Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After dissidents had engaged in public protest for two years against Soviet violations of the Helsinki Accords on human rights, authorities had the protesters arrested.

Summary of Event

After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union, under Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization[destalinization] and Leonid Brezhnev, sought international accommodation with the West while still trying to maintain strict control over politics and economics at home. One of the Kremlin’s major goals was Western recognition of the border changes that Soviet leaders had made after World War II. Western leaders were reluctant to recognize these and insisted on linking any recognition to improvement in human rights in the Soviet Union. Helsinki Watch;Moscow Group Soviet Union;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Soviet Union Human rights activism [kw]Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group (Feb.-Mar., 1977) [kw]Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group, Soviets Crack Down on (Feb.-Mar., 1977) [kw]Helsinki Watch Group, Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s (Feb.-Mar., 1977) Helsinki Watch;Moscow Group Soviet Union;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Soviet Union Human rights activism [g]Soviet Union;Feb.-Mar., 1977: Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group[02760] [g]Europe;Feb.-Mar., 1977: Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group[02760] [g]Russia;Feb.-Mar., 1977: Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group[02760] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb.-Mar., 1977: Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group[02760] [c]Human rights;Feb.-Mar., 1977: Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group[02760] Shcharansky, Anatoly Orlov, Yuri Ginzburg, Aleksandr Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Helsinki Watch

Khrushchev had introduced a brief period of liberalization in the Soviet Union with his de-Stalinization De-Stalinization[Destalinization] campaign in 1956. In Western eyes, this had not gone far enough. It was limited to partial relaxation in the social and cultural areas; noncommunist economic and political activity still remained strictly forbidden. Furthermore, when the Communist Party’s Central Committee suddenly dismissed Khrushchev from power in 1964, Brezhnev became the leader of an even stricter regime.

Nevertheless, Soviet leaders still wanted a period of “peaceful coexistence” with the West and the recognition of postwar borders. In the early 1970’s, the spirit of détente promised a new age in relations between Moscow and the West. On Moscow’s urging, European and North American leaders convened the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which held a series of meetings from 1973 to 1975 to discuss détente, the recognition of existing borders, and, at the insistence of the West, the guarantee of fundamental human rights—the so-called Basket 3 issues. Representatives from all European countries, the United States, and Canada received invitations. Only the hard-line isolationist communist government in Albania refused to attend. The last session met in Helsinki, Finland. In August, 1975, the heads of state of all the attending countries signed the nonbinding Helsinki Final Act, popularly called the Helsinki Accords. Helsinki Accords (1975)

The accords recognized most of the border changes Moscow wanted but also provided for international cooperation in humanitarian, cultural, and economic endeavors and required the signatories to guarantee a whole series of political and civil rights. These rights included the freedom of information—specifically the right of citizens to receive and read foreign newspapers and to listen to foreign broadcasts—and the right to travel and to migrate. The “Basket 1” agreement on international boundaries and security, however, provided for noninterference in a country’s internal affairs by other countries. The Soviets thus continued to suppress many civil liberties. They refused to allow free emigration; noncommunist newspapers were generally unavailable, although the hotels in Moscow and Leningrad catering to Western tourists sold a few copies of such periodicals as the International Herald Tribune; and the jamming of Western radio broadcasts also continued. When Western diplomats complained about violations of the Basket 3 stipulations of the accords, the Kremlin replied that the Basket 1 agreement protected the Soviet Union’s internal affairs.

On May 12, 1976, eleven Muscovites formed the first Helsinki Watch Group in the Soviet Union to monitor the government’s fulfillment of the accords. Among the members were Anatoly Shcharansky and Vitaly Rubin. Rubin, Vitaly Shcharansky and Rubin were already well known as outspoken critics of the Soviet policy of refusing to allow Jews to migrate to Israel; the policy had been one of the reasons that Western leaders had insisted on including freedom of migration on the agenda at Helsinki. Shcharansky, a brilliant scientist, was the spokesperson for the so-called refuseniks, Refuseniks Jews;refuseniks Soviet Jews who requested and were refused exit visas. In fact, the government often punished the refuseniks with loss of employment or arrest. Many around the world had taken up their cause, and in the United States, congressional leaders were linking their plight to the economic agreements between Washington and Moscow that the Kremlin desired.

Other members of the Helsinki Watch Group in Moscow included Yuri Orlov, another scientist; Aleksandr Ginzburg, a writer; and Elena Bonner, Bonner, Elena the wife of the world-renowned physicist Andrei Sakharov, Sakharov, Andrei one of the country’s most prominent dissidents. Sakharov, who avoided joining organizations himself, did not become a member of Helsinki Watch, although he gave it public and private support. Orlov and Bonner had previously helped to found the Moscow committee of Amnesty International. Amnesty International

Soviet authorities brought official and unofficial pressure to bear on members of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. Because of the prominence of the issue of Jewish emigration, Shcharansky was particularly subject to attack. He was fired from his job and denied a living permit for Moscow. The scientist moved to a village near the capital and found private work as a tutor of English and physics in order to avoid imprisonment as an unemployed parasite. (Under Soviet law, “parasitism” applied to persons without work, but in practice the authorities used the accusation of parasitism as a political weapon against dissidents.) Shcharansky also acted as an interpreter, and prominent visitors to the Soviet Union familiar with and sympathetic to his case, including a number of American congressmen, sought him out for employment. He also worked as an interpreter for Sakharov and gave Orlov English lessons. Sakharov employed Ginzburg, as well, as a secretary.

From May, 1976, to February, 1977, the Helsinki Watch Group prepared sixteen reports on the state of human rights in the Soviet Union. One report dealt with prisoners of conscience subjected to “physical and moral torments, genuine torture by means of hunger, in combination with hard physical labour.” Other reports stated that the authorities continued to persecute political prisoners even after release, that political prisoners suffered abuse in psychiatric hospitals, and that the police harassed Pentecostal Christians and Jews who applied for emigration to Israel. A report of June, 1976, dwelled on the separation of Jewish families applying for emigration. In conclusion, the Helsinki Watch Group stated that Moscow had no intention of fulfilling its human rights obligations under the Helsinki treaty. The group sent these reports to the Soviet authorities, and when there was no reply they released them to the Western press. The Los Angeles Times, in particular, published a number of the group’s statements.

In August, 1976, at a press conference that the Helsinki Watch Group convened, the group commented on the application of the Helsinki Accords to Jews applying to emigrate. Although the group specifically invited Moscow journalists, only Western reporters attended. The group claimed that the government was not only hindering emigration to Israel but also harassing the refuseniks by taking away their telephone service and intercepting their mail. In November, Shcharansky, in his capacity as a member of the Helsinki Watch Group, publicized in the West a government press release regarding the banning of a number of Jewish cultural events and institutions in violation of both the Helsinki Accords and the Soviet constitution. He appealed for reestablishment of Jewish theaters and schools.

By January, 1977, the Soviet authorities, disturbed by the adverse Western publicity, decided that their policy of trying to ignore the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group was not working. They began a concentrated effort of harassment of the group leaders and systematically searched their apartments for evidence of criminal activity. On January 22, 1977, Soviet television showed a documentary, Traders of Souls, that denounced refuseniks as traitors in league with an international anti-Soviet Zionist conspiracy based in Israel and the United States. Shcharansky was one of several Jews shown in the film and mentioned by name. In the following days, various Moscow newspapers published a series of anti-Zionist articles. Although only Shcharansky and Rubin among the Helsinki Watch Group’s members were Jews, the government and the press implicated the group as collaborators. On February 3, Soviet secret police arrested Aleksandr Ginzburg, one of the leaders of the group. Ginzburg’s mother was Jewish, but he himself was a practicing Christian. A few days later, authorities arrested Orlov, also a non-Jew, and on March 15 they arrested Shcharansky.


The arrests of Ginzburg, Orlov, and Shcharansky did not have an immediate impact on the human and civil rights situation in the Soviet Union. The adverse publicity abroad, however, allowed the West to put further pressure on Moscow for a liberalization program based on the promises of the Helsinki Accords. A Helsinki review conference was convened in Belgrade in July, 1977. Western leaders brought up the cases of the arrested “prisoners of Zion” (Jewish refuseniks also arrested in the raids of early 1977) and the leaders of the Helsinki Watch Group, but to no avail.

The trials of Shcharansky, Orlov, and Ginzburg took place in the spring and summer of 1978, more than a year after their arrests, during which period they remained incarcerated. The government accused the three of espionage and antistate activity. Although the latter charge was technically true under the laws of the Soviet Union, which forbade citizens to criticize the state, government, or Communist Party abroad, the defendants argued that this law itself was contrary to rights guaranteed under the Soviet constitution and the Helsinki Accords. The charge of espionage, claiming that the three gave state secrets to foreign journalists, was clearly false. As expected, the tribunal found the three guilty and gave them harsh sentences: Orlov, seven years in prison; Ginzburg, eight; and Shcharansky, thirteen.

Negotiations for their release and permission for emigration were the subject of many talks between Soviet and Western authorities. President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] brought the matter up at a summit meeting in 1979 and successfully attained the release of Ginzburg as part of an exchange of five Soviet prisoners for two espionage agents being held by Washington. Ginzburg then immediately emigrated to the United States. Shcharansky and Orlov, however, remained in prison, and their fate continued to receive world attention.

In the meantime, the Helsinki Watch Group still functioned, issuing reports detailing the ongoing violations of Soviet human rights. The authorities paid no attention to the reports but continued the harassment and arrest of Watch Group members. In 1982, only three of the group’s nineteen members remained in Moscow. The others sat in prison, were exiled within the Soviet Union, or had left the group in despair. Thus frustrated in its work, the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group dissolved itself.

In December, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the gap between Moscow and the West widened even further. International questions took precedence over Basket 3 issues. In 1982, Brezhnev died, and Yuri Andropov Andropov, Yuri replaced him as leader of the Soviet Union. The latter introduced a modicum of liberalization in some of his policies in order to improve relations with the West. These, however, were the early years of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Reagan, Ronald who wished to make no accommodations to what he called the “Evil Empire”; moreover, Andropov’s liberalization still held little hope for Soviet political prisoners. Shcharansky and Orlov remained in prison even though Shcharansky was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Another Helsinki review conference met in Madrid in 1983. The West brought up once more the cases of Shcharanksy, Orlov, and the other prisoners and refuseniks. Andropov had died shortly before the conference, however, and a caretaker government under Konstantin Chernenko Chernenko, Konstantin ruled in Moscow. Nothing definite could be settled, but there appeared to be some hope for the future.

In 1985, Chernenko died, and Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail replaced him. Gorbachev began a process of change in the Soviet Union that included both economic and human rights reform. Within a year, both Shcharansky and Orlov were released from prison and allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Within a few years, the Soviet Union, together with its repressive Communist legacy, collapsed, thus opening the prospect of an improved human rights situation. Helsinki Watch;Moscow Group Soviet Union;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Soviet Union Human rights activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexeyeva, Ludmilla, and Paul Goldberg. The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993. Fascinating personal account of the dissident movement by a member of the Helsinki Watch Group. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Martin. Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time. New York: Viking Press, 1986. Excellent biography emphasizes Shcharansky’s role as a Jewish leader in the Soviet Union and his struggle to emigrate to Israel. Also contains details of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and discusses the fates of other members. Appendixes list the fates of other prisoners of Zion and statistics on Soviet emigration to Israel. Includes index, bibliography, illustrations, and map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, Paul. The Final Act: The Dramatic, Revealing Story of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. New York: William Morrow, 1988. Detailed history of the Helsinki Watch Group includes information on the fates of its members, the reports the group made, and the harassment members received. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jerusalem Post. Anatoly and Avital Shcharansky: The Journey Home. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Joint biography of Shcharansky and his wife, emphasizing their efforts to get to Israel. Avital Shcharansky received permission to emigrate while Anatoly was in prison and played a major role in bringing attention to his plight in the West. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orlov, Yuri. Dangerous Thoughts: Memoirs of a Russian Life. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: William Morrow, 1991. Memoir includes analysis of the role of dissident opposition in the Soviet Union in bringing about changes in the area of human rights. A valuable primary source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Podrabinek, Alexander. Punitive Medicine. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Karoma, 1980. An indictment of the Soviet use of psychiatric hospitals and treatment for dealing with prisoners of conscience. Contains a foreword by Aleksandr Ginzburg. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharansky, Natan. Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph over a Police State. Translated by Stefani Hoffman. 1988. Reprint. New York: PublicAffairs, 1998. Shcharansky’s autobiography (published under the name he adopted after emigrating to Israel) covers the period of his life from the time of his arrest until his release and emigration. Presents details of his contacts with the West as well as his role in the Jewish emigration movement and the Helsinki Watch Group. Valuable as a primary source. Includes index and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shcharansky, Avital, with Ilana Ben-Josef. Next Year in Jerusalem. Translated by Stefani Hoffman. New York: William Morrow, 1979. Shcharansky’s wife’s own story of her efforts to free her husband. Valuable as a primary source. Includes copies of correspondence with Anatoly and world leaders. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Daniel C. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Argues that human rights norms established at Helsinki had a greater effect in ending the Cold War than was previously thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. House of Representatives. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. 99th Congress, 2d session. Documents on the Helsinki Monitoring Groups in the U.S.S.R. and Lithuania, 1976-1986. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986. Collection of documents reporting violations of the Helsinki Accords by Soviet authorities. Some of the documents are from the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.

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Helsinki Accords Offer Terms for International Cooperation

Sakharov Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry

Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison

Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan

Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost

Categories: History