Caravanserai
Human Rights

Exiled children of the Gulag fight for justice over Stalin-era crimes

By Caravanserai and AFP

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A visitor examines the multimedia displays showing Stalin's funeral, during the opening ceremony of a new museum dedicated to the Soviet Gulag labour camp system, on the National Day commemorating the victims of Stalin-era repression on October 30, 2015 in Moscow. [VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP]

ZOLOTKOVO, Russia -- In a run-down wooden hut deep in the Russian countryside, Yelizaveta Mikhaylova has been waiting for justice for 30 years.

The daughter of a Gulag prisoner, the 72-year-old is among the ageing children of those sent to the infamous Soviet camps who were promised compensation they have yet to receive.

Under a law passed after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, they are entitled to accommodation in the city from which their parents were sent into exile -- in Mikhaylova's case Moscow some 300 kilometres away.

"My parents wanted for us to return... that is why I am still fighting," said the retired dentist.

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Human rights lawyer Grigory Vaypan, 30, attends an interview with AFP at the Gulag Museum in Moscow on December 22, 2020. [Natalia KOLESNIKOVA/AFP]

She has waited a long time, living with her two daughters in a 40-square-metre room in the hut near Zolotkovo, a village five hours' drive from Moscow.

It's a difficult life. They cut wood to fuel a stove that heats the room and their toilet is separated by a simple curtain.

Mikhaylova's father Semyon -- a manager in the chemicals industry -- was arrested during the mass purges set into motion by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and accused of participating in a counter-revolutionary organisation.

After serving eight years in a camp in the Far East, Semyon was sentenced to another 25 years in Siberia, though the sentence was cut short by Stalin's death in 1953.

'A tragedy for a family'

Restricted by a ban that did not allow former prisoners to reside within 100 kilometres of most cities, Semyon's family first settled in what is now Moldova before returning to Russia.

"It is a tragedy, a tragedy for a family," said Mikhaylova.

A few years ago, Mikhaylova arrived with a suitcase full of documents in the office of Grigory Vaypan, then a fresh graduate of Moscow State University and Harvard.

"Immediately we understood that we could not abandon this woman," said the 30-year-old human rights lawyer.

He took up her case, along with those of two other children of Gulag survivors, Alissa Meissner and Yevgeniya Shashaeva, who still live near former camps in remote areas.

They scored a first legal success in 2019, when Russia's Constitutional Court recognised that the compensation law was not being applied due to its changing and near impossible conditions. The court ordered legislators to seek a solution.

A bill has since been passed in first reading in Russia's lower house State Duma, but Vaypan said it will not do enough to help Mikhaylova and others like her because it makes them register on waiting lists for social housing.

In Moscow the average wait for such a spot is almost 30 years.

The bill was scheduled for a second reading at the end of January, but no such reading has occurred.

"[They] have lived their entire lives in exile," Vaypan said, and while there is no way they can now recover the homes that belonged to their parents, they should at least be allowed to return to the cities.

Whitewashing history

Supporters say it is the least the country can do for the remaining victims of Stalinist terror -- a period of history that Russian authorities often ignore.

The Kazakh famine of the 1930s is another example of Stalin-induced horrors that historians are now trying to bring to light with the publication of a book -- "The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan" by American historian Sarah Cameron -- and a film vying for an Oscar this year -- "The Crying Steppe" from MG Productions of Almaty.

Russia in recent years has seen an official trend to present Stalin's rule in a positive light, while downplaying the repressions and forced collectivisation that killed millions.

Such efforts to rewrite history have reawakened the grief of Central Asians whose families suffered at Stalin's hands.

Much to the horror of Stalin's victims and their families, last April Russian President Vladimir Putin even touted the "advantages" of restoring the Soviet Union.

"By conquering a phobia of the past and fears of a revival of the Soviet Union and of the Soviet empire ... the understanding that unification benefits everyone is inevitably prevailing," he said on state-owned television channel Russia-1.

But for most countries, such "reunification" would mean a loss of independence, analysts say.

'Their future was broken'

Most of these children of the Gulag are now in their 70s and 80s, with only about 1,500 left alive in Russia today, said Roman Romanov, 38, the director of the Gulag Museum in Moscow.

"Their future was broken then and this break has never been repaired. They are still suffering the consequences of the repression," he said.

Momentum is building to finally help them. The United Nations and International Federation for Human Rights recently urged the Russian government to take action and more than 100 prominent figures signed an open letter in mid-January demanding justice.

A petition launched by Vaypan has gathered more than 80,000 signatures in favour of a proper law to help Mikhaylova and others who share her fate return home.

"We've managed to draw attention to these people and show they exist," Vaypan said. "They have the right to return, the law must work."

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Shitty Stalin was one hell of a maniac.

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