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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Compensation for Victims of Soviet Era

The government has announced that it will compensate the possibly millions of victims of Communist repression and their descendants for property confiscated by the old regime, but former political prisoners and human rights activists said Tuesday they were skeptical that the promise would be kept.


The government resolution, passed Aug. 12, entitles most victims of political reprisals that took place after 1917 either to the restoration of confiscated property or limited monetary compensation.


In a country where most families were affected by Stalin's purges, the forced collectivization of the late 1920s or the exile of entire nations to Central Asia and Siberia during World War II, the government order could give rise to millions of claims for reimbursement.


But the order sets a two-million-ruble ($953) limit on monetary compensation and makes the process for obtaining it prohibitively complicated, causing skepticism among former prisoners' who have a long-standing distrust of government pledges.


"They have promised us something all our lives but they have never once fulfilled their promises," said Nadezhda Bogatikova of Memorial, a powerful lobby group. "It's just terrible that they issued this order. They're just trying to impress people."


One prominent journalist and human rights activist, who asked not to be identified, said that when his father was arrested, the NKVD secret police confiscated his extensive library and other valuable items.


"I know where my father's grand piano went -- it was given to a certain comrade in recognition of his good work," he said, but added that he would not claim the property under the new resolution nor even attempt to get compensation.


"I know the bureaucracy too well," he said. "I know how humiliating it will be, looking for witnesses and being asked for proof and all that."


The resolution puts restrictions on the kinds of property that may be returned to former owners. In no case, for example, will victims of repression or their heirs get back the land they lost during the forced collectivization of the 1930s.


The nobility cannot reclaim their estates, nor can pre-revolutionary capitalists get back their factories. Buildings and art collections nationalized after the Bolshevik revolution are similarly not covered by the order.


"If everybody could get all they ask for, we'd be living under communism," quipped Stanislav Alexandrov, an official with President Boris Yeltsin's commission for the rehabilitation of victims of the repression. "It's a big burden on the budget."


The government order promises to return lost homes to entire nations -- Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Crimean Tartars and several others -- exiled by Stalin for supposed collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Memorial's Bogatikova said she expected these minorities to protest violently when the government fails to keep its promise."The repressed nations have been thrown a bone," she said. "Now they will demand what's rightfully theirs, but there is no mechanism for the government to take away houses from their present owners.


"I am certain that there will be violence and blood will be spilled."


Former owners can retrieve property seized during Stalin's purges if it is still intact and they have a detailed description of the items confiscated. If no such description is given, the order says testimony from witnesses will be accepted.


But few families have kept official lists of what was taken from them and few witnesses of Stalin's purges are still alive, making it unclear how people will prove ownership under the resolution.


According to Deputy Justice Minister Anatoly Stepanov, who helped draft the resolution, the amount of compensation will be determined by special commissions soon to be set up by local governments.


But Moisey Shapiro, 75, who spent seven years in Stalin's camps in the 1940s and early 1950s, said there was no way for the government to decide how much compensation was due.


"Eighty percent of the families I know don't have lists of what they lost," he said, citing his experience as an activist with the Repression Victims' Association of Southwest Moscow.


Shapiro said about 50,000 survivors of Stalin's camps still live in Russia, but added that since the government order allowed direct descendants of deceased victims to collect compensation, the number eligible was hard to determine.


The resolution says that where property cannot be returned to former owners, they can receive monetary compensation at current prices, but the compensation is limited to 100 minimum salaries (2.05 million rubles) if the lost property included a house and 40 minimum salaries if it did not.


According to Stepanov of the Justice Ministry, the government has allocated 750 billion rubles this year to pay out the compensation. But the two-million-ruble cap seems low considering that many families lost immeasurably more valuable things, from paintings and family jewelry to livestock.


"It's the fact that compensation is offered that's important," Stepanov said. "I can't say whether it's too much or too little, but the government is trying to give back at least a small share of what was lost."