Three decades after the collapse of the U.S.S.R, Larisa Chernysheva was one of many rural Kazakhs whose only documentation was issued by long-defunct Soviet authorities.
Until October 7, Larisa Chernysheva* had only one document to prove her identity -- a timeworn passport emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle. While the document has value for history enthusiasts on eBay, where Soviet passports can fetch around $50, for Chernysheva the red-jacketed booklet is useless.
Without an identity card issued by the independent Kazakh government, the 68-year-old was unable to access the small benefits that are a lifeline for many elderly people in Kazakhstan.
"I worked hard all my life but over the past ten years or so my health has deteriorated" she said. "Because I don't have a Kazakh document, doctors wouldn’t see me, and I have no money for a private clinic." The widow has also been unable to draw a pension, despite ostensibly being eligible for the past eight years. Pensions in Kazakhstan average around 100,000 tenges ($235) per month. Women are entitled to a pension from the age of 60, while Kazakh men must wait until they turn 63.
Chernysheva's story is one of many in Kazakhstan, where far-flung rural communities have little contact with urban bureaucracy, and, in some places, not much appears to have changed since the Soviet era.
In late September, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service visited Chernysheva, who lives in the dusty, remote village of Mugalzhar in the Aqtobe region.
There, neighbor Serikbai Yesetov said he had repeatedly given the widow and her son a lift to government offices in a nearby town. But the pair were unable to navigate the bureaucratic muddle presented by Chernysheva's Soviet passport. "This family needs help," Yesetov said. "It's unlikely they will be able to obtain [Kazakh documentation] on their own."
Lawyer Nurlan Yessengulov also offered his services to the mother and son free of charge, but was unable to push the issue beyond local administration offices. He told RFE/RL: "Soviet passports have no legal weight. This means the owner automatically becomes powerless. The state should not allow this."
But Chernysheva's story appears to have a happy ending. She says that, shortly after the report by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service about her passport was published, "people from the police came and took a picture of me." She was then taken to the nearby town of Kandyagash and issued with an official Kazakh identity card.
"Now I am a citizen of Kazakhstan," Chernysheva said on October 8. She is currently in the process of applying for a pension.
A police official told RFE/RL that stories such as Chernysheva's are relatively common in Kazakhstan.
This year alone, 178 documents have been issued to people either without documentation, or whose only identification was issued by the Soviet authorities.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Larisa Chernysheva's surname.