The Moscow Helsinki Group is marking the 40th anniversary of its founding in 1976. The group became one of the leading avenues for exposing human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Its founders became legends of the Soviet dissident movement and of international human rights activism generally.
August 1, 1975: The Soviet Union and 34 other countries sign the Helsinki Accords as part of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The so-called third basket of the agreements obligates signatory states to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief."
May 12, 1976: At a press conference held in the apartment of Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, a group of activists announces the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group. The original members are: Yury Orlov, Natan Sharansky, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Aleksandr Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Aleksandr Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Pyotr Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam. Ten other activists soon join the organization, whose purpose is to fact-check the Soviet government's implementation of its Helsinki commitments and forward reports of violations to other signatory states.
During its six-year existence, the original Moscow Helsinki Group produces and smuggles 195 reports out of the Soviet Union. Its information is discussed at the international Helsinki follow-up meetings in Belgrade in 1977 and Madrid in 1980.
Similar groups are later created in Warsaw Pact countries and, subsequently, in other Soviet republics. The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch was also originally a Helsinki Watch group.
WATCH: The Moscow Helsinki Group (MacArthur Foundation)
June 1976: An appeal from the Moscow Helsinki Group prompts U.S. Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick to create the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which includes representatives of the U.S. legislative and executive branches.
January 5, 1977: Aleksandr Podrabinek and several other activists found the Working Commission to Investigate the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes as an offshoot of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Between 1977 and 1981, the Working Commission smuggles information about 50 individual cases of punitive psychiatry to the West.
January 8, 1977: An explosion occurs in the Moscow metro system. The Soviet press is quick to blame the Moscow Helsinki Group dissidents for the incident. The group issues a statement denying involvement and restating its commitment to nonviolent protest.
1977: According to a Western study of the Soviet human-rights movement, less than a year after the creation, KGB Chairman Yury Andropov reports that "the need has thus emerged to terminate the actions of Orlov, fellow Helsinki monitor Ginzburg, and others once and for all, on the basis of existing law."
February 1977: Alekseyeva takes advantage of an offer from the Soviet government to leave the country. She settles in the United States, where she continues to work for the Moscow Helsinki Group. She also contributes to the broadcasts of Radio Liberty and Voice of America. Three other leading members of the group also go into exile, while activist Pyotr Grigorenko is stripped of his Soviet citizenship while undergoing medical treatment abroad.
May 18, 1978: Moscow Helsinki Group founder Yury Orlov is sentenced to seven years in a prison camp and five years of internal exile.
June 21, 1978: Vladimir Slepak is sentenced to five years of internal exile.
July 14, 1978: Natan Sharansky is sentenced to three years in prison and 10 years in a strict-regime labor camp.
July 21, 1981: The Working Commission to Investigate the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes ends its work when its last member, Feliks Serebrov, is sentenced to five years in a labor camp followed by five years of internal exile. Earlier, Podrabinek and other commission members were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to seven years. Anatoly Koryagin, who served as the commission's psychiatric consultant, got seven years in prison and five years of exile for "anti-Soviet activities."
December 1981: By the end of 1981, only three Helsinki monitors -- Yelena Bonner (wife of physicist Andrei Sakharov), Sofia Kalistratova, and Naum Meiman are not in prison.
1982: Acting on an appeal by Andrei Sakharov, the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) for Human Rights is founded, creating "a unified international committee to defend all Helsinki Watch Group members." Czech rights activist Karel Schwarzenberg is its chairman from 1984 until 1991. In 1989, the IHF, together with Polish activist Lech Walesa, is awarded the European Human Rights Prize.
September 8, 1982: Yelena Bonner officially announces the dissolution of the original Moscow Helsinki Group, in part because of an arrest threat against the 75-year-old Kalistratova and in part, Bonner says, because the KGB had used the organization to send agents abroad under the guise of dissidents.
1986: The Soviet Union agrees to strip Yury Orlov of his Soviet citizenship and expel him. After his conviction in May 1978, Orlov serves 18 months in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. He then serves the rest of his prison term in two camps in Perm Oblast. He develops tuberculosis and other illnesses while in prison. In 1984, he is exiled to Siberia. In October 1986, he is allowed to leave the Soviet Union. His Soviet citizenship (along with that of 23 other prominent exiles) is restored in 1990 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He has been on the faculty of Cornell University since 1987.
1989: Alekseyeva restarts the Moscow Helsinki group together with activists Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Larisa Bogoraz, Sergei Kovalyov, Aleksei Simonov, Lyov Timfeyev, and Boris Zolotukhin.
1993: Alekseyeva returns to Moscow from exile in the United States. In 1996 she becomes the chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
2012: In order to comply with a new Russian law compelling all organizations that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents," the Moscow Helsinki Group renounces its foreign funding and connections.