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In Landmark Decision, Russia's Constitutional Court Grants Compensation To Victims Of Repression

(Left to right:) Alisa Meissner, Yelizaveta Mikhailova, and Yevgenia Shasheva at Russia's Constitutional Court
(Left to right:) Alisa Meissner, Yelizaveta Mikhailova, and Yevgenia Shasheva at Russia's Constitutional Court

MOSCOW -- Russia’s Constitutional Court has backed a claim by three Russian women who are fighting for the restitution of homes seized from their families during Stalin-era purges, in a landmark ruling highlighting the lingering effects of Soviet-era crimes.

In its ruling on December 10, the court in St. Petersburg said Yelizaveta Mikhailova, Alisa Meissner, and Yevgenia Shasheva -- three pension-age women born in exile to parents repressed under Soviet leader Josef Stalin -- had been unfairly kept off a waiting list for state-subsidized housing in Moscow due to cumbersome requirements they had no prospect of fulfilling.

It also instructed the government to amend legislation barring other victims of repression from achieving restitution and called on Russia's regions to fast-track compensation for the hundreds that may still be waiting to receive housing.

"This is an important recognition by the government that the rights of victims of repression are still not being recognized, and that they deserve compensation," Grigory Vaypan, the lawyer representing the three women, told RFE/RL after the decision.

"It's a symbolic ruling, and an important step toward closing this chapter of Russia’s history."

Reached by phone, Meissner, who today lives in spartan conditions just 70 kilometers from the "special settlement" to which her family was exiled in the 1930s, and where she was born, said she was still familiarizing herself with the court ruling.

Meissner said, however, that she hoped the process of restitution would happen quickly.

"I don't even know what to say," she said.

"For my family, this decision means the improvement of the lives we've led for so long. We will live better."

The case of Mikhailova, Meissner, and Shasheva concerns Article 13 of a landmark 1991 law outlining the process of rehabilitating victims of political repression and aimed at establishing procedures for compensating persecuted families.

It entitled anyone who lost their home due to repression, as well as their children, to return to the cities their families lived in before their exile and be placed on a waiting list for government accommodation.

The landmark legislation marked the first time the Soviet government acknowledged the crimes it committed against its own citizens and offered them compensation.

But on a practical level, critics said the process of compensating the thousands of repression victims was slow and excessively bureaucratic and met with pushback in the 1990s from officials who sought to move the country from morale-sapping discussions of the harrowing past.

Amendments to the law in 2005 further undermined the legislation’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 claimants challenged in a hearing that took place at the Constitutional Court on October 22, only the second time in Russia's history that a lawsuit concerning victims of Soviet-era repressions has reached the court.

In a heated debate that played out in its cavernous halls, Mikhail Barshchevsky, the government’s representative in Russia's higher courts, demanded that action be taken to rectify the injury caused to the three women’s families.

"The state destroyed [their] lives," he said.

"But we, together, are the state today. And if we don't answer for the actions of the state that was, then just think what fate awaits our descendants," he added.

In its decision, the Constitutional Court challenged the text of the 2005 amendment and argued that it contravenes legislation safeguarding repression victims' right to compensation.

It instructed the government to "immediately make changes" to relevant laws in accordance with the new ruling, paving the way for other such cases in the future.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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