'A lifetime sentence': children of the gulag fight to return from exile

Millions of Soviet citizens were sent to vast network of prison camps under Stalin. Now their descendants seek recompense

Alisa Meissner (C) is seen in Russia’s constitutional court alongside other descendants of Gulag survivors.
Alisa Meissner (C) is seen in Russia’s constitutional court alongside other descendants of Gulag survivors. Photograph: Alexander Koryakov
Alisa Meissner (C) is seen in Russia’s constitutional court alongside other descendants of Gulag survivors. Photograph: Alexander Koryakov
Andrew Roth
in Moscow
Tue 23 Feb 2021 01.00 EST

Alisa Meissner is paying to this day for the Soviet Union’s decision to exile her whole family from Moscow for their German heritage.

She still lives in a town just 30 miles from the gulag village where her family were sent in the 1940s after the outbreak of the second world war. And despite the rehabilitation of her exiled family, the denunciation of Joseph Stalin and the collapse of the Soviet Union, she has never been able to leave.

“It’s been a lifetime sentence,” she says during an interview from a small town in the Kirov region, 600 miles east of Moscow. “My mother died here. She was exiled and was never able to return. And I am getting older. But I want to live. And I want to live in Moscow.”

Millions of Soviet citizens were exiled to the vast gulag network of prison camps under Stalin for real and imagined crimes, dissent against the government, and even, like the Meissners, as punishment for belonging to “untrustworthy” ethnic groups like Germans.

Now she and 1,500 other descendants of exiles under Stalin, the “children of the gulag”, are closely following a legislative battle that could decide whether or not they are given some small compensation for the lives that were taken away from them.

In Meissner’s case, that would mean an apartment in Russia’s capital where, before the Russian revolution, her relatives owned a famous pharmacy that now houses a crystal shop and a French restaurant.

It is a struggle that has dragged on for 30 years, exposing bureaucratic dysfunction and political foot-dragging as many of those waiting for help have aged into their 70s.

“They’re all thinking that we’re old and are waiting for us to disappear from the face of the earth,” she says. “But we want to live, and we will live to spite everyone.”

There was little hope for the children of gulag prisoners until they won a 2019 constitutional court case in a surprise decision that would help them fast-track housing applications. But that victory could be undermined by new legislation that could put them in decades-long queues for housing and shift the financial burden away from Russia’s federal budget.

A temporary work camp as seen in 1930, in what is now the Arkhangelsk region in northern Russia.
A temporary work camp as seen in 1930, in what is now the Arkhangelsk region in northern Russia. Photograph: Gulag History Museum

The Memorial NGO, a human rights organisation researching crimes under the Soviet Union, and civil activists have presented alternative legislation that they say will provide relief now. A decision is likely to be made by Russia’s State Duma lower house in the next month.

Grigory Vaipan, a lawyer who represented Meissner and other claimants in the constitution court, says many politicians do not want to discuss the problems facing the victims of Soviet repressions.

“Soviet repressions are an awkward topic for the current Russian government,” says Vaipan. “The people who are in power now in Russia want to underline the successes and accomplishments of the Soviet period. And not speak about the darker moments of Russian history in the 20th century.”

Roman Romanov, the director of Moscow’s Gulag History Museum, which has expanded considerably in recent years, says there has been progress in recognising repressions under Stalin but that bureaucracy remains one of the main reasons for the delay in aid to his victims.

“The fact that it’s stalling is indicative of where we are right now,” he says. “Deputies say it’s an economic problem. But there’s no united desire to settle this issue.”

After the outbreak of the second world war, Meissner’s family was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1941, where her grandfather died within a year. Her mother was sent to Russia’s Kirov region in 1943 to work in a logging town. They were moved on to the town of Ozhmegovo in the same region in 1949.

“There was a police station where they constantly had to check in,” she says of the town, where she was born in 1950. “There were a lot of exiles. There was barely anywhere to live.”

Meissner was given permission as a four-year-old to leave Ozhmegovo in 1954 and her mother was allowed to leave in 1956. But they never managed to move because her father was the town’s only blacksmith and Soviet authorities would not let him leave.

He died in Ozhmegovo in 1977 and her mother died there in 1988, as the town and its collective farm transformed into a ghost town that is now barely reachable by road.

“The only people left there are those who can’t leave,” she says.

Other descendants of gulag survivors are also trapped in towns and villages awaiting support from the government. Activists have sought to promote the stories of the children of the gulag, including a special project called Back Home sponsored by the Memorial NGO.

Interest from public figures, including Yury Dud, one of Russia’s most popular young journalists, have renewed public interest in repressions under the Soviet Union. Dud last year released a video on the gulag camps in Kolyma, subtitled “Birthplace of our Fear”, which was watched more than 24m times.

At the same time, Romanov says there was a drop-off in interest in repressions among younger Russians. Polls have indicated a renewed support for Stalin as a positive figure in Russian history. “This is a traumatic chapter that is taking many decades for Russians to process,” he says.

Meissner and her husband managed to leave Ozhmegovo and move to a neighbouring town in the late 1980s. She has visited Moscow occasionally, she says, to drop by the flat that her family used to own – she was not allowed in – and to visit a German cemetery where her grandmother and her relatives from the famed Ferrein family are buried.

The documents confirming that she and her family have been rehabilitated “don’t mean anything, you just get 50% off your utilities,” she says.

But even at 70, she says, she is ready to move house as soon as possible.

“I’m expecting that we will win,” she says. “I very much don’t want us to have gone through all of this in vain.”