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Revisiting the Moscow Helsinki Group

“What does a dictator need?”

The speaker, a young guide in the Moscow Gulag museum, addresses a group of teenagers in an unassuming small room. The carefully dimmed lights reflect of his face, leaving the children in the shadows.

“He needs to keep his subjects in line. But how?”

Behind the guide, a large picture of Joseph Stalin is surrounded by smaller pictures of Stalin’s comrades and fellow leaders. A plaque details the horrors of the Great Purge of 1936-1939, when hundreds of thousands of men and women were executed by the Soviet government. A number is etched under each picture. It marks how many lists of people to execute were personally authorized by each leader.

The number under Stalin’s picture stands out.


“A dictator needs an enemy to get his people to rally behind him,” continues the guide, his voice too soft. “An external enemy is useful, but an internal enemy…” The teenagers pale.

I can’t look at them, though. My eyes are still glued to the number.


* * *

Soviet Russia turned the practice of creating and hunting internal enemies into an art form. Not all soviet leaders were as vicious as Stalin, who added lines like “beat, beat, beat” to the lists he authorized. But the whole Soviet system was built upon the total obedience of its citizens. Whoever didn’t comply, whoever out-stepped his bounds in any way, faced the threat of the Gulag.

Avoiding the Gulag was a 24/7 occupation.

Soviet citizens had to watch their actions, their words, and even their taste in poetry.

If you happened to quote a poet whom the government didn’t approve of, chances were someone would snitch on you to the KGB. Next thing you know, you would be summoned to an isolated office, threatened, arrested, or forced to implicate others. If you happened to quote a “legitimate” poet, but somebody held a grudge against you or confused the two poets…the outcome could be the same.

Everyone, from relatives to friends to neighbors in your communal apartment, could be the person that would turn you in.

Every word had to be carefully considered.

As if constant vigilance wasn’t difficult enough, “approved” ideas and people could become “unapproved” in a heartbeat. One had to stay on top of the changes. For example, when Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious head of the NKVD under Stalin, fell out of favor, the editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia sent out a letter to their subscribers. They instructed them to remove the article on Beria and replace it with expanded articles about other “b” topics. Across the USSR, families sat cutting papers out of books, fending off the Gulag with their scissors.

* * *

Most people tried to avoid the Gulag at all costs. But some brave men and women risked imprisonment with their eyes wide open, placing values above their physical safety.

One such man was the scientist Yuri Orlov, who became a dissident in 1973 by supporting Andrei Sakharov’s stand against Soviet oppression. Two years later, when the USSR signed the Helsinki Accords, Orlov had an idea that changed history.

Most Russian dissidents saw the Accords as a grand betrayal of their cause. The West granted Russia everything it craved since 1945: It legitimized the Soviet conquests from World War II and laid the groundwork for economic cooperation. In return, the USSR promised to uphold human rights; an empty promise that wasn’t backed by hard definitions and sanctions. “Such promises,” recalls dissident Ludmilla (Luda) Allexeyeva in her memoir, “had long ago ceased to impress me.” It seemed as though the Helsinki Accords allowed the USSR to get away with its tyranny.

Orlov realized that, while Helsinki accords may not guarantee human rights in themselves, they could be used to achieve change. While the regime would never voluntarily live up to its promises, the Accords could be used to force it to do so. By signing the agreement. The USSR officially acknowledged for the first time that human rights were a component of the international order. As such, Russia’s treatment (or maltreatment) of its citizens became the legitimate business of other countries. Orlov and his friends could leverage this acknowledgment to involve foreign governments in the discourse between themselves and the regime.

Forty years ago today, on May 12th 1976, Yuri Orlov, my father Natan Sharansky, Lyudmilla Alekseyeva, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Petro Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam formed the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. They committed themselves to systematically motoring human rights violations in the USSR, and passing their reports to governments abroad.

“You realize they will probably arrest and sentence us under article 64 (high treason, punishable by imprisonment or death) within a year,” said Orlov at the time.

“Nah, due to the interest from the outside world they will probably only arrest us under article 70 (anti-Soviet activism, punishable by up to seven years in prison),” said my father, Natan (then Anatoly) Sharansky.

They took the risk knowingly. And within nine months, Orlov and my father proved each other’s suppositions right. Orlov was arrested and charged under article 70. Weeks later, my father was arrested under article 64. Almost all the members of the groups were either arrested or exiled within a year.

* * *

Last month, the German ambassador in Moscow held a reception to celebrate the anniversary of the Helsinki Watch Group, and honor Luda Alexeyeva, who continues to chair it today. Men in suits linked arms with women in beautiful dresses. A string quartet played classical music in the corner. Waiters glided rough the room, offering drinks and finger foods in pristine little dishes.

I stood there, surrounded by beauty and opulence, and the beauty felt almost inappropriate. Growing up in the free world, it was hard for me to grasp the significance of the Moscow Helsinki Group. I heard stories from my father, but I never experienced the horrors he faced, nor the risks his comrades took. After visiting the Gulag museum that very morning, the past suddenly became much more real. I looked at the elegant tables and white tablecloths, but all I could see was the prison cells the dissidents risked and the horrors they faced. All I could think about was the number 357.

The reality behind this celebration could never be captured by champagne flutes and music. The founders of the Helsinki Watch Group traveled around on their own expense to collect facts and verify them, then typed up page after page of their findings on little typewriters. “We were always on the lookout for paper,” Luda told me. “Whoever happened to see paper bought as much of it as he or she could carry.” Then, they had to hide the documents from the KGB, and risk their safety to pass them to foreign diplomats. “The KGB always waited for me when I left the embassy,” my father told me.

The reception couldn’t convey the risks, pain and toil the group took on. But as I stood there, watching Russia’s past and present human rights fighters converging under glittering lights, I realized that the party did capture their achievement: They took the horrors that the USSR tried to keep hidden, and placed them in the limelight of public discourse and international diplomacy.

The group’s documents were used by American congressmen and European diplomats to create new legislation. They fueled the pressure on Soviet Russia to honor its commitment to human rights. They inspired the creation of similar groups across eastern Europe, as well as in the United States, where Helsinki Watch later became Human Rights Watch. All these changes combined into a deafening crescendo, forcing the Soviet government to take the dissidents seriously.

I looked at Luda Alexeyeva, still tough and funny in her 89th year, still spearheading the struggle for human rights in Putin’s Russia. There she stood, surrounded by her comrades and admirers, boldly discussing the current regime in a spacious, lit room.

Luda Alexeyeva and Natan Sharansky at the residence of the German ambassador in Moscow
Luda Alexeyeva and Natan Sharansky at the residence of the German ambassador in Moscow

This, I thought, is what the Helsinki Watch Group fought for.

* * *

“What does a dictator need,” the guide asked in the Gulag museum. Hours later, standing in the residence of the German ambassador, the question still rang in my ears.

A dictator needs his subjects not to do what the Helsinki Watch Group did. To comply. He needs them to be too scared to act, too frightened to protest. He needs them to know the horrors awaiting his opponents, the horrors of the Gulag or the Kwalliso or the Chinese prisons, and not place safety over their values.

And he needs the few who dare to defy him not to garner the support and interest of the world.

The founders and members of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group broke the walls that isolated the suffering of Soviet citizens from the rest of the world. They left a legacy for dissidents everywhere, as well as for us in the free world, who have the power to remember the dissidents and shed light on their struggle:

To never give dictators what they need.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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