Even today, Russia is still dealing with its totalitarian legacy. During massive political repression in the USSR which peaked under Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s, entire ethnicities were deported, millions convicted, and hundreds of thousands executed on charges of “counter-revolutionary activities.” Although no survivors of repression are left after so many years, some of their descendants in Russia are now fighting to have their grand and great-grandparents’ cases reconsidered and their good names cleared and restored, while some others are trying to get fair compensation from the state and to return to their families’ homes taken away from them decades ago. Both find it a real challenge.
Despite large-scale campaigns for “legal rehabilitation” of the victims to have them cleared of all charges, many of their case files remain classified. Descendants find it difficult to access their repressed (but not yet rehabilitated) family members’ case files – and virtually impossible if the individual was convicted on criminal, rather than political, charges. In a classic catch-22 situation, relatives are not allowed to access the case file unless the person has been legally “rehabilitated” – but rehabilitation proceedings cannot be initiated without these documents. The first Russian to break the vicious circle was the actor Georgy Shakhet whose grandfather, civil engineer Pavel Zabotin, was executed the 1930s following a “troika” verdict (NKVD troikas were extrajudicial sentencing bodies made up of three officials, usually the local NKVD branch chief, the local Communist Party Committee secretary, and the prosecutor).
“Shakhet wanted to learn about the fate of his grandfather Pavel Zabotin executed in 1933 under the so-called Decree on Three Spikelets, aka the decree ‘on protecting the property of state enterprises, collective farms and cooperatives and on strengthening the public (socialist) property’, initiated by Stalin and adopted in August 1932. Under this decree, ‘theft of socialist property’ was ‘a crime against the state and the people’ punishable by death with confiscation of the accused person’s property or in certain circumstances by at least 10 years in prison. Very often, the decree was enforced in cases of petty theft, such as, someone picking up a few ears of grain in a collective farm’s field. Shakhet approached Memorial, asking us for assistance. We filed requests with archives to release relevant documents. It took us quite a while just to get them to finally admit that they had this information. But they refused to disclose the case file to us, because we ‘did not have the required papers’. What they really meant was that we did not have documentary proof that Pavel Zabotin was legally rehabilitated. This was the main obstacle. The archives insisted that the official rules of access to rehabilitated persons’ case files did not allow them to disclose the ‘troika’s’ decision to Shakhet,” according to lawer of the Memorial Human Rights Centre Marina Agaltsova.
It took Georgy Shakhet several years of legal fight, before the Russian Supreme Court finally ordered the Interior Ministry’s archives to grant Shakhet access to his grandfather’s case file.
Agaltsova adds that while the Ministry of Interior archives have since allowed people to access the case files of relatives who have not been rehabilitated, other authorities, in particular the FSB, continue to deny such requests. “In response to our clients trying to access the case files, the FSB archives insist that they are not bound by the Supreme Court’s ruling. We are currently involved in two related litigations ongoing in Moscow and Barnaul. So far, the count is one to one, as we have won the case in Barnaul, but lost in Moscow, where the courts agreed with the FSB’s arguments. We will continue to litigate,” Agaltsova concludes.
Even more difficult is to restore the rights of “GULAG’s children,” i. e. people born to repressed parents in Stalin’s prison camps or “beyond the 101st kilometer” (because their parents were disenfranchised following conviction and barred from living closer than 100 km outside of big cities such as Moscow and Leningrad). Many of their ancestors today are seeking to return to the cities their families had lived in before the repression and to claim state-subsidized housing in restitution of homes taken away from them. They are legally entitled to such restitution under the law on the rehabilitation of political repression victims, but on a practical level, claiming their rights can be a challenge due to paragraph 13 of the Law which was amended in 2005. While the original provision said that the rehabilitated persons and members of their families “have the right to return to their hometown and receive housing as a matter of priority,” its amended version only entitles the families of repression victims to be “placed on the waiting list and provided with state-subsidized housing in the manner prescribed by the laws of respective subjects of the Russian Federation.” In turn, regional governments have amended their housing legislation to make it harder and in some regions, virtually impossible for repression victims to access restitution.
In Moscow, e.g., victims of repression wishing to be placed on the waiting list for state-subsidized housing must meet the same requirements as other applicants such as low-income families, i. e. in addition to providing proof of repression and forced relocation, they are expected to have lived in Moscow for at least a decade while being officially low-income and without a housing property of their own.
Last year, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that the regional authorities failed to comply with the federal law on restitution, after considering a claim by Yelizaveta Mikhailova, Yevgenia Shasheva and Alisa Meissner whose families had lived in Moscow before they were repressed under Stalin.
Mikhailova was born in the city of Orkhei, Moldavian SSR, in 1948, to a mother exiled from Moscow for being the wife of an “enemy of the people.” Yelizaveta’s father, Semyon Mikhailov, was sentenced to eight years in labor camps in 1938 for “participation in an anti-Soviet right-wing organization and sabotage” and barred from living in or near big cities. Shasheva’s father and grandfather, Boris and Nikolai Cheboksarovs, were arrested in 1937, allegedly for “spying for Japan.” The father was executed at the Butovo execution site outside Moscow, and the son was sent to the UkhtIzhemLag labor camp in the Komi Republic to work in asphaltite mines. His daughter Yevgenia was born there in 1950. The Meissners were repressed for having a German surname and, like other Soviets of German origin, were exiled from Moscow in the early days of the Great Patriotic War in 1941. Alisa Meissner was born in 1950 in a “special settlement” in the Kirov region, where her mother, Anna Meissner, was made to work in the forest industry.
The three elderly women pursued their cases in several courts before they reached the Constitutional Court, which is the highest instance for their claims. Assisted by the Institute of Law and Public Policy lawyers, the women filed three independent claims which were later combined into one case. Following deliberations, the Constitutional Court found paragraph 13 of the law on rehabilitation of victims of political repression inconsistent with the Russian Constitution, because it unfairly deprives repression victims from achieving restitution guaranteed to them by the state, and instructed the federal and regional governments to amend their respective laws accordingly.
“While the Constitutional Court has not provided a comprehensive solution, it nevertheless got the process moving after being stuck for years <…> In this case of the GULAG children, two factors have played a role: quality legal assistance and public support. Other people who took similar cases to the Constitutional Court before did not have either,” according to Grigory Vaypan, Head of Litigation Unit at the Institute of Law and Public Policy.
Vaypan also notes that the Institute of Law and Public Policy was the first to challenge both legal barriers – the federal law on rehabilitation of political repression victims and the Moscow city law on access to housing – simultaneously. It was important to tackle both at once, because in earlier proceedings, courts had rejected attempts to challenge one of these laws by referring to the other. In addition to this, amicus curiae briefs prepared by the Memorial Human Rights Center and the Presidential Council for Human Rights played a significant role and found their way into the case file.
Two related bills are pending before the State Duma at the moment: one drafted by the Ministry of Construction, Housing and Utilities and the other prepared by the Presidential Council of Human Rights, the Institute of Law and Public Policy and independent experts and launched in the State Duma by Sergey Mironov and Galina Khovanskaya from the Fair Russia Party.
The Fair Russia Party proposes making federal subsidies available to rehabilitated victims of political repression within one year of application to finance purchase or construction of housing in the location where the family had lived before the repression. The Construction Ministry’s bill removes some of the restrictions imposed by regional laws but generally supports the regional governments’ discretion in the allocation of housing subsidies and does not specify any timeframes.
According to Vaypan, the ministry-sponsored bill changes virtually nothing but keeps things as they are today. “Just as before, victims of repression will be placed at the bottom of the general waiting list, with a prospect of finally getting government-subsidized housing in some 25 or 30 years. Considering that they are at least in their 60s and many in their 70s and older, none of them is likely to live long enough to return to their home city,” according to the lawyer.
Both bills will be considered by the State Duma in the second half of November. On November 11, the State Duma Committee on Labor, Social Policy and Veterans Affairs approved the Construction Ministry’s bill by a majority vote and recommended rejecting Fair Russia’s bill.
As of this writing, a petition in support of Fair Russia’s bill has received 67 thousand signatures; the bill is also endorsed by Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova. On the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression on October 30, more than a hundred Moscow city MPs appealed to State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, urging him to ensure that the law is adopted.
The UN raised the issue before the Russian authorities on 11 September 2020 (but the communication addressed to the Russian Mission in Geneva was published on November 10, as the UN allows states 60 days to respond). In this communication, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, welcome the decision of the Constitutional Court of 10 December 2019 (in the Mikhailova-Shasheva-Meissner case) but express concern that the victims’ right to housing may not be fully guaranteed “unless prompt measures are adopted to ensure the required coordination between national and regional levels,” adding that “considering the age of some of the victims, these measures are a matter of urgency.” Both Special Rapporteurs urge Russia to resolve the issue within two years and to ensure that the victims can access affordable housing at their former place of residence.
The Institute of Law and Public Policy, jointly with the International Memorial, has launched a dedicated project entitled “The Right to Come Back Home” and designed to help the victims of repression with the paperwork and the legal procedures to enable them to exercise their right to return. In particular, the project website provides guidance for people on how to start collecting the required documents. The Right to Come Back Home project is publicized on two websites (pages on the International Memorial and the Institute for Law and Public Policy sites).
Authoritarian regimes do not die with a change of political system but continue to live in historical memory. Polls in Russia reveal conflicting public views on the country’s relatively recent past. While most Russians are aware of political repression, there is no uniform perspective on the 1930s events.
According to a poll by VTSIOM, most Russians, i.e. 90% of respondents, know about Stalinist repression, and almost a quarter (24%) mention that one of their family members was repressed. Younger people aged 18 to 24 and those with less than secondary school completed are more likely to be unaware of the 1930s repression: 24% and 30%, respectively. While nearly half (47%) believe that “repression has no justification,” almost as many (43%) are convinced that acts of repression “were a forced measure allowing Stalin to maintain order in society.” Likewise, Russians are divided on the issue of who exactly was repressed. The majority believe that the targets were “people who disagreed with the government’s policies” (37%), while other popular responses are that the government repressed “traitors and conspirators” (24%), “crooks and thieves” (23%) and “those enjoying authority among people” (22%).
According to the chairman of the International Memorial’s Board Jan Raczynski, Russians today tend to perceive Soviet-era repression as a sort of “natural disaster with no one to blame and no one to be held accountable,” while its victims wishing to return to their homes are often seen as “freebie seekers.” “But we are now moving in the right direction. We want these events to be given a legal assessment. We do not insist that specific individuals should be tried and convicted, but we do insist on a legal qualification of the acts,” Rachinsky says.
Despite similarities with the totalitarian regimes in Spain and Germany, Raczynski notes, Russia’s history is unique in the unprecedented scale of atrocities committed against its own people.