Moscow Helsinki Group

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Moscow Helsinki Group
Московская Хельсинкская группа
Formation 12 May 1976; 39 years ago (1976-05-12)
Founder Yuri Orlov and others
Type Non-profit
Headquarters Moscow, Russia
Fields Human rights monitoring
Chair from 1976 to 1982
Yuri Orlov
Chair from 1989 to 1994
Larisa Bogoraz
Chair from 1994 to 1996
Kronid Lyubarsky
Chair since 1996
Lyudmila Alexeyeva
Publication A Chronicle of Current Events
Parent organization
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights
Subsidiaries Working Commission to Investigate the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes

The Moscow Helsinki Group (also known as the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, Russian: Моско́вская Хе́льсинкская гру́ппа) is the leading and the oldest human rights organisation in Russia[1] created to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords[2] and to report to the West on Soviet human rights abuses.[3]:414 It still operates as a major human rights organization in Russia.[4]

The Moscow Helsinki Group inspired the formation of similar groups in other Warsaw Pact countries and support groups in the West. Helsinki Watch Groups were founded in Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and Armenia, as well as in the United States (Helsinki Watch, later Human Rights Watch). Similar initiatives sprung up in countries such as Czechoslovakia with Charter 77. Eventually, the Helsinki monitoring groups inspired by the Moscow Helsinki Group formed the International Helsinki Federation.

Founding and Goals[edit]

On 1 August 1975, the Soviet Union became one of the 35 nations to sign the Helsinki Accords during the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki, Finland. Although the Soviet Union had signed the Accords primarily due to foreign policy considerations, it ultimately accepted a text containing unprecedented human rights provisions. The so-called "Third Basket" of the Accords obliged the signatories to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief." The signatories also confirmed "the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in this field."[5][6]:99-100

Taking advantage of international publicity and contacts to Western journalists, on 12 May 1976 physicist Yuri Orlov announced the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group at a press-conference held at the apartment of Andrei Sakharov. The newly inaugurated "Public Group to Promote Fulfillment of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR" (Общественная группа содействия выполнению хельсинкских соглашений в СССР) was intended to monitor Soviet compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. In addition, the Group announced its goal to inform the heads of the signatory states as well as the world public "about cases of direct violations" of the Helsinki Accords.[7]

Apart from Yuri Orlov, the Group’s founding members were Anatoly Shcharansky, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Petro Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam.[8]:58 Ten other people, including Sofia Kalistratova, Naum Meiman, Yuri Mniukh, Viktor Nekipelov, Tatiana Osipova, Felix Serebrov, Vladimir Slepak, Leonard Ternovsky, and Yuri Yarym-Agaev joined the Group later.[9]


The Moscow Helsinki Group members Yuliya Vishnevskya, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Dina Kaminskaya, Kronid Lyubarsky in Munich, 1978

Western radio stations such Voice of America and Radio Liberty helped disseminate news about the creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group, leading to broad awareness throughout the Soviet Union. The Group would accept written complaints of human rights violations submitted directly by Soviet citizens. Many Soviets who knew of its existence found a group member to report a firsthand case of abuse when in Moscow. Group members also traveled throughout the Soviet Union to conduct research on compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. After verifying the complaint, when possible, the groups would campaign internationally by publicizing the violations abroad and calling for intervention by the other signatory states. The complaints would also be forwarded for review at the follow-up meetings to Helsinki, including the 1977 Belgrade meeting and the 1980 meeting in Madrid.[10]:149

The Helsinki Watch Group issued reports on the violations they observed. These documents typically included a survey of a specific case, followed by a discussion of the human rights violations relevant to the Helsinki and other international accords as well as the Soviet constitution and law. The documents closed with a call for action by the signatory states.[10]:150 The Group's strategy was to make thirty-five copies of each document and send them by registered mail to the thirty-four Moscow embassies affiliated with the CSCE and directly to Leonid Brezhnev. Moscow Helsinki Group members also met with foreign correspondents to reach audiences beyond the Soviet Union. Western journalists, in particular those posted to Moscow bureaus or working for the Voice of America or Radio Liberty, were essential to the development of a broader Helsinki network through their dissemination of information from dissidents.[8]:63 In addition, the documents and appeals were also circulated via samizdat. Many documents that reached the West were republished in periodicals such as the Cahiers du Samizdat and the Samizdat Bulletin.

In the six years of its existence in the Soviet Union, the Moscow Helsinki Group compiled a total of 195 such complaints. Between 12 May 1976 and 6 September 1982, when the last three members who were not imprisoned announced the Group would discontinue its work, the Group also compiled numerous appeals to the signatory states, trade unions in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the world public.[10]:150

Over time, the Group's documents focused on a wide range of issues, including national self-determination, the right to choose one's residence, emigration and the right of return, freedom of belief, the right to monitor human rights, the right to a fair trial, the rights of political prisoners, and the abuse of psychiatry.[8]:63


On 18 October 1976, 13 Jewish refuseniks came to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet to petition for explanations of denials of their right to emigrate from the U.S.S.R., as affirmed under the Helsinki Final Act. Failing to receive any answer, they assembled in the reception room of the Presidium on the following day. After a few hours of waiting, they were seized by the agents of militia, taken outside of the city limits and beaten. Two of them were kept in police custody. In the next week, following an unsuccessful meeting between the activists' leaders and the Soviet Minister of Internal Affairs, General Nikolay Shchelokov, these abuses of law inspired several mass demonstrations in the Soviet capital. On Monday, October 25, 22 activists, including Mark Azbel, Felix Kandel, Alexander Lerner, Ida Nudel, Anatoly Shcharansky, Vladimir Slepak, and Michael Zeleny, were arrested in Moscow on their way to the next demonstration. They were convicted of hooliganism and incarcerated in the detention center Beryozka and other penitentiaries in and around Moscow. An unrelated party, artist Victor Motko, arrested in Dzerzhinsky Square on the account of wearing a woolly black beard, was detained along with the protesters in recognition of his prior attempts to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. These events were covered by several British and American journalists including David K. Shipler, Craig R. Whitney, and Christopher S. Wren. The October demonstrations and arrests coincided with the end of the 1976 United States presidential election. On October 25, U.S. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter expressed his support of the protesters in a telegram sent to Scharansky, and urged the Soviet authorities to release them. (See Léopold Unger, Christian Jelen, Le grand retour, A. Michel 1977; Феликс Кандель, Зона отдыха, или Пятнадцать суток на размышление, Типография Ольшанский Лтд, Иерусалим, 1979; Феликс Кандель, Врата исхода нашего: Девять страниц истории, Effect Publications, Tel-Aviv, 1980.) On 9 November 1976, a week after Carter won the Presidential election, the Soviet authorities released all but two of the previously arrested protesters. Several more were subsequently rearrested and incarcerated or exiled to Siberia.

On 1 June 1978, refuseniks Vladimir and Maria Slepak stood on the eighth story balcony of their apartment building. By then they had been denied permission to emigrate for over 8 years. Vladimir displayed a banner that read "Let us go to our son in Israel". His wife Maria held a banner that read "Visa for my son". Fellow refusenik and Helsinki activist Ida Nudel held a similar display on the balcony of her own apartmemt. They were all arrested and charged with malicious hooliganism in violation of Article 206.2 of the Penal Code of the Soviet Union. The Helsinki Group protested their arrests in circulars dated 5 and 15 June of that year. ([1]) Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel were convicted of all charges. They served 5 and 4 years in Siberian exile. ([2], [3])

Working Commission to Investigate the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes[edit]

In January 1977, Alexandr Podrabinek along with a 47-year-old self-educated worker Feliks Serebrov, a 30-year-old computer programmer Vyacheslav Bakhmin and Irina Kuplun established the Working Commission to Investigate the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes.[11]:148 The Commission was formally linked to[11]:148 and constituted as an offshoot of the Moscow Helsinki Group.[12] The commission was composed of five open members and several anonymous ones, including a few psychiatrists who, at great danger to themselves, conducted their own independent examinations of cases of alleged psychiatric abuse.[13]


The Soviet authorities responded with severe repression of the Group's members. They used tactics that included arrests and imprisonment, internal exile, confinement to psychiatric hospitals, and forced emigration. The first arrests of its members were carried out by Soviet authorities in early 1977. The Group's gounder Yuri Orlov was arrested on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation" and sentenced to seven years in a strict regime labor camp followed by five years of internal exile.[14] His arrest was followed by that of Alexander Ginzburg, Natan Sharansky and Malva Landa. In 1976 Vitaly Rubin emigrated, and in 1977 Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Petro Grigorenko.[9]

In the following year, a number of members were sentenced to prison camps, incarcerated in psychiatric institutions, and sent into exile. The members of the Working Commission were also subjected to various terms and types of punishments.[15]:45 Alexander Podrabinek was sentenced to 5 years' internal exile, Irina Grivnina to 5 years' internal exile, Vyacheslav Bakhmin to 3 years in a labor camp, Dr Leonard Ternovsky to 3 years' labor camp, Dr Anatoly Koryagin to 8 years’ imprisonment and labor camp and 4 years’ internal exile, Dr Alexander Voloshanovich was sent to voluntary exile.[16]:153

By the end of 1981, only Elena Bonner, Sofia Kalistratova and Naum Meiman were free, as a result of the unremitting campaign of persecution. The dissolution of the Moscow Helsinki Group was officially announced by Elena Bonner on 8 September 1982.[17]:35 According to Sergei Grigoryants, Elena Bonner announced the dissolution of the Helsinki Group not only because of the direct threat of an arrest to the 75-year-old Sofia Kalistratova, against whom legal action had already been taken, but also because of the fact that the Helsinki Group became a channel for the emigration of those who wished to go abroad and, in some cases, apparently, for the penetration abroad of the KGB agents who had the image of "dissidents".[18]

Rebirth of the group[edit]

In 1989, with the atmosphere of glasnost, the Moscow Helsinki Group was re-established. A group of nine human rights activists, led by Larisa Bogoraz, the widow of Anatoly Marchenko, formally restarted the group on July 28, 1989. Included among the re-founders were Yuri Orlov and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, both part of the original group. Other prominent members are Sergei Kovalev, Viatcheslav Bakhmin, Lev Timofeev, Henri Reznik, Lev Ponomarev, Gleb Yakunin, and Aleksei Simonov. According to Sergei Grigoryants, instead of the heroic and sacrificial Helsinki Group, they created an intelligentsia-oriented elite club, which was forgotten by all while its president was Kronid Lyubarsky and which after his death, when Lyudmila Alexeyeva appeared there, changed into the most servile and pro-government organization among all of them that exist in Russia.[18]


  1. ^ Bowring, Bill (2008). "European minority protection: the past and future of a "major historical achievement"". International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 15 (2): 413–425. doi:10.1163/157181108X332686. 
  2. ^ Selim, Jamal (2015). "Global civil society and Egypt's transition: the dynamics of the boomerang effect". The international dimensions of democratization in Egypt. Springer International Publishing. pp. 105–122. ISBN 978-3-319-16699-5. 
  3. ^ McMahon, Robert; Zeiler, Thomas (2012). Guide to U.S. foreign policy: a diplomatic history. CQ Press. p. 414. ISBN 1452235368. 
  4. ^ "The Moscow Helsinki Group 30th anniversary: from the secret files (a selection of translated KGB/CPSU documents discussing MHG)". The George Washington University. 
  5. ^ "Helsinki Final Act, Section VII". 
  6. ^ Thomas, Daniel (2001). The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691048598. 
  7. ^ “Ob obrazovanii obshchestvennoy gruppy sodeystviya vypolneniyu khel’sinkskikh soglasheniy v SSSR – The Formation of the Public Group to Promote Observance of the Helsinki Agreements in the USSR” of the Moscow Helsinki Group, reprinted in Dokumenty Moskovskoy Khel’sinkskoy gruppy, 1976-1982, eds. G. V. Kuzovkin and D. I. Zubarev (Moscow, 2006)
  8. ^ a b c Snyder, Sarah B. (2011). Human rights activism and the end of the Cold War: a transnational history of the Helsinki network. Human rights in history. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107001053. 
  9. ^ a b "Moscow Helsinki Group (Public Group to Assist the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR, Moscow Group "Helsinki")". Moscow Helsinki Group. 
  10. ^ a b c Wawra, Ernst (2010). "The Helsinki Final Act and the Civil and Human Rights Movement in the Soviet Union". Human Rights And History: A Challenge for Education. Berlin: Stiftung "Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft". pp. 142–154. ISBN 9783981063196. 
  11. ^ a b Voren, Robert van (2010). Cold War in psychiatry: human factors, secret actors. Amsterdam—New York: Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-3046-1. 
  12. ^ Burns, John (26 July 1981). "Moscow silencing psychiatry critics". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 January 2011. 
  13. ^ "The spread of Soviet suppression". New Scientist 78 (1104): 493. 25 May 1978. 
  14. ^ Oshins, Eddie (3 February 1983). "The case of Yuri Orlov". The New York Review of Books. ISSN 0028-7504. 
  15. ^ Voren, Robert van (2009). On dissidents and madness: from the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev to the "Soviet Union" of Vladimir Putin. Amsterdam—New York: Rodopi. ISBN 978-90-420-2585-1. 
  16. ^ Medicine betrayed: the participation of doctors in human rights abuses. Zed Books. 1992. p. 153. ISBN 1-85649-104-8. 
  17. ^ Nuti, Leopoldo (2009). The crisis of détente in Europe: from Helsinki to Gorbachev, 1975-1985. Taylor & Francis. p. 35. ISBN 0-415-46051-4. 
  18. ^ a b Григорьянц, Сергей (2001). Прощание: Гибель правозащитного демократического движения в России [Farewell: The death of human rights democratic movement in Russia]. Index on Censorship (in Russian) (16). 


  • Thomas, Daniel (2001). The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691048598. 
  • Snyder, Sarah B. (2011). Human rights activism and the end of the Cold War: a transnational history of the Helsinki network. Human rights in history. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107001053. 

External links[edit]