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21.05.2009

Without illusions

   

20 May 2009 marks the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR, the first independent civic organization of the Soviet era. 

The following is from an interview with one of its founding members, Alexander Daniel.

Alexander Daniel 40 years ago in the Soviet Union, an organized human rights movement emerged, rather than developing. I would stress the words “emerged” and “organized”, since some kind of protest movement which would soon be called human rights, had appeared earlier – in the course of protest campaigns against the political repressions of 1966 and 1968, while in 1969 the first human rights organizations appeared. The idea of creating organized groups as part of the protest movement already existing had been in the air and the subject of long discussions.

There was animated discussion from autumn 1968, while the specific impetus was the arrest of Petro Grigorenko and Ilya Gabai in May 1969.

Was that linked with the events in August 1968 in Prague? Can one say that this was one of the ripples of the Prague Spring and the repression that followed, including against the small group of Soviet human rights defenders who went out onto Red Square in August 1968?

I’d say that it was an echo of the crushing of the Prague Spring. The term “human rights defender” was not used at that time. It became common somewhere beginning in spring – summer 1969. The people who went out onto Red Square in 1968 didn’t call themselves that. They were expressing protest, and not even over the violation of some particular rights. it was a political protest.

Can one assume that the next major stage in the development of the human rights movement was the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group?

Yes, of course. That wasn’t the only event between 1969 and 1976, but of course you can talk about one era between those dates, and from May 1976 (with the founding of the MHG) another era began, that of the Helsinki movement.

How would you characterize the era beginning in 1969 and ending in 1976?

Despite the creation of human rights organizations like the Initiative Group, which was the first, but not the only group, despite the institutionalization of the movement, its essence lay first and foremost in civic protest. It was just that, civic protest, with no political agenda, political aims or the intention to get something. The protest movement up till May 1969 was, if you like, made up of existential acts, and continued to be like that even after the creation of the Initiative Group. If there were any illusions that international organizations, chiefly the UN, to which most of the Initiative Group’s letters were addressed, would respond to the protests, they vanished very rapidly.

Is it known how many human rights defenders there were at the end of the 1960s? How many people were there at that time who were prepared to come out against the Soviet system?

You are equating human rights defenders in the first place, then people prepared to come out against the Soviet system, and finally, those who took part in protest campaigns. These are three groups that intersected but did not coincide. It’s easy for me to answer the third question, how many people protested against political persecution at the end of the 1960s because Andrei Amalryk made this calculation in his work “Will the Soviet Union survive to 1984?” He calculated that in the two most widespread protest campaigns of 1966 and 1967-68, around 700 people took part. That might seem a small number for a country of 250 million, but you need to understand that these were very important groups in a social and cultural sense.

 

The Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR was the first independent civic organization functioning openly in the USSR. It was formed in May 1969 on the initiative of Pyotr Yakir and Viktor Krasin. The Group was also joined by nine Muscovites: Tatyana Velikanova, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Sergei Kovalyov, Aleksandr Lavut, Anatoly Levitin (Krasnov), Yury Maltsev, Grigory Podyapolsky, Tatyana Khodorovych and Anatoly Yakobson, from Leningrad Volodymyr Borisov, the Ukrainians Genrikh Altunian and Leonid Plyushch, and the activist of the Crimean Tatar movement in Uzbekistan Mustafa Dzhemiliev.

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