16 May 2020
Andrei Babushkin, director of the Committee for Civil Rights
Russian human rights defense is not the heir of prerevolutionary human rights defense, something 1950s youth knew virtually nothing about. Nor was it created by the West’s human rights activists.
During a webinar, Moscow Helsinki Group co-chair Valery Borshchev recounted how the rise of human rights defense was linked with young people’s love of poetry. In the beginning, poetry evenings were held at the Polytechnic Museum. Later, young people began gathering on Mayakovsky Square, where they recited poems—their own and poems by famous authors. These gatherings began to be dispersed by the authorities.
The early 1960s were when Valery Vasilievich Borshchev was studying in the School of Journalism at Moscow State University. The group’s head was KGB Captain Kovalenko. The young people exposed him because during his training he had published material on Tereshkova’s space flight, which was a compilation of other materials. The students organized a meeting. During the meeting, all the teachers dropped him. Nonetheless, after the meeting Kovalenko was transferred to a correspondence course.
5 December 1965 was the birthday of the human rights movement: a demonstration was held on Pushkin Square in defense of the writers Daniel and Sinyavsky. Participating in the demonstration were Boris Sotin and Natasha Galperina. There was an attempt to expel them from the Komsomol, but their group defended them. After the demonstration, Aleksandr Ginzburg and Yury Galanskov were arrested.
Borshchev had a Moskva typewriter on which he typed samizdat literature. Samizdat is a Russian phenomenon; human rights activists of other countries did not have that phenomenon. Hemingway (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”), Milovan Djilas (“The New Class”), and Koestler were read in samizdat.
An era began of letters in support of Sinyavsky and Daniel. Collecting signatures for the letters united people.
For the XXIV Party Congress, a group of writers, scientists Sakharov and Shestakov, 13 members of the Academy, and others wrote a letter to Khrushchev opposing the rehabilitation of Stalin that played a certain role in that rehabilitation not taking place.
The human rights publication Chronicle of Current Events came out for 15 years. After the arrest of its two previous editors, Sergei Kovalev became its third editor. When he was tried in Vilna, 180 episodes described in the Chronicle were analyzed, and inaccuracies were found in only two of them.
The Foundation for Prisoners was created, for which they collected donations of 1-5 rubles and sent packages to political prisoners. In 1976, Solzhenitsyn created his own foundation. The foundations shared prisoner lists.
In 1968, seven people went out on the Place of Execution and unfurled a poster that said “For Our Freedom and Yours.” Two people were arrested and four were exiled; Natalia Gorbanevskaya was not arrested because she had a small child.
For a very long time, human rights activists did not have their own organization. Their first organized structure was the Initiative Group, which was created by Petr Yakir and Viktor Krasin in 1969 and was joined by N. Gorbanevskaya, A. Lavut, and others. Later the Committee on Human Rights was created, which Sakharov joined, while Solzhenitsyn and Galich were closely associated with the organisation.
In 1974, on the initiative of political prisoners serving their sentence in Mordovia, 30 October was introduced as Political Prisoners Day, which has been marked to the present time. Prisoners would mark this day with a hunger strike.
In 1975, Borshchev met A. D. Sakharov. To Borshchev’s proposals, Sakharov replied that “We are not a party,” and that by becoming a human rights activist, Borshchev would be taking decisions one on one. Borshchev showed him a photograph of pages from Gulag Archipelago that he had been given for two days and that he had rephotographed.
All the human rights groups acted separately. When the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) was created, it began to coordinate these groups. It was founded by Yury Fedorovich Orlov. Under MHG’s influence, the concept of the priority of human rights began to form in the human rights community. At a certain stage in the defense against actions by the KGB, calls to Academician A. D. Sakharov helped, as did the threat that they would talk about the persecutions on the Voice of America and other foreign radio stations. They went from making violations known to conducting checks and frequently to eliminating the violations.
When the persecutions started, Borshchev got a job as a fireman at the Taganka Theatre with the help of V. S. Vysotsky.
In 1980, the Olympic operations began. In order not to fall subject to these measures, Borshchev left to paint bridges in Siberia.
In the early 1980s, Borshchev received a warning from the KGB. These kinds of warnings were issued when they wanted to put someone in prison. However, by this time Gorbachev had come to power and the political repressions had stopped.
Borshchev noted how the past generation of human rights activists differs from the current one: human rights activists of the 1970s didn’t have success as a value. People did not believe their actions would lead to a result during their life. However, they did what they felt was morally essential. A favorite toast was this: “Let’s drink to our hopeless cause.”
V. V. Borshchev talked about this friendship with Bulat Okudzhava. Okudzhava supported human rights activists. His views changed over 20 years: he started out a militant atheist and became a believer.
Borshchev expressed the hope that the period of confrontation between Russia and other countries would end, thereby making human rights activists’ work more effective.
Translated by Marian Schwartz