23 December 2022
Author: Natella Boltyanskaya; photo: Tomer Appelbaum
Natan Sharansky, Israeli politician, former Soviet political prisoner, one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Human rights are being systematically violated in Russia. The rights of individual citizens and entire population groups. Once the hunt for nongovernmental organizations began, it became a lot harder to defend violated rights. Organizations are being crushed and strangled. They are posting boa constrictors to defend the rabbits. The Ombudsman is a police major general. The chair of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society called on Memorial to refuse its Nobel Peace Prize. In the light of this, the Russian Justice Minister’s filing of an action to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) is not at all surprising. The Chekists’ methods have not changed one iota.
The 1976 initiative creating the MHG was taken by Muscovites (which is why it is called the Moscow group). Very quickly, Ukrainian and Lithuanian Helsinki Groups appeared, and later others… After that, activists began being imprisoned, the regional ones faster than the Moscow ones because in the Soviet Union the human rights situation was absolutely terrible outside the Moscow city limits. By 1982, nearly all the members of regional groups had been arrested. In September 1982—40 years ago—charges of anti-Soviet activity were brought against lawyer Sofia Kallistratova, one of the last remaining in freedom who had not left the country. In these circumstances, the group could no longer continue its activities.
Today, one of the claims against the Helsinki group is that the “Moscow” organization is doing work in the regions—not where it is registered. This is when you sit down over informational material as the unparliamentary word “wretches” pulses through your head in red and you remember what the late Sergei Kovalev said: “There’s no need to call people monsters if it’s already clear what they are.” But there are no other words…
An Israeli who was there at the inception of the Moscow Helsinki Group is Natan Sharansky. Between the moment the group was created in 1976 and his arrest in March 1977, he signed more than 20 of its statements.
“In a certain sense, Putin has done away with all ideas of a free society. The Helsinki Group could work precisely at a time when the Soviet Union wanted to improve relations with the West. The Soviet Union had both economic and military interests, and it was on this that all the dissidents’ activities were based to a significant degree, as was the Jewish movement, because we were constantly calling (on the West) to apply economic and other sanctions until there was freedom to emigrate. We drew the world’s attention to the fact that the Soviet Union was not meeting its obligations.
“At the time this was a desperate attempt to keep the Soviet Union from deceiving the West yet again, because in 1948 the Declaration of Human Rights had been signed. But the Soviets said, ‘You have your understanding and we have ours. You want people to starve to death while having free speech. For us it’s important to feed everyone.’ This is the Soviet demagoguery that the West more or less accepted. Later came the Helsinki Accords, in which the first basket was the recognition of borders, something the Soviet Union had been trying to obtain the whole time—for East Germany and Hungary or Lithuania and Latvia to be recognized. They were. Second was economic cooperation. They were obligated to cooperate. And the third was the optional basket, about human rights.
“We were constantly debating. I remember, Liuda Alekseeva, Ginzburg, Yury Orlov, Grigorenko, and I were constantly discussing how to keep the Soviet Union from deceiving the West. I suggested writing letters to the international community, and at some point Yury said, That’s it, let’s quit our jabbering and create a group, let’s draw up documents, and let’s send them out, otherwise this is going to be nothing but talk. I said, Well, of course, but they’ll arrest us.
“The first year we worked for 10 months until the arrests. And no matter how quickly it was that they repressed us, this spark of freedom had caught. That was right when Robert Bernstein came. I took him to see Sakharov. Later he created Helsinki Watch, which then became Human Rights Watch. Even more important was the visit by Congresswoman [Millicent] Fenwick. She was the first person from whom I heard how important these Helsinki Accords were. I said, They’re deceiving you and will continue to deceive you. And she replied, No, we want to monitor this, we’re going to be keeping an eye on the Soviet Union.
“The Soviet Union was trying to look good and maintain international ties. Today Russia has simply openly broken all international ties. It has nothing more to hide. It is not meeting its obligations, it’s rejecting them and is simply the whole world’s warmonger, you might say. On this level, the historical activities of the Helsinki Group are, certainly, well behind us.
“I hope that there will be people who speak the truth, regardless of whether Putin does or doesn’t shut down a given organization. But the moment of death is always a good reason to recall the deceased’s glorious life. I think that the Helsinki Group had a glorious life and a unique role.
“I sent Putin an open letter in connection with Memorial one last time. At the time I honestly wrote that I couldn’t believe it. Were they really planning to shut down Memorial? At the time that seemed absolutely unbelievable to me. Today, though, I wouldn’t write a letter like that. Everything going on in Ukraine is very painful. But the blow Putin has inflicted on Russia—I’d say it’s fatal.
“Of course, I have a special and, if you like, sentimental attitude toward the dissidents, and the Helsinki Group, and other organizations like that. Right now, though, I cannot grieve for them when the entire edifice in which they existed is simply collapsing. There’s reason to say, ‘End the war immediately!’ But there’s no one to say it to. How can America pressure Putin if in essence he is in a state of war?
“The Helsinki Group is my pride and my memories. Unfortunately, of those who created the group, I think I’m the last one left… It’s always sad to admit that your day is long gone. But I hope that the memory and methods we used will still be of use. One day there will be an attempt to restore society and freedom in the space that used to be called Russia. And then the dissidents’ experience will be very important.”
Translated by Marian Schwartz