Leonid Niktinsky: “Helsinkis” not lowering their flag in Russia

20 December 2023

Human rights activists discuss whether their movement has a future in the country and the world

by Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya Gazeta columnist

Source: Novaya gazeta


On Sunday, 17 December, Russian human rights activists held their traditional annual meeting “remotely” in Moscow. Not that long ago, these kinds of congresses, timed close to Human Rights Day (10 December), were held in the Kosmos hotel by the oldest and most respected Russian human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, over the course of 2-3 days. But in January 2023, the court liquidated the Moscow Helsinki Group and its participants announced the creation of an association (without registration): the Russian Helsinki Group, as part of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.

Lev Ponomarev* from Paris, Aleksandr Cherkasov from somewhere, Natalia Evdokimova and Elena Shakhova from St. Petersburg, Sergei Davidis from Vilnius, Marina Litvinovich and Yury Chemodurov from Moscow, Roman Kachanov from Ekaterinburg, Vladimir Zhilkin from Tambov, Tatiana Kotlyar from Kaluga, and others (including Marianna Katsarova, special UN reporter on human rights in the Russian Federation) discussed what they should be doing now and whether the human rights movement had a future in Russia and the world.

That is the question. The present meeting, which was organized by the former Acting Director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Svetlana Astrakhantseva, and moderated by board member Dmitry Makarov, has become an even more important event given the fewer possibilities that remain for those who continue to defend human rights in Russia. An explanation for this contradiction and the new situation requires a brief excursion into the issue’s theory and history.

On 1 August 1975, within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) being created at the time, the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accord, which included, along with provisions on disarmament and international trade (which were extremely advantageous for the then-leadership of the Soviet Union), a so-called third basket as well that held obligations to observe human rights and freedoms. Unlike the “victory of Soviet diplomacy on the international level” as a whole, the “third basket’s” contents were not widely publicized in the Soviet Union, but Soviet dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov, the physicist Yury Orlov, Larisa Bogoraz, Liudmila Alekseeva, and others, created the Moscow Helsinki Group and organized monitoring of the observance of human rights in the Soviet Union and the publication of a regular typewritten Chronicle of Current Events. For this they were subjected to repression; nonetheless, in 1989, the Moscow Helsinki Group was founded in Russia.

The legendary Liudmila Alekseeva, who headed up the Moscow Helsinki Group after her return from forced immigration, always said that “human rights activity is not political,” inasmuch as it is not connected with the struggle for power.

Herein lay Liudmila Mikhailovna’s famous cunning, as well as the mimicry of Soviet times, but also a dole of truth—until this kind of activity (permitted under President Yeltsin) encountered resistance on the part of the state. This ruse could not mislead the Putin administration, though. The defense of human rights turned increasingly into a struggle not for power but, in essence, against power, against the state—inasmuch as their abuse had turned into a system, even the cornerstone of a specific Russian “statehood.” The first victim of the “foreign agents” legislation was specifically human rights NGOs, which forced the Moscow Helsinki Group in particular to reject foreign financing and significantly curtail the extent of its activities.

The term “human rights” in the Helsinki Accord, as in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and as in the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia joined in 1998, assumes political rights specifically—primarily freedom of speech, assembly, conscience (convictions), and movement, and the right to a fair trial. Russia did not denounce the Helsinki Accord or the UN Declaration as it did the European Convention. Actually, in the legal sense even Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe in 2022 did not free the state from observing its citizens’ rights and freedoms as fixed in the unalterable chapter 2 of the Russian Constitution.

The liquidation of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Sakharov Centre,* and the Memorial Human Rights Centre essentially put the defense of human rights in Russia outside the law. Many of those who took part in the 17 December meeting had themselves been deprived of their political rights and any possibility of officially addressing state organs because they had been declared “foreign agents” or potentially participatory to the activities of “organizations undesirable in Russia.” Political power declared the human rights doctrine to be an instrument of interference in Russia’s domestic affairs on the part of the rotten “West,” saying that the propaganda actively promotes the flourishing of “political correctness” with respect to LGBT,** which shocks a significant portion of conservative Russian society (and I may say that I, as a man of the 1970s, to a degree even share this bias).

Meanwhile, the argument about “interference in domestic affairs” is crafty, reasoning ad absurdum: according to this logic, evidently, one has to see the failure of Kemerovo police to answer a summons from neighbors concerning a young woman murdered in 2020 by Vladislav Kanyus, a future participant in the ‘Special Military Operation’, as justified “noninterference into domestic affairs.” Sometimes outside interference is justified, especially since the primacy of human rights over national laws is fixed in international acts that have been signed de jure by Russia. This primacy is the core of the human rights doctrine that was fixed in agreements among the most developed countries after the victory over fascism.

On the other hand, the Russian state is trying to hijack the human rights agenda, as it is all movements capable of attracting supporters. The changes made to the membership of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society and in the activism of human rights representatives in the regions and to the Public Oversight Commissions, whose members are by law allowed into places of incarceration, are “compensated” for by heightened attention—at least on the rhetorical level—for citizens’ so-called social rights.

The concern about “social rights” that was indoctrinated not only into the now-gone Homo Sovieticus but also those who today have become more dependent on the State budget, is being exercised broadly in propaganda (including upcoming election propaganda), but in fact we have here a substitution of terms. 

“Social rights” are nothing more than the obligations the state is supposed to meet with regard to its citizens without pressure of any kind from human rights activists, let alone international organizations.

This is exactly how these guarantees are viewed in the “rotten West,” where social issues have not left the legislative agenda since the late nineteenth century, and were even, in Nazi Germany, for example, viewed as priorities.

Human rights and social rights are simply different institutions, and pitting them against each other is demagoguery. Meanwhile, in my opinion (although I have never once been a human rights activist), it is the enthusiasm on the part of traditional human rights organizations for the defense of social rights given the mounting risks of exercising political rights that led to the crisis and decline in interest on the part of young people that the Russian human rights movement has experienced in recent years. With respect to social guarantees, private individuals cannot (and should not) compete with the state, although human rights activists can and should call out the latter for its failure to fulfill social guarantees.

Both components of the human rights doctrine’s formula are important: not just “rights” but also “human,” the human individual. This doctrine stems from Christianity and its attention to Man, something the Russian Orthodox Church, in service to the Kremlin, counters with the principle of conciliarism. But there is foul play in this, too. Russian religious thinkers have treated “conciliarism”—unlike communalism and mutual responsibility—as a kind of commonality that does not dissolve the individual or deny the individual’s characteristics (which exist “indivisibly and distinctly”).

There are individual characteristics that are to a significant extent conditioned by birth in a given country at a given time (in fact, by socialization in a given culture). We can talk about the sum total of separate human wills, which is manifested by honest and deliberate voting. But collective subjects—the “Russians,” “Germans,” “proletariat,” “Catholics,” and so on that populist politicians and propagandists rely on—do not exist. This is a fiction, the danger of which the twentieth century demonstrated as no century before ever had.

In my opinion (although many of the participants in the 17 December meeting will not agree with me here), a situation in which human rights activists and journalists in arguments and conflicts with the state can no longer help anyone once again reduces their objectives (as at the moment of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s creation) to nothing more than Russian citizens’ political rights. In this our opportunities today are not great, but in Russia it is extremely important not to lower the flag. Just a few words need be written on it: “Man and his dignity.”

Political correctness, the search for individual identity and a “new ethics” that have so captivated (perhaps even excessively, if we’re talking about a “normal country”) the generation of tomorrow—this is first and foremost about dignity. 

Demanding respect for human dignity is today, for us, the sole possible “politics.”


* Designated a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian authorities.

** Recognized as extremist by decision of the court.


Translated by Marian Schwartz

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