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Why Political Prisoners Matter

The Soviet refusenik recalls the politics that led to the founding of the Helsinki Group 40 years ago today

Natan Sharansky
May 12, 2016
Yulia Vishnevskaya/Flickr
Moscow Helsinki Group members Yuliya Vishnevskya, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Dina Kaminskaya and Kronid Lyubarsky in Munich, 1978Yulia Vishnevskaya/Flickr
Yulia Vishnevskaya/Flickr
Moscow Helsinki Group members Yuliya Vishnevskya, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Dina Kaminskaya and Kronid Lyubarsky in Munich, 1978Yulia Vishnevskaya/Flickr

Today, May 12, marks the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization created to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords. In marking this milestone we can do no better than to remind ourselves and the world of the group’s ongoing relevance to those fighting for human rights today.

At the time of their signing, the Helsinki Accords met with quite a bit of skepticism among Western politicians about their likely effect on Soviet behavior. For dissidents, on the other hand, the reaction went beyond skepticism: To us, the agreement represented a clear betrayal by Western powers, who had given Moscow everything it wanted in exchange for empty promises. Since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had wanted the world to recognize the Baltic Republics, which it had obtained from Hitler, as its own; the Helsinki Accords made this a reality. For years the Soviet Union had wanted Eastern Europe to remain as its protectorate; the Helsinki signatories agreed. And despite these imperialistic policies, the Soviet Union wanted economic cooperation with the West; once again, its negotiating partners gave in.

The aim of the accords was to improve relations between the Communist bloc and Western countries, and to that end it established terms of cooperation between the signatories on various political and economic matters. Yet its provisions were non-binding, and the so-called “third basket” in particular—which obliged parties to respect their citizens’ basic rights—promised to become part of yet another never-ending debate between Soviets and the West about the relativity of their respective values.

It was clear to us dissidents that there was little point in trying to convince the Soviet Union to accept an international standard for human rights, let alone abide by one. Our goal was instead to press Western governments to take Soviet rights abuses seriously.

For this, what was needed most of all was a shared understanding among the agreement’s Western signatories of what constituted a violation.

But how to promote such an understanding? Our first idea was to write an appeal to leading Western intellectuals that set out a straightforward interpretation of the accords’ human rights provision. Once they accepted this, our thinking went, it would be much more difficult for their governments to ignore Soviet transgressions.

Andrei Amalrik, the dissident historian who had just returned to Moscow after a long prison sentence for writing and publishing his prophetic book, Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?, was particularly enthusiastic about the idea and set about drafting the appeal and collecting signatures. Immediately after he had done that, however, the Soviet authorities forced him to emigrate, and as a result the initiative died.

It was then that another democratic dissident, a famous physicist, Yuri Orlov, showed us the nature of true leadership by declaring that continued discussions would not change a thing and that the time for action had come. He initiated the establishment of a group that would publish reports about Soviet human rights abuses and thereby define what constituted a violation of Helsinki. He predicted that we would be arrested for this, but felt we could do enough in the meantime to force the West to confront the reality of Soviet oppression. And so, on May 12, 1976, the Helsinki Group was formed.

True to Orlov’s predictions, nine months later Ludmilla Alexeyeva (founding member and longtime chairperson of the group) was exiled to the United States, and three of the other founding members—Orlov, Alexander Ginsberg, and I—were arrested. Yet in those nine months we had managed to publish 18 reports about the human rights situation among different ethnic and religious groups, each with highly detailed information and copious supporting documents.

At the press conference publicizing our very first report, there were only a couple of Western journalists in attendance; but attention to our activities grew with every document we published thereafter. As the unofficial spokesman of the Jewish emigration movement, and now also of the Helsinki Group, I had the task of ensuring that our reports not only were quoted in Western newspapers but also reached the free world in their entirety. In this I relied at first on my “traditional” channels, including Jewish tourists and a very small group of journalists who agreed to carry or send our documents abroad. Yet soon Millicent Fenwick, an American congresswoman who visited the Soviet Union after the accords were signed and who created a special committee in Congress to monitor parties’ compliance, asked to receive the reports herself. And so I was informed by the political attaché of the American embassy that our documents would be officially accepted there for mailing, to be sent directly to the State Department and Congress where they reached key decision-makers in the foreign-policy establishment.

Step by step, then, our struggle gained momentum. Helsinki Watch groups were founded in the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia. Then similar initiatives sprang up in countries such as Czechoslovakia with Charter 77. Also critical was the work of Robert Bernstein, then the president of Random House, who on a visit to Moscow with a group of American publishers made a point of also meeting with democratic dissidents. Although we didn’t know it at the time, Bernstein would soon found Helsinki Watch, which became Human Rights Watch.

Thus a powerful network of governmental and non-governmental monitoring groups was created, and as a result the Soviet Union was effectively cornered—it could not simply impose its own interpretation of Helsinki’s third basket on the rest of the world. This non-binding provision thereby became one of the strongest weapons haunting the regime until its death.

Today, as many in the West push for conciliatory agreements with regimes no less oppressive than the USSR, it is worth recalling that the KGB and the philosophy of realpolitik were not the only opponents we faced in our struggle back then. Another major obstacle was the peace movement, those thousands of well-meaning Westerners demanding to remove American missiles from Europe and to appease the Soviet Union in the name of avoiding war. Their message was clear: The most important human right is to live, and peace is therefore the highest value. Make sure the Helsinki process avoids nuclear war, they said, and then we can speak about the rights of Soviet citizens.

Our answer to these unsophisticated idealists was equally clear: The highest human value is not peace simply, but peace in conditions of freedom. If peace were the ultimate good, dictatorships would exist forever, because no one would endanger his life fighting for basic rights. But why, peaceniks retorted, should Europeans who already live under liberal democracies risk their lives for ours? We responded that in fact they were just as endangered as we, since no one can rely on a peace agreement with dictators. The Soviet Union could sign all the treaties in the world while continuing to send its tanks to Prague, its missiles to Cuba, and its paratroopers to Afghanistan. External aggression is part of such regimes’ DNA, an outgrowth of their complete intolerance for internal freedom and dissent. As Andrei Sakharov liked to say: You cannot trust a government more than that government trusts its people.

Today, to continue the spirit of Helsinki means more than honoring the group’s founders and reminiscing about their activities. It means that when negotiating with the world’s most oppressive regimes, Western governments should place the fate of political prisoners—such as blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, artist Atena Farghadani in Iran, writer Liu Xiaobo in China, and so many more—high on the agenda. If we beneficiaries of freedom fail to speak about these brave men and women, they will remain in prison for the rest of their lives, and the power of the regimes that tyrannize them will only continue to grow.

If we remember one lesson on the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Group, then, let it be this: We should not be led into complacency by agreements that promise peace with dictatorships without demanding internal change. If we don’t continue standing up for dissidents and for the shared values they represent, we will soon find ourselves as much at the mercy of their oppressors as they are.

Natan Sharansky is a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, former minister in Israeli governments, former Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Chair of the Advisory Board of ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) and CAM (Combat Antisemitism Movement), and founder and Chair of the Adelson Shlihut Institute of the Jewish Agency.