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For Victims of Repression, Russia's Compensation Plan Amounts to Small Potatoes

GEORGY SHAMBURANT was only two years old in 1917, the year a battalion of Bolshevik soldiers invaded his family estate and ``nationalized'' all their property and possessions.

Seized was the profitable sugar plantation, which Mr. Shamburant's family had owned for decades. The wine factory slipped into the hands of strangers. The horse farm was given ``back to the people.'' Not even the acres of potatoes and beets that had helped to feed generations of Shamburants were spared.

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In an attempt to right long-standing wrongs, the government announced this week that it would pay compensation for property seized in political repressions since the Soviet state was founded in 1917. But the law specifies a maximum payment of only 2 million rubles [about $1,000], and while it allows for some possessions to be returned, it states that nobility cannot reclaim estates, pre-1917 capitalists cannot get back their factories or houses, and victims of mass collectivization campaigns cannot have land returned.

``Those of us who had their property nationalized doubt we'll get any money because it's not written in the new law,'' says Shamburant, a retired engineer who volunteers at Memorial, an influential lobbying group that aids victims of political repression. ``But my father-in-law was a well-known lawyer, and he had his writing desk, his table, his typewriter, and all his books taken from him,'' he adds. ``We should get some compensation for that.''

The Aug. 12 decree, which took effect after it was published on Monday, is considered an important step toward ridding Russia of its Communist past, as well as an acknowledgment of the myriad injustices committed by leaders of the Soviet state. But activists doubt the order is anything more than a paper pledge. Most say it will hardly affect the people for whom it is designed - those who suffered under Stalin's ``Great Purges'' of 1936-1939, the descendants of kulaks, or well-to-do farmers whose property was redistributed in the name of the Soviet state, and entire ethnic groups that were forcibly exiled to Central Asia and Siberia.

The order, which applies to former Soviets, foreigners, and their children, could send millions of people clambering to government offices for repayment. Memorial estimates that more than 7,000 victims of Joseph Stalin's repressions live in Moscow alone.

But the complicated bureaucratic procedure involved makes it doubtful that many will have success. To receive compensation, claimants must provide proof of original ownership or material confirming property loss. In most cases, such records no longer exist. If the original owner has died, relatives must provide detailed descriptions of property and possessions, and may have to produce two eyewitnesses. Appeals must be made in the region the repression occurred, resulting in travel costs perhaps higher than the compensation.

``The money is nothing by today's prices. What's 2 million rubles?'' Shamburant says. ``If a person had a house, some land, and two or three horses, that's worth a lot more than 2 million.''

Russian press reports say the government has allocated 750 billion rubles this year to pay compensation. But that money is nothing to people who lost estates, factories, and land, let alone those whose priceless paintings, jewelry, and other family heirlooms were seized. ``I don't think 2 million rubles is too small,'' government spokeswoman Marina Nekrasova told the Monitor, defending the landmark decision. ``We have to take into account our budget limitations.''

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The law also says the government will return homes to ethnic groups such as the Chechens, Ingush, and Kalmyks, which were exiled from their birthplaces during World War II after Stalin accused them of Nazi collaboration.

``The repressed nations have been thrown a bone,'' Memorial spokeswoman Nadezhda Bogatikova told the Moscow Times. ``Now they will demand what's rightfully theirs, but there is no mechanism for the government to take away homes from their present owners. I am certain there will be violence, and blood will be spilled.''

But for people like Shamburant, there are some losses for which the government will never be able to compensate.

In 1920, the Soviet secret police arrested Shamburant's father, Grigory, because they mistook him for his brother, who was an officer in the White Army, which fought the Bolsheviks. Grigory was eventually released, but was rearrested in 1927 and spent five years in a labor camp in the notorious Solovki Islands. In 1938, he was arrested for the final time: Two weeks later he was shot.

Despite the turmoil inflicted on his family, Shamburant has retained a certain optimism. ``It's not this government that liquidated people's property,'' he says philosophically. ``Today's Russia shouldn't have to answer for Stalin's gulag regime.''

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