35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The Moscow Helsinki Group 40th Anniversary

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Published: May 12, 2016
Briefing Book #548

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton
Web production by Rinat Bikineyev
For more information, call or email: 202.994.7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Flagship Russian human rights organization started monitoring abuses in 1976

Newly published documents show Soviet reversal of prison sentence against founder Yuri Orlov

Washington D.C., May 12, 2016 – The legendary Moscow Helsinki Group celebrates its 40th anniversary today, marking four decades since the day in 1976 when dissident physicist Yuri Orlov gathered a small group of activists in the apartment of academician Andrei Sakharov to establish what is now the oldest functioning human rights organization in Russia. The Moscow Helsinki Group became the inspiration for a wave of human rights activism throughout the Soviet Union and its empire, and despite repression in the Soviet years and severe pressure against civil society in today’s Russia, the Group continues its leadership role in monitoring individual cases of abuses by the authorities and advocating for universal rights.

To honor the anniversary, the National Security Archive today is publishing a series of Soviet-era Russian and American documents including for the first time in English the Soviet court’s fascinating reversal in 1990 of Yuri Orlov’s 1978 prison sentence for his dissident activities and writings. The original prosecution, under Article 70 of the Soviet criminal code which banned anti-Soviet agitation, had found that Orlov’s protest letters about human rights abuses were “slanderous fabrications defaming the Soviet government and social structure in order to undermine and weaken the Soviet state.” 

But in 1990, during the glasnost and perestroika period led by Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Republic annulled the 1978 verdict, finding that Orlov’s letters and activities “cannot be counted as anti-Soviet agitation” since “[t]hey express criticism addressed to particular state agencies and leaders… regarding the noncompliance with specific points of international agreements on human rights….” The court found that the previous verdict did not take “into account that criticism of the shortcomings existing in the country in the political, economic, cultural, and other spheres of public life does not constitute a crime….”

This vindication came years after the Soviet government under Gorbachev had pulled Orlov from internal exile (after 7 years in the labor camps) and sent him to the United States in 1986 as part of the resolution of a spy scandal and the preparations for the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and President Reagan. Today’s posting includes the brief summary of Orlov’s case prepared for Reagan’s national security adviser John Poindexter during those 1986 negotiations. Orlov, now 91 years old, is Professor of Physics and Government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (see the Archive’s previous publication of “The Orlov File,” including dozens of documents on his history as a dissident and as a distinguished physicist, and the video of his meeting with Reagan at the White House in 1986).

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(Left) Yuri Orlov meeting with White House chief of staff Donald Regan, introduction by President Reagan, October 7, 1986 [Ronald Reagan Presidential Library]
(Right) Arsenii Roginsky, Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergey Kovalev, 2011 (photo by Svetlana Savranskaya)

Leading the celebrations today in Moscow is the co-founder and president of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, whose authoritative book Soviet Dissent (Wesleyan University Press, 1984) tells the story of the Group’s origins and the wide range of other human rights activism from which the Group sprang. (See “The Alexeyeva File,” published by the Archive on the occasion of her 85th birthday.)

Also in today’s posting is the extraordinary KGB assessment of human rights dissent at the time of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s founding. KGB chief Yuri Andropov presented this briefing to the Soviet Council of Ministers and to the Politburo in December 1975, giving precise numbers of political prisoners including those jailed for Article 70 “anti-Soviet agitation” and those against whom “prophylactic measures” had been taken.

Central Committee staffer Anatoly Chernyaev heard about the Andropov presentation and wrote in his diary his astonishment at the numbers and at the deceptions by the Soviet state going back to Khrushchev’s time. Chernyaev went on to become Gorbachev’s foreign policy adviser and leader of “new thinking” among officials, and subsequently donated his diary of the years 1972 through 1991 to the Archive.

The posting also includes the now-declassified CIA assessment of Soviet repression of human righters as of 1985, prepared for White House staffer Jack Matlock as the Reagan administration reached out to new Soviet leader Gorbachev.