28 September 2020
By Ales Bialiatski, director of the Vesna Human Rights Centre in Belarus
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: ПЦ «Весна»)
Yury Orlov was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a legendary figure in the history of the human rights movement. He did a great deal to expose the essence of the authoritarian, anti-human political system in the Soviet Union and to mark out the distant beacons of democracy and human rights that were crucial for many honest people in later times.
It was after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which the USSR had signed, that he came up with the idea to form the Helsinki Group. This Group would publicly monitor the country to ensure the government met its responsibilities regarding human rights. Many similar groups were formed in a number of Soviet Republics – Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and Latvia, to name a few.
At the time, only a few human rights defenders spoke out in what seemed a hopeless struggle against the powerful Soviet ideological and military machine. They spoke out with very simple slogans, demanding freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of assembly and free and fair elections.
These rights were written into the Constitution, but in the USSR, as in today’s Belarus, they were not observed. Human rights’ defenders in the ’60s and ’70s sought the respect of the rights and freedoms already declared. It was on this foundation their ideology and struggle were built and which came to bear unexpected results. It seemed that a handful of people with few resources, regularly harassed, and who had little hope of being heard widely, would be very unlikely to achieve anything of significance. On the contrary it was the just ideas of the human rights defenders that finally led to the destruction of the “Prison of the Peoples” that the USSR really was.
Almost all the members of the Helsinki Group served time in prison, including Yury Orlov, who served seven years in a prison camp and five years in internal exile.
He was a corresponding member of the Academy of Science, a physicist, a man of science, but also a deeply humanitarian individual who placed human dignity above all else. He belongs t o a cohort of legendary human rights defenders, such as Andrei Sakharov and Liudmila Alekseeva.
He was in fact a very modest yet warm individual, never aspiring to fame or celebrity. I personally knew him, having seen him several times at various human rights’ forums. Despite his old age, he had a very bright mind and did all he could to help Russia become a democratic country. Alas, he did not live to see that time, but his example of steadfast struggle in seemingly hopeless conditions, when the entire force of a militarised state is against you, is very attractive and an inspiration. He is important to us, the citizens of Belarus, today. We have not yet said farewell to our dark legacy of the Leninist-Stalinist USSR. We must believe in our victory and do all we can to achieve it.
You can read more about Yury Fedorovich Orlov (13 August 1924 – 27 September 2020) on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Translated by Fergus Wright