The GULAG Legacy: Russia’s Story Of An Unconfronted Past And The Potential For A Corrupt Future

For most, the destructive earthquakes of concentration camps and mass-murdering dictators are a very distant memory, if not simply an ephemeral moment in twentieth-century history. For a group of 1500 Russians, however, the aftershocks of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror still rumble beneath their feet. Children of victims under Stalinism (known as “Children of the GULAGs”) have in recent weeks brought a class action lawsuit before Russia’s Supreme Court. This follows the government’s consistent failure to uphold the 1991 and 2019 rulings of Russia’s Constitutional Court, whereby GULAG children were guaranteed the right to return to their pre-exile homes.

The 1991 law for the “Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression” obliges Russian authorities to compensate people exiled or arrested and sent to GULAG prison camps, and their children born inside them. Many who experienced and survived the repression first-hand have died, but the ever-dwindling group of children are now fighting for their right to return. There was hope in 2019 when three elderly women won appeals in Russia’s Constitutional Court. The court ruled that they were eligible for housing in Moscow and insisted that the government fast-track the women’s housing applications, as well as any that were similar. But this was largely ignored by the government. As a result, victims of repression are added to the bottom of the housing waiting list, with a queue that stands at 15 years, and in some regions 25-30.

Now, sixteen women and seven men are demanding that the promises made are fulfilled. The case put forward in court consisted of evidence showing that the confiscated flats were often given to repressive officials. The BBC reports that in Moscow between 17 August 1937 and 1 October 1938, out of 6,887 rooms taken, 6,053 were given to NKVD members (a state organization which carried out functions of the secret police as well as oversaw the running of the country’s prison and labour camps). A group of parliamentarians has made a series of propositions suggesting the GULAG children receive federal payments that would allow them to buy housing where they are eligible to return. However, the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia) has turned a blind eye. Earlier this year, Reuters reported the death of an elderly GULAG child, whose living conditions had likely precipitated her poor health.

Seen as one of the primary instruments of Soviet political repression, the GULAGs were a series of forced labour camps set up by order of Vladimir Lenin. They reached their peak under Stalin’s rule until his death in 1953. At this point, a period known as the “thaw” or “destalinization” began under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. The effects and even existence of the GULAGs have been largely underplayed by Russia and received little international attention until the Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1973. At this time, however, the western world was flooded by the thought of French Postmodern intellectuals who, in order to keep alive their philosophy that finds its origins in Marxism, wished to shroud the horror of Russia’s past.

Nowadays, people rarely know to what extent people suffered in the Soviet Union under communism, and whilst a mention of nazism is enough to make one shiver in fear, communism has not accrued the same distaste nor been condemned by international figures to such a great degree. Statistics vary, but it is generally assumed that the Soviet death toll ranged from 15 to 60 million, far higher than figures relating to the holocaust.

This does not belittle the atrocities of Nazism. But unlike Germany, which has nationally condemned the actions of its former leaders and made definitive steps to avoid repeating the past (not to mention it is now considered as one of the major players on the European scene), the Russian state, despite the well-known denunciation of Stalin by Khrushchev in 1956, has never been forced to fully accept the terrible weight of its past. It even goes as far as to memorialize Lenin and Stalin as heroes in the centre of Red Square. By failing to condemn the sins of the past, they become unconsciously condoned in the present, and now, in Russia, we are seeing the long-term consequences of an past unaddressed.

The current GULAG situation thus runs far deeper than simply a failure to house a group of elderly people. It is an assumption that what happened in the Soviet Union could be considered acceptable. Some NGOs and lawmakers drafted rival legislation earlier this year, saying they would attempt to expedite the claims made in 2019. Still, the lasting effects of one of the most murderous regimes in modern history goes quite unnoticed at an international level. An online petition has been signed by only 80,000 Russians, which, here in the United Kingdom, falls below the requisite amount of 100,000 signatures needed for it to be even debated in parliament. Additionally, only a measly number of public figures have urged the government to step in.

Now, not only do exiled GULAG children remain without recompense, but under President Vladimir Putin’s totalitarian regime, former repressive techniques are still entrenched within the political system, despite no longer being inspired by a murderous Marxist ideology. Take Putin’s vociferous political antagonist, Alexei Navalny, his poisoning and incarceration in a prison described by his team and former convicts in a not-too-dissimilar vein to Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago. Or the excessive wealth of its politicians (seen notably in the recent revelation of “Putin’s Palace”), bribed by businessmen and the super-rich oligarchs. Can it be, that Russia has become so blind to its own corruption that it has lost sight of what true democracy is?

Of course, it is not for the present leaders to bear the heavy guilt for the mistakes of their predecessors, but it falls upon them to work ceaselessly to rectify, rebuild, and restore. The accusations from GULAG children are not calls for vengeance or destruction, but a desire to find atonement and peace for the ills of the past, a desire to rekindle trust between the people and state. One potential solution is for those who have thus far profited from the system to help provide the necessary recompense for those who have been stripped of their possessions. For that to occur, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of the country’s past, preventing Stalin and Lenin from being worshiped and praised as saviors of the people – what precedent does that set for the incumbent leaders?

Russia is a country that possesses more than the necessary natural resources and money to amend these issues, but whilst oil and gas are in abundance, the key question remains: how far must the Russian people bore down before they finally strike justice?

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