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The Tenth Year of the Watch

The following is a transcript of part of the press conference in New York City on May 12 in honor of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Three of the founding members took part: Anatoly Shcharansky, Yelena Bonner, and Ludmilla Alexeyeva, author of Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights. The chairman of the meeting was Robert Bernstein, chairman of the US Helsinki Watch Committee.

Anatoly Shcharansky: What was our idea ten years ago? Before we created our group [the Moscow Helsinki Group], I remember quite well that there were long discussions among Yury Orlov, Andrei Amalrik, who is unfortunately now deceased, myself, and some other people. We started an energetic discussion about how to involve public opinion and make progress in the Helsinki process. At that time it became clear that although the Helsinki accords had been signed by thirty-five nations, after long debates, the understanding of these accords was quite different: each side tried to relate to it in its own way. The Soviet Union tries to ignore completely the third “basket” of the accords, on human rights.

Our idea was that it would probably be much easier to find a common language, a common understanding, on the third basket among representatives of different public opinon, left and right, the religious, national, and other movements in different countries, who are personally interested in the implementation of the third basket of the Helsinki accords. We thought that by reaching an understanding among themselves, these movements could try to make the governments accept that understanding.

It was a very general, theoretical approach, which Yury Orlov turned into a very concrete thing. If before people thought about writing a letter, or appealing to public opinion and proposing to start discussions and organize such groups in different countries and within the Soviet Union, now Yury Orlov was making a most decisive step. He said no, we must provide an example. We must create our own group and start working, start taking information from citizens about violations of human rights under the Helsinki accords in the Soviet Union, and then we’ll call on the others to follow our example.

It was, of course, a great task, and I don’t know of any other person in the Soviet Union at that time, and maybe even now, who could have organized people from such different directions, with such different interests. You see, there were Zionists and monarchists, Russians and Ukrainians and Byelorussians, and even Eurocommunists, I’d say, people of absolutely different views. There were those who wanted to leave, like myself or Vitaly Rubin, and those who were concerned about the situation in Soviet prisons and camps, and those who were concerned mainly about religious freedoms. But all of us were united by the Helsinki group.

Of course, this was Yury Orlov’s great achievement, and even now I can’t understand how he managed to do the job so successfully. And I remember one of our first talks about the group, when Yury Orlov said, “Well, I think very soon we’ll be arrested under Article 64.” That seemed fantastic to me—64—which means high treason! There had never been such a thing before. I answered, “No, I don’t think so. First, the Belgrade conference is coming up in a few months”—that was a follow-up meeting in the Helsinki process—“I don’t think they’ll start making arrests yet. And if they do start, it will be under Article 70 [on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda].” They started under Article 70 and soon I was arrested under Article 64. So in some way, Yury Orlov predicted my fate.

I simply want to show that we understood what it meant to form the Helsinki group—arrest. It wasn’t that we hoped that it wouldn’t be so. We understood that such a threat of arrest existed. I remember the articles that appeared at that time in the Western press. They were writing that it was a real test of Soviet intentions. Would they try to destroy this group? We, from the very beginning, emphasized that our only function was to gather information about possible violations of human rights in connection with the Helsinki accords, and make it available to public opinion. Nothing more.

Of course, someone like myself specialized in problems of emigration, mainly Jewish emigration, and I was also a kind of spokesman, with contacts with the Western press. Some other members of the group, like Malva Landa, or Alexander Ginzburg, were mainly involved with the situation in political camps, and Ludmilla Alexeyeva, as far as I remember, was mainly involved in the rights of nationalities. And it was really a test. A test of Soviet intentions. The results—you know. We existed successfully for—how many months? From May to—

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: Nine months.

Anatoly Shcharansky: For nine months. And then the child was born. The KGB started making their arrests. At that time, there were eleven of us, the first founding members. And then, after the first arrests started, there were—[Ludmilla Alexeyeva interrupts.] Yes. Then there were nine of us. [Yelena Bonner interrupts.]

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: It’s just like back in the Moscow group!

Anatoly Shcharansky: I’m starting to remember. And after that they started making arrests. [Interruption. Shcharansky makes cutting-off gesture.] As a rule, in prison, we got used to keeping order! So what was I talking about—ah. So then some were arrested, Yury Orlov, Alexander Ginzburg, myself, and the others. Others were joining….

Yelena Bonner: [Laughing] Perhaps you’d better let me have the floor!

Anatoly Shcharansky: No, I was not going to tell everything, I only wanted to finish now and say that at this time, as far as I know, about fifty Helsinki group members, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Georgians, I think there’s someone from Georgia, yes, of course—

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: Merab Kostava.

Anatoly Shcharansky: Kostava’s still arrested?

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: Yes, he still is.

Anatoly Shcharansky: About fifty people have been arrested. The Helsinki movements, in the form in which they existed, are virtually destroyed. I can tell you that a point of deepest disappointment for people in the camps was when the Madrid Concluding Document was signed [in September 1983], after long discussion, without any improvement in the situation in the camps, with dozens of people from the Helsinki groups still sitting in the camps, still being arrested, without any emigration—as you know, even now, Jewish emigration is almost zero—with all the harassment against national minorities, and religious people, and with new laws making the situation in the camps even more severe. A new law, Article 188, gives the authorities an opportunity virtually to prolong any sentence automatically. It is already being used against dozens of group members, such as Tatyana Osipova, Anatoly Koryagin, and others. Well, OK, I am finished.

Yelena Bonner/Interpreter: I’ve become unaccustomed to Tolya [i.e., Shcharansky] interpreting and have become used to Cathy.*

Anatoly Shcharansky: [Laughing] You’re betraying me! After all these years!

Robert Bernstein: The effect of the women’s movement in America.

Yelena Bonner: And then feminists are listened to more in America. [Laughter] Tolya has given me the floor right at the place where the group members began to be arrested. I have to say, in the beginning, I think I joined the group only formally. I even said right at the outset that I wouldn’t do any work. But I gave my name, so that people would not think that Sakharov was against the group. Then it happened that some people were arrested, some left—in general, no one remained. So, for many years, I was forced to become fairly active in the work of the group. The situation kept changing because some emigrated, some were arrested—but there I was, staying right in place. And it reached the point that for the last time, I held the annual political prisoners’ day, on October 31, 1983, all by myself.

I must speak honestly. In Moscow, there was a kind of decline in all the movements—Jewish and non-Jewish—the time came when on political prisoners’ day I couldn’t find anyone who would come to my home and hold it with me. And when Tolya declared a hunger strike, not a single home could be found in Moscow where his mother would be allowed in to hold a press conference. I came myself especially from Gorky to hold the press conference at my house. At that time, I could still travel back and forth between Moscow and Gorky.

But circumstances turned out to be such that only three of us were left: myself, Naum Meiman, and Sofya Vasilyevna Kallistratova. Then a case was opened up against Sofya Kallistratova, and we were informed, through her lawyer, Reznikova, to close down the group, so that Kallistratova could stay in Moscow. She’s a sick woman, and elderly. And we were told: “If you don’t close down the group—she can’t stay in Moscow.” We made the decision to discontinue the group—until such time as the thirty-five countries that signed the accords could defend the Helsinki Final Act, we would cease our work, because it had become impossible. But many members of the group—about whom Tolya has spoken—remained in prison.

I want to speak today, on a holiday, a birthday, the tenth anniversary of the group, about several very serious questions that the Helsinki citizens’ movement is facing, and which are now very crucial. I’m sure many of you know that there is not only a Helsinki group in the US, but groups in many European countries as well. There is an opinion that the Helsinki Act ought to be cancelled because it is not being implemented; people are being arrested, and it’s impossible for citizens’ Helsinki groups to do their work. In connection with this, I would like to state my own personal opinion on the subject. Many people have asked me this question, many times—what’s your feeling about cancellation of the accords?

I know here there’s a very heated debate about this among those [émigrés] who have come from the USSR to the United States. And despite the fact that I have witnessed the entire development of the Helsinki group in the USSR, and the tragic situation around it, and with many of its members, I think that the Helsinki Act and all the international developments connected with it should be continued. The Helsinki Act, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants on rights, provides an opportunity for intergovernmental communication on human rights questions. It creates a platform that is very important, important in all aspects. Allow me to quote the introduction of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in which he states: “Peace, progress, and human rights—these three goals are indissolubly linked: it is impossible to achieve one of them if the others are ignored.”

So I think today, on the tenth anniversary of the Helsinki group in the USSR, we must think practically about how we can help the people who are still in prison, how to apply pressure for their release. But at the same time, we also have to think how to develop the Helsinki movement so that the Helsinki Act will really be fulfilled, fulfilled by all the countries that signed it. And not fulfilled in just one part, but as a whole.

Interpreter: Is that all?

Yelena Bonner: That’s it! Why, is that really not enough?

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: I have a few words to say but I want to have Shcharansky interpret—according to tradition.

Anatoly Shcharansky: She yields to traditions more than Yelena! OK.

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: [with Shcharansky interpreting]: Our group was created first of all to defend the human rights of our fellow Soviet citizens. And we fulfilled our task diligently. Tolya has enumerated the rights to emigration, national rights, religious and other rights. But this group was created by human rights activists who didn’t belong to any specific religious or national movement, and who were equally concerned about everyone. Currently, thirty-six members of Helsinki groups, of the Moscow group as well as groups in the other national republics of the USSR, are imprisoned. And it’s painful for me to see that although for each national group, there are national groups speaking out here in the free world—the presence of Mr. Shcharansky here is a victory for one of those national groups—and also religious activists defend their fellow believers, when we come to human rights activists, who themselves defend everybody else—it turns out that there’s nobody to defend them. Like Yury Orlov, and others.

Our torch has been passed on, and picked up by the Helsinki groups in the West, who have taken our name and accepted our platform. Unfortunately, in the degree of their influence, and perhaps activism, they cede to the national and religious groups, as far as their possibilities go. And I appeal urgently to everyone to help the Helsinki groups to defend those who have defended everyone else and who are now imprisoned.

Reporter: Mrs. Bonner, you have less than a month before your return. You have been very careful, it seems to me, to abide by the letter of your agreement with the Soviets, if not always the spirit of the agreement. What do you expect?

Yelena Bonner: No, I’ve always expected exactly as much as what the West would permit. I want you to understand my answer. Do you? The West loves to ask—and anticipates the worst before it happens—never taking into account at all that as much as the West permits, that is what will happen. I’m not saying this for the first time, I’ve been saying it for a long time.

Reporter: I’d like to ask your opinion on something. And that is, after twelve, fourteen years of détente and not détente, there seems to be a record that would indicate that at two points, the Soviet Union has allowed a significant amount of emigration. One, when they were hoping to get most-favored-nation trade status and the other when they were hoping to get ratification of the SALT treaty. And at any other time, they have cut back on emigration. And no amount of speechmaking or pressure from the West seems to have moved them. What has moved them has been the carrot of trade and arms control. And if that is the case, do you think that it would be better for the human rights movements in the West to concentrate some of their attention on those two things which seem to have worked in the past, to promote emigration, rather than to continue the kind of one-sided verbal approach, which demonstrably has failed, to the Soviets to fulfill their obligations under the Helsinki accords to allow people—

Robert Bernstein: Is this a question to Yelena Bonner?

Reporter: To both, please.

Yelena Bonner [in Russian, to Shcharansky]: You’d better answer since it concerns emigration [laughing] and if I don’t like the answer, I’ll say so!

Anatoly Shcharansky: Mrs. Bonner says that she wants me to answer about matters concerning emigration. I have always said, and the last time only yesterday, on Solidarity Sunday, that spiritual solidarity by itself is a very important thing, but it cannot be heard by the political leaders of the Soviet Union. It must be translated into language which is understandable to them. That means it has to be connected with political and economic pressure. Only then can it bring success. That’s my position on all these questions. So.

Yelena Bonner/Interpreter: And I would add to that a third factor—publicity. Soviet authorities are very sensitive to publicity in the West and to questions of their prestige.

Margot Hornblower (The Washington Post): I was wondering whether what was being suggested perhaps was that there was tremendous activism on the part of Jewish groups for emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, but you didn’t see, or you don’t see, a similar activism on the part of Christian groups—to stop the persecution of Christians—and on the part of other groups in general to stop persecution of nationalities, such as the Ukrainians and Georgians. Does this seem like there’s an imbalance in the activism in the West?

Yelena Bonner: How can I explain why that is in the West? I personally don’t know the West.

Margot Hornblower: I was asking whether this is what was being suggested by the third speaker.

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: I don’t think they’re not active—they’re very active. Ukrainians support Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars support Crimean Tatars; Georgians and Armenians aren’t so active, I don’t know why—it would be easier to ask them.

Anatoly Shcharansky: I can say that political prisoners, Ukrainians and Lithuanians whom I met, complained that their brothers in the West don’t do enough. They’ve all said, look what you Jews are doing. So they were not envious, but at least they wanted their communities to follow them.

Ludmilla Alexeyeva: Perhaps the Jewish community has more influence—it’s so.

Mike Shuster (National Public Radio): [On liberalizing] the emigration from the Soviet Union: Do you have any specific application of pressure that you think might work?

Anatoly Shcharansky: You see, I’m not a specialist in specific questions of economics, I prefer to abstain from concrete suggestions. But I can say that something like the Jackson amendment and the type of policies that Senator Jackson demonstrated, I think, were a very correct thing. The most important thing now, for the West, is to be consistent in its pressure, because the Soviet Union will give in and liberalize the regime and open the doors for emigration only if it sees that it will not have a chance to deceive the West. This is what happened, unfortunately, during previous administrations, when the Soviets succeeded in signing agreements but never thought of fulfilling them, for example, or when they knew that strong words today would mean weak actions tomorrow. That’s why, I think, that now even the Soviet Union understands that it has no chance of obtaining Western technology, and that an atmosphere in which new, serious treaties can be reached cannot be created without fulfilling the Helsinki accords, without creating an atmosphere of trust, for which it is necessary for the Soviets to do what they have already promised. If they don’t, then, in that case, they will not get what they want. Only then can there be success.

Reporter [to Bonner]: When was the last time you saw Shcharansky?

Yelena Bonner/Interpreter: Shcharansky…I saw him…probably it was the night before—no!—it was the very day of his arrest, I think, in the morning.

  1. *

    Catherine Fitzpatrick, her interpreter in the US.

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