On September 15, 1973, hundreds of delegates representing local chapters of Amnesty International from two dozen countries, having gathered at the Albert Schweitzer Haus in Vienna for the annual meeting of Amnesty’s “International Council,” listened as these words were read out loud. The original Russian text had been dictated five days earlier, from Moscow via telephone to Amnesty’s headquarters in London. Its authors were the theoretical physicist Andrei Tverdokhlebov, the engineer Vladimir Arkhangelskii, the mathematician Vladimir Albrekht, and other members of “Group-73,” an organization founded earlier that month with the intention of becoming the first local chapter of Amnesty International inside the socialist world. In the late 1960s, Amnesty had begun including Soviet dissidents among the “prisoners of conscience” that were “adopted” by local Amnesty chapters in Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, and other Western countries. In 1973, Soviet dissidents decided to join Amnesty’s work not as adoptees but as fellow activists. Group-73’s message to London was the opening move in this story. It captures the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of the language of universal human rights as perceived by local actors far removed from the contexts in which that language had formed. Were human rights truly a lingua franca outside the First World? The September 15 communiqué offers a glimpse into the emerging dialogue between Soviet dissidents and the leaders of the most important international human rights NGO of its time, as both sides faced the question of whether, in the context of the Cold War, Amnesty’s ideal of engaged but politically neutral citizen activists could survive in the setting of “developed socialism.”
Dokument als PDF herunterladen:Soviet human rights activists to Amnesty International
Founded in London in 1961 by the attorney Peter Benenson, Amnesty International introduced itself to the world as a “movement composed of peoples of all nationalities, politics, religions and social views who are determined to work together in defense of freedom of the mind.” To give that lofty goal a human face, Amnesty focused its efforts on securing the release of specific individuals jailed solely for their opinions or beliefs, people it called “prisoners of conscience,” provided that they had not advocated or used violence. “Pressure of opinion a hundred years ago,” Benenson announced on the pages of the London Observer, “brought about the emancipation of the slaves. It is now for man to insist upon the same freedom for his mind as he has won for his body.” Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, announcing the universal rights to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, formed the bedrock of Amnesty’s agenda.
Notwithstanding its self-description as a movement composed of “peoples of all nationalities and religions,” for much of its early history, Amnesty’s membership consisted almost exclusively of individuals from English-speaking countries and the Western half of Europe. When adopting prisoners of conscience, by contrast, Amnesty went to extraordinary lengths to maintain the appearance of universalism and non-partisanship. Guided by the geography of the Cold War, according to which the globe was partitioned into first, second, and third worlds, Benenson and his fellow activists scrupulously sought out prisoners of conscience in equal proportion from capitalist, communist, and developing countries - a goal more easily articulated than met. At the grass-roots level, each local group of Amnesty volunteers was required to work simultaneously on behalf of three prisoners, one from each category, and never on behalf of a prisoner from their own country. “There are other organizations,” Amnesty noted, “that are working within some more limited ideological framework for aid to those of their own particular persuasion. Our strength is that in such matters we take no sides at all.” With its peculiar blend of engagement and detachment, Amnesty practiced, indeed institutionalized, a deliberately distanced empathy, a novel brand of kindness that could come only from strangers.
Working at a distance posed special challenges, beginning with how to obtain reliable and timely information about individuals held in prisons thousands of miles away, often guarded by fiercely secretive governments. At the time of Amnesty’s founding, there was no shortage of rumor and speculation about Soviet camps brimming with prisoners of the totalitarian state. But reliable information was almost entirely lacking, both inside and outside the USSR. At the Twenty-First Party Congress in 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had flatly declared that, following the liquidation of Stalin’s personality cult, “There are no political prisoners in Soviet prisons today.”
The number of individuals imprisoned for (non-violent) “anti-Soviet” activity had indeed plummeted since Stalin’s time, though hardly to the extent indicated by Khrushchev. Official anti-religious campaigns, for example, had resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of dissenting Baptists and other Christians. The arrest of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in September 1965 triggered what would become the first public campaign for civil rights behind the Iron Curtain, led by a loose conglomerate of scientists, mathematicians, and other members of the intelligentsia from Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and other cities. Made possible in part by the Soviet state’s turn away from mass terror, the emerging dissident movement caught Soviet officials as well as foreign observers off guard. Initially, as an internal Amnesty memorandum noted, “the central difficulty of work” on cases involving Soviet dissidents was “lack of information - [we] had nothing substantive on the Soviet Union.” Documents smuggled out of the USSR often reached Amnesty’s headquarters in London years after the events they described. By the late 1960s, however, that was no longer the case, as copies of the dissident periodical Khronika tekushchikh sobytii (Chronicle of Current Events) and other samizdat (self-published) texts began to appear regularly in the West. What had begun as trickles of data swelled, over the course of just a few years, into a more or less continuous stream. By 1970, Amnesty officials were noting “the tremendous improvement in the flow of information” from the USSR. By the mid-1970s they were confronting “an increasing problem of too much information (samizdat) reaching [Amnesty’s] International Secretariat from the Soviet Union,” straining its capacity to translate and distribute incoming texts to the hundreds of local Amnesty groups that had adopted individual Soviet prisoners of conscience. Indeed, the flood of communication from the dissident movement helped catalyze the professionalization of Amnesty’s growing research department, which in 1970 added a Soviet specialist and in 1971 established a working group in London to collect and translate documents arriving from the USSR.
Documents were also moving in the other direction. In the early 1970s, Andrei Tverdokhlebov had established contact with Amnesty - not with the organization’s headquarters in London, but with the Dutch national section and local Group 11 in New York City, both of which had taken a particular interest in the Soviet Union. The son of a former Soviet diplomat and deputy minister of culture, Tverdokhlebov was active in the dissident movement, signing open letters in defense of his colleague Andrei Sakharov as well as the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the theologian Anatolii Levitin-Krasnov, and others. At Tverdokhlebov’s request, members of Group 11 supplied him with various Amnesty publications, including annual newsletters and the US-edition of the Handbook for Groups. In 1973, Tverdokhlebov and the engineer Vladimir Arkhangelskii, having become “voracious consumers” of Amnesty materials, began to circulate translated excerpts, along with other human rights-related texts, in several volumes of a samizdat periodical called, simply, “Amnesty International.” This proved too much for the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which had been established in 1967 specifically to “combat ideological expansion directed from abroad.” Already under investigation for his ties to the Chronicle, on the night of August 27, 1973, Tverdokhlebov was confronted by security police who searched his apartment, seizing thousands of documents, including materials from Amnesty, the United Nations, and various organizations devoted to international law.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the KGB’s search and seizure, Tverdokhlebov, Arkhangelskii, and several other dissident scientists decided to form a new organization called Group-73, modeled directly on Amnesty International’s local affiliates. Group-73’s charter cited “international experience in helping prisoners and their families, and in particular the experience of Amnesty International, which sets as its goal the provision of assistance to prisoners of conscience and political prisoners.”  Arkhangelskii submitted an application to the Moscow City Council, requesting permission to set up a bank account to accept voluntary donations. The KGB, armed with intelligence regarding Tverdokhlebov’s broader intentions, had instructed City Council bureaucrats to deny official recognition to Group-73 and to demand information about its relationship to Amnesty. On September 15, after relating this news by telephone to Amnesty’s headquarters in London, Tverdokhlebov proceeded to dictate the message contained in the “Key Text” above.
The communiqué from Group-73 begins with a litany of phrases drawn from the lexicon of official Soviet discourse. By the time they reached adulthood, Soviet citizens had heard and read such phrases thousands of times - in radio and television broadcasts, in newspapers, in wall-posters at their schools, neighborhoods, and places of work. Indeed, many of them had repeated these phrases themselves, in student exercises or obligatory “political education” seminars in factories and offices. Constant repetition had, over time, hallowed out their semantic content, rendering them largely performative devices for expressing a speaker’s or writer’s conformity with official public norms. As the communiqué notes, the “political action of the masses” and the “struggle for social rights” are “things we imagined the world was preoccupied with” - not things with which the authors themselves were preoccupied. For many Soviet citizens, it was not a matter of believing or disbelieving official discourse, but rather of taking that discourse for granted and viewing it from afar.
The communiqué then shifts to a different lexical arena: single words denoting ethical norms. Applying “conscience,” “dignity,” and “conviction” exclusively to individuals within face-to-face communities (as opposed to the state and society at large), its authors pose their central question: who can ensure that such words, in contrast to official phrases, are not drained of meaning and thereby lose their moral value? Who besides one’s own family and friends? The wholly unexpected answer: the distant strangers of Amnesty International. For Tverdokhlebov, Arkhangelskii, and others, Amnesty’s language - the language of universal human rights in action - had the effect of reinvigorating certain ethical norms by transposing them from the private sphere into realms of public, indeed global significance. Without using the term, the communiqué deployed the central Russian literary concept of otstranenie (defamiliarization), viewing an object or an idea from an unexpected location and thereby endowing it with new forms of significance. “The word glasnost [openness],” wrote the dissident Ludmilla Alexeyeva in her memoir about the birth of the Democratic Movement in the 1960s, “had no political meaning, and until [the dissident mathematician] Alek Esenin-Vol’pin pulled it out of ordinary usage, it generated no heat.” Amnesty’s language produced a similar effect by deprivatizing certain ethical categories, thereby pulling them out of ordinary usage.
Terms such as “conscience,” “dignity,” and “conviction” were of course not new. On the contrary, they were well-established elements of official discourse. The Communist Party, for example, never tired of proclaiming itself “The Mind, Honor, and Conscience of the Era,” a phrase displayed in gigantic letters from the rooftops of buildings as well as on mass-produced postcards and calendars. During the post-Stalin era, however, such values were widely understood to operate primarily in the private sphere, in the archipelago of micro-worlds of which Soviet society was composed. It was, perhaps, the Soviet variant of the process defined by Max Weber as disenchantment: a process in which “the ultimate and most sublime values retreat from the public sphere into either the transcendental realm of mystical life or the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”
Amnesty’s novelty - and its appeal to Soviet dissidents - thus lay precisely in its extension of the seemingly private, apolitical ethics of friendship and family to complete strangers. For members of Group-73, not just Amnesty’s aspirations but its form of organization appeared to offer a model of a future global civil society. “Amnesty is an important new phenomenon in international life,” they wrote several years later to Amnesty’s International Council, meeting in Strasbourg: “This organization stands above political struggle and at the same time works for the resolution of the most important political problems, which are connected with the rights of the person. This is a great undertaking destined for a great future. We believe that only if people base their activities on those principles and methods which are adopted by Amnesty, can they achieve genuine integration of free people, whether on the scale of the national state or the whole planet.”
Now that communication between Soviet dissidents and Amnesty took not years, via smuggled documents, but seconds, via telephone, the technological prerequisites for such a society were in place.
On October 6, 1973, less than a month after sending their greetings to Amnesty delegates assembled in Vienna, the members of Group-73, joined by the computer scientist Valentin Turchin, the mathematicians Nikolai Beloozerov and Boris Landa, the biologist Sergei Kovalev, the physicist Yuri Orlov, the engineer Ernst Orlovsky, and the Russian orthodox priest Sergei Zheludkov, formally applied for registration as an affiliate of Amnesty International.
The reaction at Amnesty’s London office was starkly divided. On the one hand, given the mounting accusations that Amnesty was not a genuinely international movement defending universal concerns but a Western organization serving Western (i.e., Cold War and/or neo-colonial) interests, the application from Moscow was a gift. There had never been an Amnesty affiliate anywhere in the socialist world. As early as 1969, Amnesty’s annual report had expressed the need to “strengthen links in countries where so far we have failed to gain a footing.” Indeed, despite its global ambitions (and the universalist ideology of human rights that inspired them), in the early 1970s Amnesty remained an almost exclusively First World organization. The oft-invoked equilibrium among the three global zones (capitalist, socialist, and developing) had been more or less achieved when it came to adopted prisoners. But the same could hardly be said of the 1,817 local groups that advocated on their behalf, of which 1,801 (99%) were in First World countries. Outside the West, those who became involved in Amnesty’s work were overwhelmingly on the receiving end, “adopted” - to use Amnesty’s vaguely parental metaphor - by Westerners for whom human rights were less a means of self-defense than an instrument of global moral improvement.
Moral authority, or to put it somewhat differently, the accumulation and investment of moral capital, was essential to Amnesty’s work, and it was here, according to supporters of Group-73’s request for recognition by London, that a Soviet affiliate could offer the most valuable dividends. True, an Amnesty group in Moscow would hardly have access to Soviet mass media and therefore little hope of influencing Soviet public opinion. But it would, in the words of Dirk Börner, head of Amnesty’s Hamburg group, have “tremendous access to the international press for which it would be envied by many other AI groups.” Refering to a well-known British anti-nuclear activist who had been jailed multiple times in the United Kingdom, Börner noted: “The British government will certainly not be impressed by any protest against Pat Arrowsmith’s imprisonment printed in Pravda, but it would be truly embarrassed if this [were to come] from a [Soviet] dissident group and printed in the [London] Times. In fact such a group could possibly do more than ten [Amnesty] groups in Germany.” An affiliate in Moscow thus represented not just a presence in the epicenter of the socialist world, but a new and powerful form of moral leverage outside that world.
On the other hand, recognition of Group-73 threatened to torpedo a back-channel to the Kremlin that had been carefully cultivated for several years by Amnesty’s International Executive Committee, led by the Irish statesman Seán MacBride. For MacBride and other self-styled realists in Amnesty, it was imperative to build working relationships with the world’s sovereign states, even - or especially - those accused of egregious human rights violations. Political prisoners, after all, were almost always prisoners of states, and only states could make the decision to release them. In the early 1970s, MacBride visited the USSR several times in his capacity as chairman of the International Peace Bureau (an NGO) in order to help plan the World Congress of Peace Forces, to be held in Moscow in October 1973. This connection allowed him to initiate a conversation about Amnesty’s activities, first with Mikhail Smirnovskii, the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then with officials in Moscow. Soviet authorities arranged for MacBride to deal directly with what they considered to be Amnesty’s closest NGO equivalent in the USSR, the Association of Soviet Lawyers, and invited representatives from Amnesty to take part in sessions at the Congress dealing with human rights - the first time Amnesty had been permitted to send staff members to the Soviet Union in their official capacity, as opposed to visiting as tourists.
Inside Amnesty, a major rift developed between those who favored recognition of Group-73 as a local Soviet chapter and those who saw greater potential gains from the emerging dialogue with Soviet officials. MacBride argued that Amnesty groups simply could not function in countries “where democratic institutions and civil liberties are either weak or non-existent.” Vulnerable to manipulation by the state or by forces hostile to the state (including dissidents), such groups would be unable to maintain the ideological neutrality central to Amnesty’s work. Others in Amnesty insisted that the organization’s core principles - including those noted in Group-73’s September 15 communiqué - required that the Moscow dissidents’ request for affiliation be honored. Both sides agreed that the two proposed relationships were mutually exclusive insofar as the Kremlin would shun any organization linked to Soviet dissidents. Indeed, while in Moscow, MacBride refused to meet with Andrei Tverdokhlebov for fear of undercutting his emerging dialog with the Kremlin.
The same mechanisms that enabled the flow of samizdat to the West ensured that Group-73’s request for affiliation would also become public. Once that happened, Amnesty’s hand was forced: to refuse recognition would have compromised the organization’s carefully tended reputation for universalism and non-partisanship, as well as risk alienating the Soviet dissident community. In September 1974, Seán MacBride resigned his position and Amnesty’s International Executive Committee formally granted recognition to Group-73 - not as a national section, but with the lower status of a local group.
Predictions regarding the heightened moral authority of the Moscow Amnesty group proved correct: within the space of several years, the group appealed for and helped obtain the release of prisoners in Spain, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay. A 1976 press release from Amnesty’s London headquarters regarding the latter case left no doubt as to the resulting benefits: “The Uruguayan government and media have repeatedly denounced Amnesty [...] as ‘communist inspired’ - a charge which Amnesty has rejected, pointing to its record of unceasing work for prisoners of conscience in all parts of the world, including the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. The fact that so many prominent Soviet citizens who have fought for human rights in the USSR, often at considerable risk to themselves, have signed this petition to President Bordaberry underlines the universal humanitarian concern about the torture of detainees in Uruguay. It also makes nonsense of any claims by the government of Uruguay that Amnesty’s campaign is ‘communist motivated.’”
Equally correct, however, were the predictions that Amnesty’s modus operandi could not long survive in the Soviet environment. In an April 1975 memorandum to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov and Soviet procurator Roman Rudenko had already concluded that by applying for affiliation with Amnesty International, Tverdokhlebov and others “have set out to legalize, and as far as possible to establish immunity for, the anti-Soviet activity of a cohort of renegades in our country.” In a striking (mis)interpretation of its mission, or perhaps its name, Andropov and Rudenko cast Amnesty as seeking a kind of extraterritorial status for its members around the world, not unlike the legal immunities established by ninetennth-century European colonial powers on behalf of their citizens in China, Japan, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. To Soviet authorities, Amnesty’s “distanced empathy” looked like a stealthy form of neo-colonial interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state.
Within months of Amnesty’s recognizing the Moscow group, the KGB arrested members Sergei Kovalev and Andrei Tverdokhlebov. Valentin Turchin was fired from his job as a software designer and blacklisted, thus putting him at risk of arrest on charges of parasitism (unemployment). The publication of Amnesty’s book Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR: Their Treatment and Conditions (1975, with editions in eight languages), unleashed the fury of the Soviet government against the organization’s Moscow chapter. Within a short time, the eleven founding members became the target of relentless harassment - or worse. Sergei Kovalev was sentenced to a seven-year sentence in Perm-36, a hard labor camp by the Ural Mountains, 700 miles east of Moscow, to be followed by three years of internal exile. Yuri Orlov was sent nearby, to Perm-35, to serve a similar sentence, followed by five years of internal exile. Andrei Tverdokhlebov spent nearly three years in prison and Siberian exile before emigrating to the United States. After years of unemployment and threats of arrest, Valentin Turchin too accepted the KGB’s offer of emigration. Vladimir Albrekht was blacklisted and constantly followed by KGB agents who made no effort to remain incognito, threatening to beat him or push him onto subway tracks. “If I receive the order,” one agent informed him, “I’ll kill you.” After four years in prison he emigrated to the United States. In his summary of KGB activities for the year 1982, Viktor Chebrikov, the new KGB chairman, confidently reported to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov that “the so-called Russian section of Amnesty International [has been] dismantled,” its “most active participants now subject to criminal proceedings.”
It proved a Pyrrhic victory.
Alexeyeva, Ludmilla / Goldberg, Paul: The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era. Pittsburgh 1990.
Beyrau, Dietrich: Intelligenz und Dissens: Die russischen Bildungsschichten in der Sowjetunion 1917-1985. Göttingen 1983.
Boobbyer, Philip: Conscience, Dissent and Reform in Soviet Russia. London 2005.
Hornsby, Robert: Protest, Reform and Repression in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Cambridge 2013.
Beyrau's study on the emergence of dissent in post-Stalin intelligentsia provides a helpful overview of the milieu from which Thverdochlebov and and other Soviet Amnesty activists came. The memoirs of Ludmilla Alexeyeva are an informative and easily accessible report of such an activist. Hornsby researches into other, more widely spread forms of protest, based on newly accessible archive materials, and asks for the reactions of the Soviet government. Boobbyer analyses the ethic norms of the dissident movement and stresses its neo-religious orientation.
Buchanan, Tom: »The Truth Will Set You Free«: The Making of Amnesty International, in: Journal of Contemporary History, 37:4 (2002), S. 575-597.
Clark, Ann Marie: Diplomacy of Conscience - Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton 2012.
Eckel, Jan: Die Ambivalenz des Guten: Menschenrechte in der international Politik seit den 1940ern. Göttingen 2014.
Hopgood, Stephen: Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International. Ithaca 2006.
The most comprehensive overview of the history of Amnesty International can be found in Eckel. Buchanan investigates into the deeply religious orientation of the organization's founder, Peter Benenson. Hopgood, in his informative ethnographic study, analyzes Amnesty's internal culture as a form of secular religion. According to him, the organization saw itself confronted with the challenge of transforming moral capital into political authority. Political scientist Clark represents a similar interpretation in describing Amnesty as a “moral entrepreneur”: As a non-governmental player, the organization has coined the meaning of human rights norms within international relations by means of a “communicative process” in the sense of Habermas.
Amnesty, First Annual Report, 1961-62 (London, 1962).
Arkhiv samizdata, 30 vols. München 1972-1978.
Tschalidse, Walerij, Andrei Twerdochlebow - w saschtschitu praw tscheloweka (New York 1975).
Eckel, Jan, “Utopie der Moral, Kalkül der Macht. Menschenrechte in der Globalen Politik seit 1945”, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 49 (2009), pp.437-485.
Morsink, Johannes, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting and Intent (Philadelphia, 1999).
Nathans, Benjamin, “Die Entzauberung des Sozialismus: Sowjetische Dissidenten, Menschenrechte und die neue globale Moralität,” in Jan Eckel und Samuel Moyn (eds.), Moral für die Welt? Menschenrechtspolitik in den 1970er Jahren (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012): pp. 100-119.
Power, Jonathan, Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International (Boston, 2001).
Wawra, Ernst, “Die Entidologisierung des Menschenrechtsbegriffs der sowjetischen Andersdenkenden,” Norbert Frei, Annette Weinke (eds.), Toward a New Moral World Order? Menschenrechtspolitik und Völkerrecht seit 1945 (Göttingen 2013), pp. 193-202.
Benjamin Nathans: Moskauer Menschenrechtler an Amnesty International, in: Quellen zur Geschichte der Menschenrechte, herausgegeben vom Arbeitskreis Menschenrechte im 20. Jahrhundert, Mai 2015, URL: http://www.geschichte-menschenrechte.de/schluesseltexte/moskauer-menschenrechtler-an-amnesty-international/?L=1