20 December 2022
by Leonid Nikitinsky, journalist, doctor of jurisprudence, and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights prize.
There is no need to go into too much detail about the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG). Everyone who has ever been connected in any way to the defense of human rights in Russia knows it, the oldest human rights organization in the country, created in 1976. It declared its voluntary dissolution in 1982 after the imprisonment of eight of its members and the forced emigration of six more, and another 40 years later has been liquidated now by a Justice Ministry administrative action initiated by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office.
On 1 August 1975, in Helsinki, the heads of 35 states, including the Soviet Union, signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was devoted primarily to the inviolability of borders, economic cooperation, and strengthening trust in the military sphere. There was also a so-called third basket, in accordance with the contents of which the country signatories accepted obligations to observe human rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, conscience, and movement.
As everyone knows, the Soviet Union was ahead of the whole planet when it came to human rights, so the Soviet leaders did not like the third basket at all, but for them, already aware of their economic lag behind Western countries, the content of the first two was so important that they decided to let it go ahead. Somehow they would talk their way out of it.
The cunning Soviet dissidents, though, united by the idea of human rights and freedoms, latched onto the third basket and began to appeal to the international community, pointing out political repressions and the ban on free exit from the freest country in the world. In particular, the MHG, created at the initiative of physicist Yury Orlov, collected pertinent facts and reported on them not only to the West but also inside the country in the Samizdat Chronicle of Current Events, which Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva typed many copies of at home (“An Erika can handle four copies,” as Aleksandr Galich sang about it).
Liudmila Alekseeva returned to Moscow from the United States, where she had been forced to emigrate and where she wrote a book about the history of dissent in the Soviet Union, and in 1993 she headed up an MHG reborn in 1989, which included both former Soviet dissidents and human rights activists of later generations but as a whole was a very select group of people.
She had more than her share of adventures after that, including being arrested while dressed as a snowmaiden on 31 December 2009, as well as an accusation against the British embassy of using a fake rock for surveillance, but on 20 July 2017, her ninetieth birthday, Vladimir Putin brought her a bouquet of flowers at her Arbat apartment, and a large, rather sentimental photograph of that meeting hung in the office of the chair of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society during Mikhail Fedotov’s tenure of that post. At all meetings between the president and the Human Rights Council, she was given the floor and said the harshest things, and on the day of Liudmila Mikhailovna’s funeral in December 2018, he came to honor her memory at the House of Journalists, where the funeral ceremony was held.
Since then, though, times have changed. Russia has left the Council of Europe having declared once again that it was here that the people had been given genuine rights and freedoms, while those European ones were being used exclusively as a pretext to violate Russian sovereignty.
For a time, Liudmila Mikhailovna’s memory guaranteed the Moscow Helsinki Group a certain immunity, and it wasn’t even declared a ‘foreign agent,’ though in September 2012 Alekseeva had signed a statement together with other human rights NGOs about their refusal to implement the relevant law, calling it anti-rights, and the MHG was one of the complainants in a case regarding the violation of the rights and freedoms of ‘foreign agents’ that Russia lost at the European Court of Human Rights, unfortunately, only this summer.
But how many times can we say that human rights are one all over the world and talk about the interests of nation states? The ammunition lay at hand and the safe conduct’s term, evidently, ran out, and the president would say yet again that the courts in Russia were independent and no one had the right to interfere in their activities. Actually, there was no longer anyone to ask.
It’s pointless to try to sort out the legal claims against the MHG that arose during the unplanned check on its activities by the justice department: today those who wield the law like a club can liquidate anything they like for any reason they like. The main facts that the unplanned check suddenly dug up were that the MHG, being a regional organization registered in Moscow, had, for example, been sending its own observers to Moscow-region courts (in the Aleksandr Shestun case) and had held conferences in St. Petersburg and Sochi. MHG lawyers could try to prove that the participation of group members (such as the lawyers Karinna Moskalenko and Genri Reznik) in events organized by NGOs in other regions is not identical to those events being organized by the MHG itself, but we realize that the Moscow City Court would find a way to get around that argument.
The ‘third basket’ is closed again — this time, it seems, along with the first two.
Translated by Marian Schwartz