Forty years ago today, on May 20, 1969, the human rights movement in the Soviet Union took a bold step forward. A group of 15 brave individuals – scholars, writers, historians – announced the formation of the Initiative Group for Human Rights in the USSR and sent an open letter to the UN Human Rights Commission. Eleven of the 15 were eventually arrested and imprisoned.
RFE/RL’s Russian Service attended a commemorative event at the Moscow headquarters of Memorial and spoke to some of the original members of the initiative group. Veteran activist Aleksandr Lavut, who worked for years on the dissident journal “The Chronicle of Current Events,” described the persecution he endured: “They hunted us, and viciously. We were constantly being watched and listened to. In later years, they followed us constantly, walked behind us, sometimes hiding and sometimes purposely not hiding. My apartment was only searched twice – the second time was when they came for me.”
Lavut was asked how his fellow Soviet citizens viewed his quixotic efforts and he said: “The people we knew, of course, sympathized. But we also heard reproaches like, ‘why are you beating your head against a wall? You should think about your family.’”
This attitude, Lavut says, has only changed a little. “People treat us with a certain respect and sympathy, but far from all. A lot of people think we aren’t needed and are even harmful. But for the most part, people approve of this work.”
Lavut says the social and political rights of Russians are constantly violated. “You might as well say that elections have almost disappeared,” he said.
Sergei Kovalyov, a tireless rights advocate who was also one of the original 15 members of the initiative group, is pleased that many more people (he says the Russian branch of Memorial has up to 10,000 members) are involved in rights work. But he says the obstacles presented by the government remain chillingly the same.
“It boils down to the right to have your own point of view, to be respected and not persecuted,” he said. “For example, it has been reported that President Medvedev has created a commission that is supposed to fight against falsifications of history that harm Russia’s prestige. It is clear that this is just another censorship organ. And a law is being prepared and will not doubt be passed by this Duma (which can in no sense be called a parliament) about the criminalization of such falsifications of history. This is tantamount to a ban on critical statements about World War II. For example, it will be forbidden to compare Stalin to Hitler, although I would say that Hitler is just a pale imitator of Lenin and Stalin. In short, today we are seeing an organized, systematic assault on freedom of thought.”