Thursday, October 1, 2020

Yury Orlov, who Used Helsinki Final Act to Organize Soviet Dissent and Help End the USSR, Dies at 96

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 29 – The Helsinki Final Act played a critical role in leading to the end of the division of Europe and the demise of the USSR, an especially remarkable outcome because Moscow assumed that it marked the West’s recognition of a Soviet sphere of influence and of the borders Stalin had established for that country at the end of World War II.

            And no single individual played a larger role in using the Helsinki Final Act against the communist dictatorship than Yury Orlov, who died in the United States this week at 96 but who almost half a century ago used that accord’s provision that all signatories must observe human rights to organize the Moscow Helsinki Group and undermine the communist bloc. 

            After the final act was signed in August 1975, several Soviet dissidents recognized that its provisions could be used to challenge the Soviet system; but only Orlov was able to organize this small, embattled and fractious collection of people into an organization capable of attracting the attention of the world.

            On May 12, 1976, he announced the foundation of the Moscow Helsinki Group which initially included 11 people including among others Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Elena Bonner, Petr Grigorenko, Anatoly Marchenko and Natan Sharansky (

            The Soviet authorities quickly recognized the seriousness of this challenge to their rule and began arresting its members. Orlov was sentenced to seven years in the camps and five years in exile, but in 1989, he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled from the USSR in exchange for a Soviet agent. He remained in the US the rest of his life.

            The Moscow Helsinki Group managed to continue to function until 1982 when all of its members were either in prison or forced to emigrate. But in 1989, it was reestablished under the leadership of Alekseyeva. After her death, it was headed by Vyacheslav Bakhmin and Valery Borshchev.

            On the occasion of Orlov’s death, Bakhmin recalled that before Orlov, “there were no serious organizational forms” among Soviet dissidents. He almost singlehandedly unified people into a movement that began in Moscow but spread to the non-Russian republics and attracted the attention of the world to the horrors of Sovietism.

            Orlov had been a dissident for two decades before he organized this group, Bakhmin says. In the 1950s, he spoke out against Stalinist repressions and then became a physicist who worked in Armenia before ultimately returning to Moscow. He was fearless and worried less about his own arrest than about how the organization would continue after it.

            The Moscow Helsinki Group became the model for counterparts in many republics of the USSR, including Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and Lithuania, the current group leader says. “This was a movement inside the Soviet Union, but it spread to the entire world because such groups were also set up in other countries of the socialist camp.”

            The Soviet leadership recognized that these groups were a serious threat to the regime. “This was no longer simply a clutch of dissidents who would come up in Pushkin Square once a year and then go home. This was a certain consistent intensive work because the documents of the Moscow Helsinki Group were put out regularly on various occasions,” Bakhmin says.

            And “these were not simply political declarations but collections with specific data showing how the USSR violated the agreements it had signed while engaging in various kinds of political and economic repressions,” he continues. The group ensured that the whole world knew about this and therefore the Soviet leadership wasn’t pleased.

            Others in the dissident movement were perhaps better known, but no one played a more critical role in showing the way to move from a handful of fractious dissidents that the regime could pick off one by one to a movement it could not defeat that Yury Orlov. May he rest in peace with the gratitude of all of us for what he achieved. 

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