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Compensation Program for Property Seized by Soviets Not All-Inclusive : Russia: Tight limits on restitution may work against need to build confidence that the state will respect private ownership.

August 24, 1994|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — For all you heirs of dispossessed Russian counts out there, wondering if you might someday get the old family estate back, the Justice Ministry sent a clear signal Tuesday: Don't hold your breath.

The Kremlin had announced new procedures Monday for returning or paying for "illegally confiscated property," raising the prospect that Russia might go the way of much of Eastern Europe, giving back castles and farms to their pre-Soviet owners.

But Deputy Justice Minister Anatoly M. Stepanov clarified Tuesday that, although Russia is beginning to accept claims from victims of Soviet political repression who lost their property, it is not about to begin wholesale compensation for everything the Bolshevik regime seized.

Nothing that was nationalized will be returned, nor will property lost because of war, Stepanov said. No land will be given back. Only property that was confiscated from people convicted, exiled or killed for "political" crimes is included, he said.

Still, he praised the compensation rules as "the next, very important step in the further democratization of our society, in the further reform of our country."

Reformers here are trying hard to convince Russians that private property will remain sacrosanct, despite the historical traditions of the old Communist regime, which seized property from nobles, the Russian Orthodox Church, farmers and others.

Until Russians believe the state will not take away all they own, they will refuse to buy into the new capitalism and will continue to invest billions of dollars abroad instead of at home. And to instill that belief, reformers say, the government must begin to redress the injustices of the Communist confiscations.

But the scale of the legal tangles Moscow will face if it tries to give everything back far outdoes anything in the Czech Republic or the Baltics. The prospects are so unnerving that the government does not even appear to be contemplating such a move. Instead, at this point at least, it has opted for the largely symbolic value of the new rules on property return and compensation.

And actually, considering the sorry state of the Russian budget, the government has gone well beyond mere symbolism, allotting 750 billion rubles (about $355 million) for property claims for 1994 alone.

For the victims of repression, however, the compensation's limits are almost laughable. The maximum that can be paid out on any one claim is 2 million rubles (about $950) if the confiscated property itself cannot be returned.

And it was unclear what the rules would mean for Chechens, Ingush and other former Soviet peoples who suffered mass deportations under dictator Josef Stalin and whose homes were then occupied by others. Conflicts over such cases have already led to bloodshed in Ingushetia and elsewhere.

The compensation money comes in addition to benefits the victims of repression have already received, ranging from free rides on public transport to a onetime payment--also modest--for every month they spent imprisoned unjustly.

Millions of people--some believe as many as 20 million--were killed and imprisoned under Stalin, and few of those who suffered the repression are still alive to stake a claim. But their heirs have the right to property or compensation, the new rules say. Foreigners are eligible to apply, but the exact procedure by which they should go about it has not been worked out yet.

At the Memorial Society, the main Russian group dedicated to documenting and redressing Stalinist repression, activists welcomed the new rules. "This is definitely a step forward and, although modest, a sign of progress and hope that those people who were unfairly punished will not be left stranded," said memorial activist Alexander Daniel.

Daniel warned, however, that the new procedures would run into problems because the special commissions that are supposed to decide which claims are justified do not exist yet.

As for the idea that the government might some day give back all that its Soviet predecessor confiscated--he dismissed it out of hand.

"You see, for over 70 years, the Communists robbed the people. They managed to appropriate most of the property in Russia," he said. "I don't really see how all this property illegally confiscated from the people starting from Nov. 7, 1917, could be returned to the victims. It would be totally unrealistic."

It does appear that certain chunks will, indeed, be given back, though. Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin said Monday that the government is preparing a decree to give back all the property that had been seized from the Russian Orthodox Church under the Communist regime's policy of militant atheism. Many Russian churches have been used for decades as warehouses, and at least one was revamped into a hockey rink.

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