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Russia's 'Children of the Gulag' battle to return home after exile

MOSCOW/ZOLOTKOVSKY RAZEZD (Reuters) - Living in a wooden hut 300 km from Moscow, Elizaveta Mikhaylova feels trapped in the same forced exile imposed on her family during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror when her father was sent to the Gulag prison camps.

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The 72-year-old is one of a dwindling group of about 1,500 pensioners or “Children of the Gulag” who were promised housing in their families’ home cities by the government after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 but have received nothing 30 years later.

Mikhaylova was born in exile in the Soviet republic of Moldova after her father was banished from Moscow as an “enemy of the people”. She was kept there by Soviet restrictions on freedom of movement, but later made her way back to Russia after selling the family flat.

That was enough to buy a simple hut near a railway line five hours drive from Moscow where she lives with her two adult daughters on a monthly pension of $220. They burn wood to keep warm in winter, there’s scant mobile coverage, and no hot water.

Her older sister, Lenina, lived there until she died in 2019 during their long struggle to return to Moscow.

“I regret so much that she didn’t live to see it (a return to the Russian capital). I really regret it. It’s possible her health just couldn’t cope with the current conditions we live in,” says Mikhaylova, who first met her father at the age of eight when he returned from a second stint in the camps.

As their numbers have dwindled over the years, the plight of the children of the Gulag often looked a lost cause until late 2019 when Mikhaylova and two other elderly women won appeals in Russia’s Constitutional Court.

It ruled that they were eligible for housing in Moscow, rejecting snags in their applications, and, more broadly, told the government to fast-track their and all other such housing applications.

Mikhaylova’s claim had been held up by an earlier Moscow court ruling that only her father was explicitly exiled from Moscow and that her mother could have continued living there alone and given birth to Elizaveta without him.

The fate of her and many other claims remains unclear. Online petitions signed by 80,000 Russians and more than 100 public figures have urged the government step in.

Critics say a bill drafted by the government to implement the Constitutional Court ruling fails to remove bureaucratic obstacles that could make claimants wait another 30 years for housing.

NGOs and lawmakers have drafted rival legislation they say would expedite the claims. Lawmakers in parliament are set to discuss the two bills this month and to choose between them.

Mikhaylova said she would be watching closely. “We’re not where we want to be and not where we should be. This is exile.”

Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Giles Elgood