29 September 2020
By Lev Ponomarev, chair of the NGO For Human Rights and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Yura Orlov is gone.
We were friends for over 50 years, and we met at a seminar on theoretical physics. I knew back then that he was a dissident, but I wasn’t a dissident myself. I suppose it just wasn’t my time yet.
It was his time, and I want to talk about what is most important. About what it’s particularly important to remember today.
Yura Orlov was always at the forefront. First he was at the front line in World War II; then he was at the forefront of Soviet science. Ultimately, his inquisitive mind and ethical internal beliefs led him to the dissident movement, to the forefront of Conscience.
What was protest like in the Soviet Union? Hopeless and desperate. Personal. It didn’t grow into a collective political movement. Any attempts on the part of young people to form protest groups were monitored and dismantled, and people were sent to camps without having achieved any noticeable results.
Yury Orlov understood that he needed to take a different path. He searched for a unifying idea, a clear and meaningful plan of action. And he found one.
In 1975, the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords. Depleted by the Cold War, the USSR was looking for opportunities to negotiate and establish economic cooperation with the West. The West, on the other hand, was looking for a way to avoid new wars and ensure peaceful development. The Helsinki Accords contained three “baskets”: Safety, Economic Development, and Human Rights.
The Helsinki Accords actually drew a line under what happened during World War II, and human rights were there not simply by chance. The West was aware that world wars had broken out in Europe, and that they had been initiated by imperial and totalitarian governments, in defiance of the loss of human lives and freedom. Respect for human rights predicated on international agreements was seen as an important tool for preserving peace and sustaining development.
When the USSR signed the Helsinki Accords, the country had hopes for the benefits of the first two “baskets” and was not planning on carrying out the third. Yury Orlov was one of the people who proposed and implemented the idea of non-governmental oversight of the implementation of the Helsinki Accords, specifically in terms of human rights. On 12 May 1976, the creation of the “Public Group to Promote Fulfillment of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR” was announced at the Moscow apartment of Andrei Sakharov. This group later came to be known as the Moscow Helsinki Group. Similar groups began to form in other USSR republics.
This is how Yury Orlov put an idea into practice that became known worldwide. A key factor of the international pressure on the USSR was the issue of respect for human rights.
Was it a personal risk and a display of heroism on the part of Yury Orlov and those with whom he worked? Without a shadow of a doubt. They were threatened, and they were arrested. Orlov spent 7 years in a camp and several years in exile. But their actions were more than just heroic — they led to political results. If you don’t set realistic goals for yourself and don’t achieve them, you won’t see any results; what you do will simply be tragic heroism.
No dissident went into politics in the ’90s except Sergei Adamovich Kovalev. Dissidence was merely a personal struggle for each of them, with results that they did not wish to consolidate. I thought that Yury Orlov could have had a successful political career. I called on him to return to Russia; I said, “We’ll nominate you for president.”
But we were all terribly unlucky: he loved science so much that he remained faithful to it until the end. It’s clear today that we sorely needed more people like Yura Orlov. If we’d had them, we could have achieved a different moral atmosphere in the young democratic movement, which was 80% former communists. This movement would have been purer and stronger — and, more importantly, more ethical.
Who knows how things would have turned out…
For more about Yury Fedorovich Orlov in Russian see the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Translated by Nina dePalma