Thursday, May 12, 2016

Moscow Helsinki Group at 40 – Human Rights Activism under Brezhnev and under Putin

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 12 – This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights group that arose as a result of the Helsinki Accords, an east-west agreement that both Soviet and Russian leaders see as having only geopolitical consequences but that in fact helped to focus the world’s attention on Moscow’s repressions then and now.

            As Radio Liberty’s Elena Plyakovskaya points out, many Soviet dissidents did not understand the possibilities that the Helsinki Accords opened for them and their country.  Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the president of the organization since 1996, was one of them (

            As she tells Plyakovskaya, initially, she was disappointed by the Helsinki Accord’s approach to human rights which enumerated specific ones but was far less comprehensive than the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the physicist Yury Orlov recognized that Helsinki was enforceable in ways the Declaration was not.

            He recognized, Alekseyeva says, that because Helsinki was “an agreement among states,” it set a standard against which all could be judged and thus held accountable at least in the increasingly powerful court of public opinion.  That was the genesis of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and it has certainly achieved far more in that regard than many thought possible then.

            As Alekseyeva notes, “the establishment of the Moscow Helsinki Group did not stop the repressive machine. Arrests of its members began almost immediately and some were forced to emigrate,” including Alekseyeva herself.  Only two or three of the original members remained at large in the Soviet Union.

            But with the coming of Gorbachev’s times, the group was able to resume its work under the presidency of Laarisa Bogoraz. And it was assisted in its work by corresponding organizations in Lithuania, Georgia and elsewhere in the USSR, working closely with the broader democratic movement and contributing to the dismantling of the Soviet system.

            On this “round” anniversary, not surprisingly, many are comparing what conditions were like for human rights activists under the aging but still repressive Leonid Brezhnev and the increasingly impressive Vladimir Putin.  No one denies that as of now, the situation in Russia is better overall; but the comparisons with 40 years ago are far from all in favor of today.

            Interviewed by Rosbalt, Valery Borshchev, a long-serving members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, seeks to provide a balance sheet, noting that the group has achieved a great deal but that relations between human rights activists and the broader democratic fraternity have deteriorated (

                When the Moscow Helsinki Group was established, he says, there was solidarity between human rights activists and those in the democratic movement. Facing the threat of arrests and repression, members of each helped each other out even if they disagreed on this or that situation or action.

            But now that level of cooperation has broken down, in large part because many of the aims of the groups have been achieved but also because to “slander the opposition is good tone” in much of Russian society. And that in turn has led to the kind of criticism and divisions between and among the groups that the authorities have promoted and exploited.

            It has also had a consequence that Borshchev himself is too polite to mention: many Russians who are committed to democratic values no longer see the defense of human rights in general as being at the center of their concerns.  And as a result, the Putin regime has had much less difficulty hijacking some of their goals under its rubric of “managed democracy.”


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