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…

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