‘They’re waiting for everyone to die’ Meduza meets the ‘children of the Gulag’ fighting for their right to public housing in Russia

A commemorative event at the Levashovo Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg on Russia’s Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression. October 30, 2018. Alexander Demyanchuk / TASS

In 2019, Russia’s Constitutional Court ordered the State Duma to make amendments to the 1991 law “On the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions.” On paper, this legislation grants victims of Stalin’s Great Terror, as well as their children born in exile or in the Gulag system, the right to free housing in the places their families once lived. However, starting in 2004, regional authorities began placing the descendents of victims of Soviet-era political repressions on general waitlists with thousands of other people in need of public housing. This has made it practically impossible for these “children of the Gulag” to return home. Meanwhile, draft laws aimed at putting in place special procedures for granting them immediate housing compensation have failed to make it through parliament. On November 1, the Russian Supreme Court rejected a class-action lawsuit filed over the State Duma’s apparent inaction. Prior to the claim’s dismissal, Meduza spoke to some of the plaintiffs. Here are their stories.

At least 23 “children of the Gulag” joined a class-action suit against the Russian State Duma. The claim was initiated by Alisa Meissner. Years ago, the Moscow authorities refused her housing compensation because she isn’t a registered resident of the capital. Indeed, Meissner still lives in Russia’s Kirov region — where her German mother was deported when she was exiled from Moscow in 1941. After the Constitutional Court ruling of 2019, the Moscow City Property Department relented and placed Meissner on its general waitlist for social housing. As of September 2021, she was number 44,922 on the list. 

The class-action suit was filed with the Russian Supreme Court on October 28. Just days later, on November 1, the Supreme Court declined to consider the claim — without providing any reasoning. 

“The lawsuit has already partially achieved its aims, since the State Duma leadership promised to resume work on a bill and take the opinion of the ‘children of the Gulag’ into account,” the plaintiffs’ legal representative, Grigory Vaypan, told the investigative outlet iStories following the rejection. “In any case, we will appeal against it in all instances up to the Constitutional Court.” 

‘I’ll have to live to be 100’ 

Vladimir Leonidovich Gorobets was born in the Siberian village of Yazayevka in 1956. His father Leonid was accused of counter-revolutionary activity in 1943 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, followed by five years of exile in Siberia.

Prior to his arrest, Vladimir’s father lived in Moscow, on the capital’s historic Arbat Street. Vladimir says his father was arrested on the basis of a false denunciation. A search of his communal apartment turned up photos of an old, Trotskyist politbureau — Vladimir says these belonged to a neighbor who had passed away. But since the photos were found in his father’s room, he was accused of being a “Trotskyist” himself. “He was sentenced to be shot, but he filed an appeal. The appeal was accepted and [his sentence] changed to 10 years in a prison camp and five years in exile,” Vladimir tells Meduza.

Leonid spent 10 years in Minlag, a special camp for political prisoners within the Gulag system, located in the Arctic town of Inta. He was then exiled to the Krasnoyarsk Krai, where he met Vladimir’s mother. “In 1955, my father’s conviction was lifted — he wasn’t acquitted, his exile was simply cancelled. But where was he to go? I was born here [in the Krasnoyarsk Krai], his family was here, so my father stayed. He became seriously ill and died in 1958,” Vladimir explains. 

Vladimir applied for housing compensation “six or even eight years ago,” but was placed on Moscow’s general waitlist for social housing. “Now there’s more than 50,000 people in line,” he says. “To get an apartment, I’ll have to live to be 100 years old.” 

“It took me 60 years to get all of my children out of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, so that nothing would hold me here. I feel like we’re being deprived of our rights. Like my father, who was imprisoned for nothing. But hope will only die with me! When I’m gone, then there will be no hope,” Vladimir continues. Indeed, as the 65-year-old explains, he’s the only member of his family who can claim compensation “as the son of a rehabilitated person.” 

“My children won’t get anything,” Vladimir laments. “All I have left from my father is an engraved military mess kit and a number badge that [he] was given in the camps. I don’t even remember my father’s hands.”

‘I want to end my days in Moscow’

Viktor Borisovich Vasilenko was born in Moscow in 1931. He lived with his family on Novoslobodskaya Street until 1937 — the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, referred to in Russian as the Year of ‘37. That year, Viktor’s family was torn apart after his father Boris was shot on charges of sabotage and participation in a counter-revolutionary terrorist organization. 

“In July 1937, my father was arrested. […] Immediately after he was arrested, our three rooms were taken and sealed, and my sister, my mother, and I were moved to one [room], but not for long,” Viktor recalls. “On August 22, my father was shot. He was sentenced in the morning and by afternoon he was shot.” 

“[It was] September 20, at dawn — I remember so much, I was a five-year-old child,” Viktor continues. “At four in the morning, two NKVD officers came to our apartment. My mother was placed in one Black Maria [secret police vehicle] and us in another.” 

Five-year-old Viktor and his sister were sent to an orphanage in Penza, a special institution for “children of enemies of the people.” His mother was sentenced to eight years in a forced labor camp as the wife of a traitor to the motherland. 

Viktor Vasilenko as a child, with his familyViktor Vasilenko as a child, with his familyViktor Vasilenko’s personal archive

“In 1956, my father — posthumously — and my mother were rehabilitated due to a lack of evidence,” Viktor tells Meduza. As he explains, this makes him eligible for free housing in Moscow, where his family lived before they were repressed. However, he isn’t even on the general waitlist for social housing in the capital.

“They didn’t put me in the queue. I reached out to the Moscow government several times, they told me [there’s] only the general procedure. How is that possible? I’m 90 years old. Do you think I can stand in the general queue for 20–30 years? It’s useless, there’s no need to put [me on the waitlist]. We must receive housing in a special procedure, as established by the Constitutional Court,” Viktor insists. “I want to end my days in Moscow, where I was born.” 

Viktor fears that he and other “children of the Gulag” may not live to see the day when their right to housing compensation is realized. “A little longer and there won’t be any of us [left], the issue will disappear on its own,” he says. “I don’t really believe that [the State Duma] will pass the law.”

‘Children of the Gulag’ file class-action lawsuit against Russia’s State Duma

‘I’m done living in the cold’

Nikolai Mikhailovich Mitkin was born in 1951, in a special settlement in Ust-Yazva, a rural village in the Perm Krai. He still lives there today. His Russian-German mother Frida Ivanovna Mitkina was transferred to the special settlement in 1946, five years after she was exiled to Kazakhstan and then deported to Usollag — a forced labor camp in the Gulag system where many Russian Germans, Estonians, and Latvians were sent.

“My mother was first exiled to Kazakhstan, and from there she was taken to the labor army in 1944, to the Perm Krai. I was born there. Why don’t the authorities want us to return to our place of origin? Because when my mother and her brothers were resettled, [the authorities] took the cattle, the house, everything. Now they must provide housing,” Nikolai tells Meduza. 

Nikolai Mitkin’s mother, Frida (left), in Ust-YazvaNikolai Mitkin’s mother, Frida (left), in Ust-YazvaNikolai Mitkin’s pesonal archive

In 2021, Nikolai requested that the Petrovsky Municipal District administration put him on its waitlist for social housing. The municipal authorities refused, because he couldn’t provide documents confirming that he was a registered resident of the Stavropol Krai — the territory where his mother lived before the deportations.  

“I’m done living in the cold, I want to go back. I’m not alone, this is a common problem. If there are a lot of people, then perhaps this will somehow help the case. There’s hope,” the 70-year-old says. “There’s bureaucracy everywhere, all the time, wherever you go, there’s bureaucrats sitting around. It’s all a shame.”

“The feeling is that the authorities are waiting for everyone [all the ‘children of the Gulag’] to die,” adds Nikolai’s wife Svetlana. “They even demanded that we indicate the coordinates of the village from which [Nikolai’s] parents were expelled. We obtained these coordinates through the Moscow Public Library. Fifteen months of correspondence and, in the end, a rejection.”

At this point, Svetlana and Nikolai aren’t even hoping to be allocated a home — they just want to see their names on a priority list for social housing. And “to live [somewhere] with a toilet in our old age, at least,” Svetlana says. 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Interviews by Andrey Serafimov

Updated summary by Eilish Hart


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