Documents on Russia

Documents on the communist terror are occasionally presented in Russia - such as in this museum on the Solovetsky Islands. But many records continue to be kept under lock and key by the FSB domestic intelligence service up to today. The early 1990s was the only time that historians had relatively good access to files. Memorial activists have, however, been able to collect a large number of documents. Additional records can be found in the KGB archives of the Baltic states.

Credit: Hubertus Knabe

The Russian Rehabilitation Law

Few photographs document the everyday life of prisoners in the Gulag. Artists have instead tried to capture the harsh living conditions in self-made pictures. This mural by Adam Schmidt is located in the cellar of the Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in Saint Petersburg. In Soviet times, the church served as a camp and swimming pool. The church was renovated after the end of communism, but Gulag victims have received hardly any financial support. The Russian rehabilitation law is to blame.

The human rights organization Memorial criticizes that the Russian legislature unequivocally condemned the terror of the Stalinist era only once - in the Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression of October 18, 1991. The preamble to the law states: "During the years of Soviet power, millions of people became victims of the state’s arbitrariness, were subjected to repression for their political and religious convictions, for social, national and other reasons. Condemning the many years of terror and mass persecution of our own people as incompatible with the idea of law and justice, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation bows down before the memory of those who guiltlessly suffered and perished, expresses its deep sympathy to the victims of these repressions and expresses unwavering effort to achieve the eliminate their consequences and the reestablishment of justice and civil rights .”

The rehabilitation law was passed before the Soviet Union dissolved and was later adopted by the Russian Federation. It was initially intended only for Soviet citizens, but after a joint declaration by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on the rehabilitation of innocent persecuted people, it was extended to foreigners in 1992. Several amendments were subsequently made to the law.

Article 1 provides a definition of political repression. The law understands it to mean politically motivated coercive measures by the Soviet state in the form of killing, deprivation of liberty, expulsion, banishment, forced labor, or other restrictions on liberty that were justified on the basis of the danger a person posed to society. The children of victims who shared the fate of their parents are also entitled to rehabilitation. Spouses, children and parents of those who were shot also qualify as victims of political repression.

Further articles elaborate on this definition. Persons convicted of alleged crimes against the state or who were otherwise suffered repression are to be rehabilitated. Regardless of the specific grounds, this applies in all cases of anti-Soviet propaganda or defamation of the Soviet state, alleged violations of the separation of church and state, and escapes from places of detention or exile. On the other hand, persons for whom evidence exists suggesting that they were guilty of espionage, terrorist acts, acts of violence during the war, war crimes, or other acts of violence are excluded from rehabilitation. But since the Soviet secret police often fabricated this kind of “evidence,” the authorities have considerable discretion in determining these offenses.

Decisions on a person’s rehabilitation are made by public prosecutor's offices, internal affairs authorities or the legal successors of the institution responsible for the measure. They have a maximum of three months to do so. In criminal cases, their decisions are based on documents from the Soviet State Security Service. Only rehabilitated persons have access to these records, however, which makes it difficult for affected persons to counter accusations if their claim is rejected. The only option open to them is appealing in court. The goal of the entire process is to obtain a rehabilitation decision, but in some cases the claimant only achieves a reduced sentence.

Very limited compensation is provided. For each month that a rehabilitated person was deprived of their liberty, the Russian state pays compensation amounting to 75 rubles (February 2021: 84 cents). The maximum amount one can receive is 10,000 rubles (112.49 euros). Confiscated property must be returned to rehabilitated persons or replaced – except if it has been officially nationalized. If restitution is not possible, those affected receive a maximum of 10,000 rubles (112.49 euros) in compensation. Banished persons are allowed to return to their former place of residence, where they must be provided with housing.

The state’s other obligations are more symbolic. Rehabilitated persons have the right to have rescinded military ranks, state awards and Russian citizenship returned to them. In addition, the state is required to release manuscripts, photographs, and other personal records contained in the files. Finally, authorities must disclose when, where, and how a victim of repression died. Unlike in other countries, regular payments are not provided in Russia - except for so-called social support measures, which include, for example, the right not to have to wait in line.

One provision of the law has basically never been applied in Russia: The obligation stipulated in Article 18 to punish those responsible for the reprisals and to publish their names in the press.

Click here for the text of the law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression (Russian/German).



Analysis of the Russian rehabilitation law

Political repression victims and perpetrators databases

Research database of the human rights organization Memorial (Russian)

KGB Archive in the Latvian National Archive (Latvian)

Special archive with KGB records in Lithuania 1940-1991

Documents on Russia and Soviet Union 1917-1991


After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison

A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg

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With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development