ZOLOTKOVSKY, Russia -- All her life, Yelizaveta Mikhailova has been taught to keep silent.
Born in internal exile to parents branded "enemies of the people" by the Soviet state, she was an infant when her father was rearrested in 1949 and sent back to the gulag forced labor camps that underpinned Josef Stalin's repressive regime. Growing up, she never questioned her father's fate -- certainly not out loud.
"Mother would warn me: 'Don't ask anyone about anything. If you say something wrong, you may end up in Kolyma tomorrow,'" she says, referring to the desolate expanse of Russia's Far East where Semyon Mikhailov toiled for seven years following his first arrest in 1937, at the height of Stalin's Great Terror.
But Mikhailova is silent no longer.
Together with two other women whose parents were imprisoned by the Soviet government and exiled from Moscow for crimes they did not commit, she is appealing to Russia's Constitutional Court in a bid to secure compensation for the property her family lost and the right to relocate to the city she calls home.
It's a legal battle Mikhailova has waged for 28 years. Two months before its implosion in December 1991, the U.S.S.R. passed legislation on rehabilitating victims of political repression, aimed at establishing procedures for compensating persecuted families and facilitating their return to cities they were forced to leave. But since 2005, changes to that law have made it all but impossible for people like Mikhailova to qualify.
Now 71, she views restoration of her family's Moscow home as more than a question of historical justice. Viewed from the dilapidated house she now inhabits in a village 200 kilometers away, it's also the promise of a better life she currently can't afford. She shares her monthly pension of the equivalent of about $230 with her two adult daughters, Nina and Vladislava, and partly relies for sustenance on whatever food the nearby forest will provide.
For Mikhailova's fellow claimants, the situation is not much different. Alisa Meissner, whose mother Anna was exiled to the forested, rural Kirov region as part of Stalin's eastward relocation of ethnic Germans following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, lives today a mere 70 kilometers from the "special settlement" where she was born. Yevgenia Shasheva, the third claimant, resides 2,000 kilometers from Moscow in the remote northern Komi Republic, on the outskirts of a gulag camp that her father, Boris Cheboksarov, was sent to following his arrest in 1937, at the peak of Stalin's sweeping campaign to root out perceived enemies.
WATCH: A Russian TV report on Shasheva:
"There's nothing left in our village; the place is dying," Meissner says in a phone interview. "If I have even a shred of hope to get out of here, I want to use it."
Living History Of Soviet Repression
At a time when many Russians profess ignorance about Stalin's repressions and schools across the country teach a sanitized version of the Soviet past, Mikhailova, Meissner, Shasheva, and others like them are living evidence of the remaining scars of that history: over eight decades after their parents' repression, they effectively continue to live in exile.
"For the majority of Russians, the Soviet repressions are something far off -- a relic of the past with no effect on our present realities or our society," says Grigory Vaypan, the 29-year-old lawyer handling the case for the Moscow-based Institute for Law and Public Policy. "But for these women, and many others like them, the repressions never ended."
For years, Mikhailova, Meissner, and Shasheva have been compiling troves of historical documents to buttress their case. Each has filed one appeal after another in local courts, waiting for them to be heard and ultimately rejected. The lawsuit they're now bringing to the Constitutional Court, the highest legal authority on such cases, is their final chance to earn redress for decades of discrimination.
It's an achievement that they got this far. According to Vaypan, the Constitutional Court takes up only 0.5 percent of the 15,000 complaints it receives on average each year. This case, which is slated to begin on October 22, is only the second time in Russia's history that a lawsuit concerning victims of Soviet-era repressions has reached the court.
The first time, in 1995, the court ruled that the children of victims rehabilitated by the state were entitled to the same legal status as their parents. That decision helped pave the way for Mikhailova, Meissner, and Shasheva to now demand compensation for property confiscated by Stalin's government.
Symbolic, But Neglected
Their case concerns Article 13 of the landmark 1991 law, which entitles those who lost their homes due to repression, and their children, to return to the cities their families inhabited before their exile and be placed on a waiting list for government accommodation. The landmark legislation marked the first time the Soviet government acknowledged its crimes against its own citizens and offered them compensation. It resulted in the rehabilitation of some 4 million people, and defined for the first time the concept of "political repression."
"It was a big symbolic gesture, largely because it expanded the time frame of repressions," says Kathleen Smith, a Georgetown University professor who has written extensively on the politics of memory in Russia. "They were now not just talking about the 1930s and '40s, but recognizing that repressions were part of the Soviet Union from Day 1, all the way to the political prisoners of the '70s and '80s."
But while ambitious, the legislation was not well fleshed out on a practical level. "It was more of a declarative law," Smith says. "It described broadly the different categories or types of victimization that had occurred, but in terms of its actual executable provisions, that part was never very much followed up on."
Introduced under President Vladimir Putin, whom critics accuse of actively downplaying dark episodes of the country's past, the amendments attached in 2005 further undermined the law's utility for repression victims seeking redress, as they imposed onerous requirements on claimants and made it all but impossible for people living outside of Moscow to qualify. It's those changes that the three women are challenging in the Constitutional Court.
Last Chance For Justice
For Mikhailova -- who 11 years ago relocated to Russia's Vladimir region from Moldova, a former Soviet republic where she was born into exile -- moving to Moscow of her own accord is a pipe dream. Vaypan's office calculated that money from the sale of her crumbling village house would buy a mere 5 square meters of real estate in the capital, based on official prices. The homes of Meissner and Shasheva are worth little more.
According to Yan Rachinsky of the human rights NGO Memorial, which has provided legal support for victims of repression and was instrumental in lobbying the 1991 law, there are no official statistics on how many victims of repression still live in exile in Russia. Based on a request for information that Vaypan's office sent to the Moscow commission on rehabilitation, 91 families were waiting for repatriation to the Russian capital as of 2016 -- but that number covers only Moscow and includes only those who managed to get on the housing list before the procedure was significantly toughened in 2005.
Vaypan and Rachinsky agree that the numbers across Russia likely total several thousand people. Almost all are now pensioners, and with an average waiting time of 30 years for government housing in Moscow, the few who manage to get on the list will probably never see the apartments they're due.
Despite the promises of the 1991 law, funds for compensating rehabilitated victims of repression have always been cut in favor of other priorities. Rachinsky, who says he has spoken to various Russian officials about this situation, accuses the government of "an absolutely cynical approach."
"They have no deliberate campaign against victims of repression," he says. "They're simply indifferent to them. And that's because this is a small contingent of society that has no importance electorally and won't organize protests. So there's no need to spend money on them."
'Children Of The Revolution'
On a recent visit to Mikhailova's home, protests appear to be the last thing on her mind. As she sits leafing through photographs of her father on a tattered sofa, she professes an ambivalent attitude toward Putin's government -- a reflection, perhaps, of the conflicted stance she says Semyon Mikhailov maintained, until his death in 1974, toward the system that upended his life.
"He never, ever criticized the Soviet state," she says. "And mother never criticized it either. It was their upbringing. They were children of the revolution."
She produces a crumpled photograph showing her sister Lenina, then 17, leaning over Semyon shortly after his first return from the camps in 1947. Lenina, who was named after Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, died in February at the age of 89, having spent her final years desperately hoping she would live to return to the city of her birth.
"My sister suffered through this terribly, but she didn't survive to see her dream come true," Mikhailova says. "And my father would be disappointed if I didn't bring this struggle to an end."
Mikhailova has progressive facial hemiatrophy, a disorder that has left her face disfigured and which she says was brought on by intense hunger and deprivation in childhood. Her left cheek collapsed when she was 3 years old, and she had to wait over 10 years before her parents were able to send her for treatment in Ukraine. She shudders when she recalls the conditions her family endured in exile.
"We've experienced such discrimination throughout our lives," she says. "Everyone suffered from this, you understand? My mother, my father, my sisters. They destroyed our family. Now they should at least compensate our property."