Born in the Great Purge, 70 years in exile

Nizhny Odes, Russia – Long lines to buy milk, toilet paper and other necessities have been disappearing in Russia for decades. But one line has only grown – and Yevgeniya B. Shasheva has kept on standing in line.

That’s 70 years.

That’s all the Time since she was born in a remote part of Russia. Her Family was forced into exile from Moscow during Stalin’s “Great Purge” in the 1930s, when millions of people were executed or died in prison camps.

Shasheva said she has been waiting to move to the Russian capital for the past 70 years.

A ruling by Russia’s Constitutional Court in 2019 ordered the government to provide the “children of the gulag,” estimated at about 1,500, with the financial means to move back to the city where their Parents lived before they were deported by Stalin.

Parliament was supposed to discuss the matter last month, but the issue was removed from the agenda. Now the process has come to a complete standstill, leaving Shasheva still in line to apply for public housing in Moscow, with nearly 55,000 people ahead of her.

So she continues to wait. She lives 800 miles away in Nizhny Odes, an off-the-beaten-path town where the streets are frequented by wild bears.

Shasheva’s family was persecuted in Kemdin in northern Russia during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, causing her to grow up in a special settlement here. EMILE DUCKE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

“In Russia, people are still living in Soviet exile,” says Grigory V. Vaypan, a Harvard-trained lawyer. He has taken over Shasheva’s case in the Russian courts. “Many people have been living in exile for 70 to 80 years since their birth.”

The Russian government acknowledges that terrible crimes were committed under Stalin, but dealing with the consequences of those crimes has become increasingly difficult as the Kremlin tries to focus on Russia’s past glory rather than its pain.

In 1991, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, the government granted the victims of repression the right to return to their homes. It also ordered the state to provide them and their children with housing in their places of origin. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union that year, the country was in chaos, the government had little money and the law was largely ignored.

Even though things began to improve in Russia a decade later, with oil prices soaring after Vladimir V. Putin became president, there was no interest in focusing on the problems caused by Stalin’s brutal rule. So instead of helping the victims return to their homes, as the law required, Moscow shifted that responsibility to the regional governments.

This led to a series of Kafkaesque requirements: to qualify for public housing in Moscow, victims had to first live in the city for 10 years, be paid less than the minimum wage, and not own property. As a result, the procedures for providing people with apartments mostly came to a halt.

Shasheva’s father lived on this street in Moscow before he was sent to the Gulag.EMILE DUCKE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

For Shasheva’s family, their origins made it difficult to be spared from Stalin’s political terror. Her father, Boris N. Cheboksarov, belonged to a wealthy Swiss-born family of businessmen, and for such an identity, it was only a matter of time before they were targeted by the Secret Police.

The family’s forced exile began in 1937 when Cheboksarov was arrested in a central Moscow apartment while working in the Food industry. He was accused of being a Japanese spy and sent to work in a mine in the northern Komi region.

His father, who had attended university in Lausanne, was also arrested and shot, also accused of being a Japanese spy.

Stalin had not yet sent the prisoners to build the railroad to the northern end of the country, so Cheboksarov had to walk hundreds of miles through coniferous forests to get to the labor camp.

Anatoly M. Abramov, 81, said that in the mines he “worked like a slave” like the other prisoners. He lived near the camp as a child and is one of the few surviving witnesses.

Although Cheboksarov was released from the camp in 1945, he was forced to stay behind as an engineer and live outside the fence. There, he met Galina, Shasheva’s mother. She had been interned in a Nazi labor camp during World War II, but the Russians still accused her of colluding with Germany and exiled her.

What Shasheva remembers most about her childhood spent near a Stalinist concentration camp is the cold. Once, she and her father took a truck to a nearby town. The vehicle broke down and while waiting for help, they removed the wooden parts of the vehicle to burn a fire to keep warm.

“Otherwise, it would have taken less than an hour for us to freeze to death,” said Shasheva, who speaks with her father’s Moscow accent, despite never having lived in the Russian capital herself. The harsh climate, combined with dim winters and short summers of mosquito bites, also affected her health: as a child, she contracted tuberculosis due to poor local medical care.

Shasheva is pictured as a child with her parents. Despite never having lived in the Russian capital, she speaks with her father’s Moscow accent.EMILE DUCKE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

After Putin came to power, these memories were deliberately suppressed.

From his early days in the Kremlin, he has stressed the need to honor Soviet achievements, especially its role in defeating Nazi Germany, and to downplay the parallels between Stalin’s reign of terror and Hitler’s. To ensure that a more desirable version of history dominates, the Kremlin has imposed severe restrictions on historians, researchers and advocacy groups that focus on the Gulag and related memory studies.

Groups that lobby to help people like Shasheva are also under increasing pressure. Memorial, the preeminent civil society group in the field, was declared a foreign agent in 2012. Yuri Dmitriev, the historian who discovered a Stalin-era mass grave in northwestern Russia, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for what many believe was a wrongful death.

Shasheva’s efforts to return to Moscow have become difficult as a result.

“The Russian government wants to control the subject,” said Nikolay Epplee, an independent researcher. He has written a monograph on how the government has responded to unpleasant periods in its history. “No matter who goes independently, they get squeezed out.”

Last November, the Russian State Duma debated a solution by Shasheva and others, but that sparked complaints from some lawmakers who said victims of the Stalin era and their descendants born during exile wanted to cut in on the issue of social housing.

The government eventually finalized a program that would put the families of repression victims in line for 20 years.

Voypan, Shasheva’s lawyer, led the effort to urge changes to the draft legislation. His campaign to help the gulag children has attracted thousands of supporters, including many civil society organizations.

Last December, at a prisoner cemetery outside Kemdin, Shasheva laid flowers in front of a Russian Orthodox cross to mourn the victims of political repression.

As she walked through her father’s labor camp back then, Shasheva said she had no choice but to keep trying to leave Nizhniy Novgorod and return to Moscow, the true Home of her heart.

Although 800 miles away, Shasheva considers herself a Muscovite. In her Dreams about the city, she imagines herself lost in the hustle and bustle of the streets.

“One thing I love about Moscow is that when it’s dark, you can walk through the crowds and see what’s going on around you,” she says. “I just want to feel the everyday Life. You can’t do that here.”

Yet even as she managed to find a place to live in Moscow, other concerns lingered.

“I’m still worried that the repression will come back,” Shasheva said. “It’s a deep-seated thought in my mind, a deep-rooted fear in the hearts of all victims of repression.”