from a combination of motives—to find better employment opportunities, to live among the non-Islamic peoples, to be located closer to East and West Germany, and not least of all, to reside in or near traditional villages and “homelands.”4 For certain activists in the lands of exile, the newfound chance to relocate also allowed some of them to avoid further political harassment from local government and Party officials and KGB officers.
Several political motivations, domestic and foreign, prompted Moscow’s release of the 1972 decree. First, West Germany was holding federal elections later in mid-November—about two weeks after the decree’s release. Thus the Soviet regime indicated that it sought to keep as many of its able-bodied ethnic German workers placated at home, all the while demonstrating its apparent goodwill toward a more conciliatory West German government under Chancellor Willy Brandt (1969-1974).5
The 1972 decree’s release also coincided with a brief, but noticeable, rise in the number of German émigrés from the USSR. In the weeks preceding the West German election on November 19, 1972, the Soviets began processing previously ignored exit applications. Suddenly, Soviet authorities informed various ethnic German applicants who had been waiting for as long as ten or fifteen years to be ready to depart the country within forty-eight hours. Soon large crowds of ethnic Germans began to line up outside the German Embassy in Moscow. The month of November 1972 marked the beginning of the peak period of Cold War ethnic-German emigration to West Germany. Although a total of 3,420 ethnic Germans emigrated in 1972, 1,560 of them (almost half) arrived in November and December—and 1,320 in November alone.
In late 1972, Soviet emigration policies received good public exposure abroad, as international coverage was not in the least lacking. For the entire month of November, the West German media carried almost daily reports on the arrival of Germans from the USSR. In the United States, for instance, the New York Times (November 17, 1972), the Detroit Free Press (November 20, 1972), and the Fresno Bee (December 3, 1972, and January 15, 1973) also printed stories on the topic. Even local papers in Kansas, where a sizeable Germans from Russia community was found, carried the news.6
Thus in the two weeks preceding West Germany’s national elections, the Soviets coordinated the careful release of the 1972 decree ending residency restrictions inside the USSR with the slight, but apparent, change in emigration policy. In short, domestic and foreign policy considerations in the ethnic Germans’ case had come together again—i.e., to place this group back into the Soviet public sphere, to quell certain ethnic demands, and to make propaganda and diplomatic overtures to the West. Though never surpassing several thousand per year—a rather small number indeed out of nearly two million potential applicants—annual German emigration levels from the USSR remained fairly consistent until about 1980, when Cold War relations worsened because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the sharp increase in November 1972 remained something of an anomaly in the history of Cold War Soviet emigration policy toward ethnic Germans.7
Until Mikhail Gorbachev’s dramatic reforms, however, Moscow’s implementation of the 1972 decree stood as the last in a series of significant “rehabilitation” efforts designed to reverse Stalinist nationality policies toward ethnic Germans and other deported peoples:
The Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet resolves:
1. To remove the restriction in the choice of the place of residence stipulated by the Decrees of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet: from December 13, 1955, with respect to the Germans and their relatives; from September 22, 1955, with respect to the former Greek and Turkish citizens and Iranian subjects of the Soviet Union; and from March 27, 1956, with respect to the Greeks, Bulgars, and Armenians and their family members.
2. To clarify that persons, on whom the specified restriction was widely practiced, and their relatives, who are revealed to be citizens of the USSR, take advantage of the legal right to choose the place of residence in the entire territory of the USSR, like all Soviet citizens, in accord with active legislation about the provision of employment and passport requirements, and [this also applies to] foreigners and people without [Soviet] citizenship, in accord with active legislation about the orderly arrangement of residence in the USSR.
3. To charge the Ministry of Justice of the USSR, together with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR, and the Committee for State Security [KGB] in association with the Soviet Ministers of the USSR, with presenting the proposal for dismantling legislative acts stipulating the restriction in the choice of the place of residence for persons of particular nationalities resettled [deported] in the past from their place of residence to other regions of the USSR.
1. The 1972 decree appeared as Order No. 54 for the USSR public prosecutor’s office. Consult Alfred Eisfeld, Die Russlanddeutschen, rev. ed. (Munich: F. A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, 1999 ), p. 143.
2. Eisfeld, pp. 144-145.
3. Benjamin Pinkus, “The Germans in the Soviet Union Since 1945,” in Edith Rogovin Frankel, ed., The Soviet Germans: Past and Present (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), pp. 111-113.
4. Also consult Sidney Heitman, The Soviet Germans in the USSR Today (Cologne: Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, 1980), p. 69; Rasma Karklins, Ethnic Relations in the USSR: The Perspective from Below (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986), pp. 213-218.
5. Meir Buchsweiler, ed., A Collection of Soviet Documents Concerning Germans in the USSR, Research Paper No. 73 (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Marjorie Mayrock Center for Soviet and East European Research, Dec. 1991), p. 5; Eisfeld, pp. 142-144.
6. In November 1972, most of those who went to West Germany came from the ranks of Black Sea German exiles. Emma S. Haynes also noted that in North America, media stories about the November 1972 “exodus” of Germans from the USSR often made the mistake of calling them “Volga Germans” instead of “Black Sea Germans” or even “Soviet Germans.” This error stemmed from the fact that the Volga German colonies represented the oldest and most compact of any of the ethnic German subgroups in Russia. In addition, with the Volga German ASSR’s creation in 1924 and the infamous mass deportations beginning in August 1941, more Westerners expressed familiarity with this subgroup than with most of the others. During World War II, however, it was primarily the Black Sea Germans who were able to flee to West Germany. These escaped Black Sea Germans were later sending formal petitions or invitations to their exiled relatives in the USSR to immigrate to West Germany on the pretext of postwar family reunification. As of 1972, the Volga Germans remained in the minority of recent Soviet émigrés. See Emma S. Haynes, “The Arrival of Soviet Germans in Germany,” Work Paper of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia No. 11 (Apr. 1973): pp. 6, 9-10.
7. The impact of Soviet foreign policy on ethnic German emigration figures was nothing new, however. As early as September 1955, when West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer paid a diplomatic visit to Moscow to open formal relations and seek the release of remaining German POWs, thousands of Black Sea Germans asked to immigrate to West Germany after their release from official surveillance in the special settlements. At the time, Moscow declined to assist in the matter, but Bonn’s diplomatic pressure later resulted in the return of 16,500 elderly and infirm Soviet Germans between 1955 and 1964. Again in 1965, the issue of separated families appeared on the agenda. At the Vienna conference, Soviet and West German officials agreed to permit the release of an additional 40,000 selected persons to the Federal Republic of Germany. Despite this agreement, only a few thousand Germans were able to emigrate in the next three years as a result of tensions stemming from the Prague Spring of 1968. See Heitman, “Soviet Emigration Policies Toward the Germans and Armenians,” in Henry R. Huttenbach, ed., Soviet Nationality Policies: Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR (New York and London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1990), pp. 246-247; Pinkus, p. 110.