Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Formed by a group of Soviet scientists and writers, the Moscow Human Rights Committee played a major role in monitoring and publicizing Soviet violations of civil and political rights.

Summary of Event

Under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, numerous types of Soviet dissenters existed; religious groups, professional groups, and national groups were among them. The Moscow Human Rights Committee came to play an important role in facilitating communication among the different activists and in publicizing incidents of Soviet repression to the West. Moscow Human Rights Committee Human rights;Soviet Union Soviet Union;political dissent [kw]Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded (Nov. 11, 1970) [kw]Human Rights Committee Is Founded, Moscow (Nov. 11, 1970) [kw]Rights Committee Is Founded, Moscow Human (Nov. 11, 1970) Moscow Human Rights Committee Human rights;Soviet Union Soviet Union;political dissent [g]Europe;Nov. 11, 1970: Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded[11000] [g]Soviet Union;Nov. 11, 1970: Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded[11000] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 11, 1970: Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded[11000] [c]Human rights;Nov. 11, 1970: Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded[11000] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 11, 1970: Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded[11000] [c]Cold War;Nov. 11, 1970: Moscow Human Rights Committee Is Founded[11000] Chalidze, Valery Sakharov, Andrei Tverdokhlebov, Andrei Brezhnev, Leonid

Committee initiator Valery Chalidze is a major chronicler of the human rights movement. He traces the origin of that movement to a December 5, 1965, demonstration in Moscow with two slogans.: “Respect the Constitution, the Basic Law of the USSR” and “We Demand That the Sinyavsky-Daniel Trial Be Public.” Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel were authors brought to trial for writing work critical of the Soviet Union and for smuggling it to the West for publication. The trial was not public (although its procedural flaws were soon revealed). This trial, the convictions for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” that followed, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and further arrests of prominent dissidents served as catalysts for the intellectuals who formed the Moscow Human Rights Committee.

Two additional acts of dissent inspired the Moscow Human Rights Committee: the publication of the Chronicle of Current Events, Chronicle of Current Events (periodical) an anonymously published journal of the Soviet human rights movement (beginning in April, 1968), and formation of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in May, 1969, when fifteen citizens petitioned the United Nations regarding a wide range of civil rights violations.

The Moscow Human Rights Committee was set up as “creative, nonpolitical” organization, and pledged to operate within the Soviet Union. Its “Statement of Purposes” expressed satisfaction with Soviet human rights achievements since 1953. It identified three aims: to consult with the state in developing human rights guarantees, to assist individuals interested in investigating “theoretical aspects” of the human rights question, and to conduct civic education regarding international and Soviet human rights guarantees. Chalidze acknowledged an additional function: The committee contributed to the exercise of rights in unaccustomed areas, often resulting in unlawful persecution by the authorities.

Formation of the committee was publicized through issuance of the “Statement of Purposes” and a November 11, 1970, press conference at Chalidze’s apartment. The committee’s members had issued appeals on behalf of General Pyotr Grigorenko Grigorenko, Pyotr (when, in 1969, he was incarcerated in a mental hospital for the second time) and Zhores Medvedev Medvedev, Zhores (a biologist who was confined in a mental hospital for a period in 1970). The committee reflected the contributions of its three leaders, all of whom were trained as physicists: Valery Chalidze, Andrei Sakharov, and Andrei Tverdokhlebov. Its activities ranged from sponsorship of symposia on human rights issues to publication of a typewritten journal (Social Problems) to issuance of detailed analyses of human rights issues. The committee’s primary focus was on Soviet conditions, although it also came to the defense of American political prisoner Angela Davis.

The committee was Chalidze’s idea, and it met in his apartment. Chalidze had an extensive record of human rights activity. He had a thorough knowledge of the Soviet procedural and criminal codes and provided legal assistance to the public, sometimes with the assent of other committee members but more often on his own. He assisted individuals seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union, prisoners seeking to appeal incorrect sentencing, and religious communities seeking to acquire or change their legal status. The government made it increasingly difficult for Chalidze to pursue his career as a physicist, and he resigned from his institute in 1971. In September of 1972 he resigned from the committee. When he visited the West later that year to speak at Georgetown University, the Supreme Soviet took away his citizenship, forcing him into exile in the United States.

Sakharov provided the committee with legitimacy through his status as an academician and nuclear physicist. Sakharov’s “turning point” occurred in 1967, when he wrote Leonid Brezhnev on behalf of dissidents Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, Alexei Dobrovolsky, and Vera Lashkova. For his protests, Sakharov lost his post as department head and received a reduction in salary. In October of 1970, Sakharov attended his first trial, in which Revolt Pimenov Pimenov, Revolt and Boris Vail Vail, Boris were charged with circulating samizdat Samizdat (typewritten or copied materials disseminated by dissidents). The hypocrisy affected Sakharov and brought him closer to Chalidze. For Sakharov, the committee served a valuable social function. He wrote in his Memoirs Memoirs (Sakharov) (1990) that “not having been spoiled by an abundance of friends in my life, I prized this opportunity for human contact.” It was during a visit to Chalidze that Sakharov met Elena Bonner, whom he would later marry.

Andrei Sakharov was awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize for his work supporting human rights in the Soviet Union.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Tverdokhlebov was a physicist and the son of a former Soviet deputy minister of culture. In December of 1972, he left the committee. He later founded “Group 73” and served as secretary of the Soviet Amnesty International group. The indictment at Tverdokhlebov’s 1976 trial summarized his human rights activities before, during, and after his work with the Moscow Human Rights Committee. In 1970, he signed a letter supportive of the Nobel Committee’s award to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He helped assemble documents about political uses of psychiatry and contacted officials of the World Psychiatric Congress and International League for Human Rights. The Soviet government described Tverdokhlebov’s activities from 1970 to 1975 as criminal: “the drawing up [reproduction and distribution] of collective letters, declarations and appeals which contained libels against the Soviet system.”

The three founders were later joined by geophysicist Grigory Podyapolsky Podyapolsky, Grigory and mathematician Igor Shafarevich Shafarevich, Igor , a Lenin Prize recipient and corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences. Shafarevich authored a 1972 report on religious legislation for the committee. Committee members differed somewhat in orientation. Chalidze emphasized law. Sakharov hoped that his influence could be used to pressure the government to reform. Sakharov and Shafarevich urged a focus on major issues (such as psychiatric abuse and religious persecution); they perceived that Chalidze and Tverdokhlebov were drawn to paradoxical and extreme legal points. Because the legal scholars best understood the committee’s bylaws, it was they who set the agenda.

The committee provided thorough analyses of human rights questions. They addressed the political uses of psychiatry and urged the World Psychiatric Association to take action. Chalidze prepared an opinion “On the Rights of Persons Declared Mentally Ill.” "On the Rights of Persons Declared Mentally Ill" (Chalidze)[On the Rights of Persons Declared Mentally Ill] This was used by the full committee in issuing a statement on July 3, 1971, that warned of “serious social danger in a broad interpretation of the concepts ’mental illness’ and ’mental deficiency’ while procedures for contesting application of these concepts are far from perfect.” The committee was concerned that the state could use these concepts to restrict the rights of individuals or groups.

Committee members were displeased by the hesitance of the international psychiatric community to recognize abuses. The committee (then composed of Podyapolsky, Sakharov, and Shafarevich) expressed its disappointment with the International Committee of Psychotherapists’ inaction, claiming that the psychotherapists’ desire for “rapprochement . . . should be contingent on the renunciation . . . of actions which outrage the conscience of mankind.” Not acting was said to encourage expanded psychiatric repression and to betray inmates in psychiatric prisons. The World Psychiatric Association was also slow to respond to reports of psychiatric abuse.

Committee meetings included informative seminars. Topics included the right of the Tatars to return to their native Crimea from the republics to which they had been exiled in 1945, resettlement of the Mekshi (a Turkic people deported from the Georgian-Turkish frontier region), laws on “parasitism,” the meaning of the term “political prisoner,” and the right to legal defense. Often a committee member would draft a statement, and sometimes the statement would then be redrafted as a Committee document. The committee issued appeals to governments, to human rights organizations, and to world public opinion.

These appeals usually addressed human rights in the Soviet Union (for example, the 1973 appeal protesting the arrest of dissident writer Andrei Amalrik) but occasionally dealt with events outside the Soviet Union (for example, a 1972 appeal concerning the imprisonment of Angela Davis in the United States). Committee appeals also publicized the existence of Russian Orthodox prisoners of conscience—the Orthodox church’s close relationship with the Soviet government prevented it from doing so. The committee’s emphasis on universal human rights was not the most common form of Soviet dissent. Most dissenters sought rights for their own national, religious, or social group. The committee’s role was different: Its members sought a sweeping liberalization of Soviet society so that all citizens would be protected from arbitrary state action.


The committee was small in number but powerful in impact. With other groups, it enhanced Moscow’s central, coordinating role as nucleus of the Soviet human rights movement. Consequences of its activities included repression by the Soviet government, a mixed reception from Soviet citizens, and recognition by international human rights advocates. Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet government used an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to discourage dissent. Moscow Human Rights Committee members were subject to ostracism, harassment, imprisonment, economic sanctions, and exile.

Agents of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) searched Chalidze’s home, confiscating allegedly anti-Soviet materials. These included texts of United Nations documents and human rights journals. Chalidze was blacklisted as a physicist and put in a precarious financial position. When questioned by the KGB in 1972, Sakharov was told that his membership in the committee was on and of itself a slander against the state. He was told that he was “not morally sound,” an ominous phrase that suggested the prospect of psychiatric treatment, used by Soviet authorities on several prominent dissidents. Solzhenitsyn was banished from the country in February of 1974.

The committee was ridiculed by some Soviet citizens for criticizing the Soviet government and condemned by some Soviet dissidents for its efforts to work within established legal channels. Sakharov indicated that Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn, a corresponding member of the committee, came to see its journalistic approach as a “waste of time.”

The Moscow Human Rights Committee’s efforts were encouraged by a growing international human rights movement. In 1971, the International League for the Rights of Man International League for the Rights of Man (headquartered in New York and later known as the International League for Human Rights) welcomed the committee as an affiliate. The committee established contact with many other groups, among them the International Institute for Human Rights, located in Strasbourg, France. The committee received extensive press coverage, surpassing its founders’ expectations. The Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Deutsche Welle offered extensive reporting. Committee members enjoyed some protection from the authorities as a result of their status and were adept in attracting coverage from the Western press.

The lack of observable immediate effects only strengthened the resolve of committee members. The committee’s founders did not end their human rights activities even after the committee drifted apart in 1974. Tverdokhlebov worked with Group 73 and Amnesty International until his trial in 1976. Sakharov continued to write and protest but declined to cosponsor the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976. He preferred to be free of organizational constraints. Sakharov’s continued public protests resulted in his exile to Gorky from 1980 to 1986. During that period, he spent 294 days alone in the hospital, only ten of them voluntarily. Chalidze continued his prolific writing on Soviet law and policy, edited the Chronicle of the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, and received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Soviet Union liberalized and Sakharov was acclaimed as the “conscience of the nation.” The thinking of the liberals who sought to protect the individual from arbitrary state action was flow dominant. This was largely a result of the leadership of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policy of glasnost Glasnost (openness) generally reflected the principles of the Moscow Human Rights Committee. The committee stood for the proposition that it is ultimately an informed public, not solely the government, that promotes human rights and the rule of law. Moscow Human Rights Committee Human rights;Soviet Union Soviet Union;political dissent

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexeyeva, Ludmilla. Soviet Dissent. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985. This book is an excellent encyclopedic description of the many forms of Soviet dissent. The author was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and successfully distinguishes the goals and tactics of the Moscow Human Rights Committee from other groups. Index and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boobbyer, Philip. Conscience, Dissent, and Reform in Soviet Russia. New York: Routledge, 2005. Detailed analysis of political dissenters, morality, ethics, and the battle for human and civil rights in the Soviet Union. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chalidze, Valerii. To Defend These Rights. New York: Random House, 1974. Chalidze’s book exemplifies his legalist approach to human rights. A well-written, readable argument that dissenters had the law on their side. Extensive appendixes documenting the Soviet human rights struggle and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Chronicle of Current Events. Soviet periodical of the human rights movement. A defiant, secretly written and self-published journal that gained a reputation for accuracy. Describes the activities and harassment of members of the Human Rights Committee and other groups. Published and disseminated in the West by Amnesty International.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, Joshua. Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. This book offers a lively, very readable description of Soviet dissent. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sakharov, Andrei. Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. This book traces Sakharov’s career and provides a sensitive description of Sakharov’s interaction with other committee members. One chapter details the committee’s founding; other parts shed light on differences among committee members. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saunders, George, comp. Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition. New York: Monad Press, 1974. This reader includes the text of the Human Rights Committee’s “Statement of Purposes.” It also includes documents from dissenters throughout Soviet history. The foreword by Saunders identifies distinct currents among the Soviet opposition. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shatz, Marshall S. Soviet Dissent in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Insightful comparisons among the Human Rights Committee members and previous dissidents in Soviet and Russian history. Discusses Sakharov as an exemplar of liberal dissent, in contrast with Medvedev and Solzhenitsyn. Notes the prominent role of natural scientists. Index.

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Categories: History