History and activities of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Background to the Moscow Helsinki Group's Activities

On May 12, 1976, Dr. Yuri F. Orlov announced the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group. The eleven founders of the group, which also included Yelena Bonner, Anatoly Shcharansky, Anatoly Marchenko, Ludmilla M. Alexeyeva and other Soviet citizens, sought to uphold the USSR's responsibility to implement the Helsinki commitments. They based their actions on the provision in the Helsinki Final Act, Principle VII, that establishes the rights of individuals to know and act upon their rights and duties.
In 1982, the Moscow Helsinki Group was forced to disband, yet its pioneering efforts had inspired others to call attention to violations of human rights. In 1989 the Moscow Helsinki Group reestablished itself.


Today, Russia is going through a very difficult period - the one of transition from totalitarian state to constitutional state. One cannot define Russia as a fully constitutional state yet in light of the situation with human rights. In the contemporary Russia, there exist a great number of human rights organizations - both domestic and international. The Moscow Group for Assistance in Implementation of Helsinki Agreements (MHG), founded in 1976, is the eldest Russian human rights organization.

History of the Human Rights Movement. Helsinki Period

On May 12, 1976, at the press-conference initiated by A. Sakharov, Yuri Orlov made a declaration about the creation of the Moscow Group for Assistance in Implementation of Helsinki Agreements (or, as it came to be called, the Moscow Helsinki Group).
The executive declaration on the foundation of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) stated that the goal of the Group was in providing assistance in implementing the humanitarian articles of the Final Act of the Convention for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In accordance with the Final Act, the USSR had gained some significant advantages - primarily, the acceptance of the European frontiers which had been established after the WWII - and had "suffered" only the obligations to comply with human rights. However, the Western partners of the Soviet Union did not count on any notable changes in the Soviet domestic politics. Apparently, the Soviet leaders never thought of making such changes either. Still, having read the text of the Final Act in the newspapers, the Soviet citizens were actually dumfounded by the humanitarian articles because they found out for the first time that their Government had such international obligations. They began to allude to Helsinki Agreements when dealing with the State officials, who refused to comply with one of the rights of the supplicant confirmed by the Final Act.
The MHG advocated for creation of similar Helsinki groups in other countries. But the first positive reaction to the MHG's appeals came not from abroad but from the citizens of other republics in the Soviet Union. On November 9, 1976, Ukrainian Helsinki Group came into being. On November 25 - the Lithuanian one. On November 14, 1977, the Georgian Group was born. On April 1 of the same year -- the Armenian one. In Lithuania, Armenia, and Ukraine, the Helsinki Groups became their first public associations.
Moreover, human rights groups appeared outside the territory of the Soviet Union. In September 1976, in Poland, the Committee for Protection of Workers was founded. On January 1, 1977, "Hartia-77" was established in Czechoslovakia. These associations did not label themselves "Helsinki", but their positions in relation to the issue of human rights were similar to the one of the Helsinki Groups in the USSR, i.e. based on the respective Constitutions of their countries and on the international human rights agreements. Identical demands for the State to adhere to the human rights, as defined in the Final Act, resounded in Hungary, Rumania, and the Democratic Republic of Germany.
The MHG not only gave birth to the era of human rights organizations, but also initiated the foundation of several human rights organizations in the Soviet Union. The Helsinki Groups in the Republics should not be viewed as MHG branches. They were totally independent. Still, all the Helsinki Groups in the Soviet Union were guided by the same principle, i.e. adherence to the humanitarian articles of the Final Act, which brought them close together both on the ideological and on the organizational level.
By undertaking the task of collecting from different sources and organizing information on human rights violations, the MHG adopted the role of a loud-speaker for public demands from all layers of the Soviet society and from citizens of different nationalities and religious believes, who had never had anything in common with one another before. These citizens accepted MHG' s tactics to encourage the West to become medium in the interactions between the Soviet authorities and the Soviet people. Not only the activists of human rights movement but also those of national and regional movements began to address their appeals to the West - primarily, to the Belgrade Conference, the US Congress, the US President, "the public of the world", and "the people of good will".
The authorities immediately reacted to the establishment of the MHG. Three days after the declaration on the foundation of the Group, the Chair of the Group, Yuri Orlov, was warned that if he and "the persons connected to him" became active, they would be punished with all the severity of the law. Still, no arrests had occurred until February of 1977.
However, even the open support from the West could prevent repression against Helsinki Groups members. In February 1977, Yuri Orlov, head of the Moscow Group, and Mikola Rudenko, head of the Ukrainian Group, and some other members of these two Groups were arrested.
The samizdat publication of the human rights movement, Chronicle of Current Events reported that in February-March 1977, at the Department of Agitation and Propaganda of the Central Committee, during a meeting of editors of newspapers and magazines, one speaker (whose name was not quoted) declared that "the decision was made to display the strength and not to pay heed to the West", and therefore, the arrest of 50 most active dissidents and strict measures in relation to their collaborators were being planned. This plan, however, took some time to be carried out, and only later Sakharov was exiled and single arrests of active dissidents turned into mass arrests. In 1977, the authorities were not ready for it just yet. Instead, they chose to temporarily concentrate their repressive activities on the Helsinki Groups only.
The establishment of the Helsinki Groups did not (at the time) bring the results, for the accomplishment of which such Groups had been created - i.e. did not achieve the task of restraining the repressive powers of the authorities with help from the West. For his activities, Yuri Orlov was sentenced to 7 years of lard labor and 5 years of exile. A great number of his fellow-dissidents shared the same fate.
During the period of 1977-78, 12 people from different Helsinki Groups were arrested. Two of MHG members were forced to emigrate. One member of the Leningrad Group also had to emigrate. The number of members in each Group being very small, such losses were significant, but the Georgian Group was the only one to dissolve at the time.
During the period of 1978-79, a few independent associations came into being in the city of Moscow. While the MHG dealt with the entire block of issues related to human rights, these new associations were, so to say, "specialized" or "profile" because they saw their task in protecting one particular group of citizens or one particular human right (or several particular human rights). They were the Initiative Group for Protection of the Rights of Invalids in the USSR, the Free Trade Union, and others. In 1982, the MHG had to stop its activities due to the fact that "almost all the members were arrested, and new members could not be accepted, because once accepted, they would have been arrested right. So, it did not make any sense to accept new people and thus send them straight to prisons. Until 1989, the MHG did not exist. And when political prisoners were released in 1989, they reestablished the Helsinki Group. Still, I should better say that they did not reestablish the old Helsinki Group but actually founded a new one under the old name. Out of all the old members, only Orlov and I now participated, and both of us lived in the US at the time. And all the rest of the members of the new Group, had not participated in the MHG before."
Presently, on the territory of the former Soviet Union, there are more than 10 Helsinki Groups: Azerbaidgian National Committee of Helsinki Public Assembly; Armenian Committee for Assistance in Implementation of the Helsinki Agreements; Byelorussian Helsinki Committee; Helsinki Committee of Alma-Ata; Georgian Committee of Helsinki Public Assembly; Helsinki Public Assembly of Moldova; Moscow Helsinki Group, Ukrainian Group "Helsinki-90", and others. The first Group to appear in a democratic country was the American Helsinki Group, established in the USA in December of 1978. In different democratic countries, the American Helsinki Group was searching for people involved in human rights activities and helping these people to create small Groups in their respective countries. In 1982, in Italy, a conference on the establishment of the International Helsinki Federation took place. The Federation consisted of the following members: the MHG, the Yugoslavian Helsinki Group, the Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian Groups, and Groups from England, from the US, from the Netherlands, and from Sweden. Presently, the number of Helsinki Groups is considerably larger because such Groups have been created in almost every country of the dissolved USSR.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights is a non-governmental international organization that monitors the situation with compliance with the Final Act and all of the later issued decrees. The International Helsinki Federation (IHF) publishes Annual Reports on the situation with human rights in different countries across the world. The IHF received information not only from 31 counties presented by the respective Helsinki Groups but also from other countries, where such Group do not exist. The Annual Reports condemn violations of human rights and political regimes of those States, where such violations are allowed to take place.
In early December 1997, in Minsk, the IHF held a 3-day conference. The city of Minsk was not a location of random choice. It was selected in light of the Byelorussian events. The situation in Byelorussia is described in the public address of the First Assembly of Byelorussian Non-Governmental Organizations. The address specifically relates the following, "We, representatives of 251 non-commercial, non-political, non-government organizations, are strongly convinced in the vital necessity of democratic changes in our country. We are concerned about the unequaled level of human rights violations in Byelorussia. We believe that right now, when the authorities are striving to resurrect the authoritarian Soviet-like regime, it is extremely important to establish a coalition of democratic non-government organizations."
Presently, the IHF is quite an influential organization with about 40 Groups participating. It's Head-Quarters, where the executive director, the treasurer, and the experts work, are located in Vienna. There, once, a year, the Chairs of all the Groups hold a meeting. During that meeting, they presents their reports on the situation in their respective countries, submit materials for the next Annual Report, and determine main trends of activities for the next year.
According to the membership date for 1997, the representative offices of the IHF are open in Albany, Austria, Byelorussia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Rumania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The MHG has provided support in establishment of the Society of Assistance in Implementation of Human Rights in Central Asia, which was founded by a group of immigrant human rights defenders from the countries of Central Asia, in Moscow, in 1993.
It is impossible to for the Society to actively function on the territory of Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan due to the fact the after the fall of the "Soviet Empire", and the establishment of these new independent states, the repressions against all opposing public and political organizations, human rights activists, and journalists have only become more severe. Hence, the Society had to be registered in Moscow. From there, it works on monitoring the situation with human rights in Central Asia and, sizing up the results of the monitoring, publishes Informational Bulletins on human Rights violations in Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The leaders and members of the Society are still aided and supported by the MHG.
Now, among the members of the MHG are the following well-known and respected people: Yu. Orlov, E. Ametistov, L. Bogoraz, V. Borschev, D. Kaminskaya, S. Kovalelev, B. Pinsker, G. Resznik, L. Ponomarev, G. Yakunin, V. Abramkin, and others. An prominent member of the MHG and an zealous human rights activist, Galina Starovoitova, was brutally murdered in November of 1998.

The principal goals of the MHG are the following:
Maximal assistance in practical implementation of the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCU) of 1975;
Advocacy of human rights ideas;
Compilation, generalization, and analysis of information related to the situation with human rights in a state, viewed within the framework of content and spirit of international human rights obligations, including information on specific cases of violations of human rights by government bodies or non-governmental organizations;
Bringing the information described above to the attention of leaders of the states that signed the Helsinki Agreement, leaders of the states that participate in the Council of Europe, international organizations concerned, domestic governmental and non-governmental institutions, and public opinion;
Searching for forms of effective public participation in the legislative process within the domain of the issues related to human rights and their protection, providing maximal assistance to legislators in working out specific guarantees for observing human rights, including doing so by offering specific comments on the discussed projects.
In order to realize these goals, the MHG is doing the following:
Works in close contact with regional human rights centers, helps these centers to resolve their problems, and represents them in government institutions;
Cooperates with all persons, organizations, and movements, whose tasks and activities are not in contradiction with the MHG's goals;
Collects, obtains, organizes, stores, and disseminates information and documents related to human rights issues;
Carries out other legal activities with the purpose of realizing its goals and tasks;
Accepts written personal complaints, related to violation of the Final Act, directly from Russian citizens, briefly summarizes these complaints, e-addresses them to the leaders of all states that sighed the Final Act and bring them to public attention; signed original of the complaints remained stores at the Group's archive;
In cooperation with the public, seeks to obtain any other information on violation of the humanitarian Articles, processes such information, and, attaching its own evaluation of the reliability of the information, addresses it the appropriate state leaders and to the public.

Address, telephone, fax, e-mail
Moscow Helsinki Group
Bolshoy Golovin per.d. 22, str. 1
103045 Moscow
Tel: +7-095-207 6069
Fax: +7-095-207 6065
e-mail: mhg@glasnet.ru

Ludmilla Mikhailovna Alexejeva, Chairperson

International Helsinki Federation