October 2020

By Jeremiah J. Baronberg

Famed physicist and symbol of Soviet dissent, Yuri Orlov passed away last week. Forty-four years ago Orlov was widely recognized for his quest to shine light in a region covered in the darkness of authoritarianism. Sitting in their homes listening intently to the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, people in the Soviet Union and across the Warsaw Pact region were inspired-—and given a glint of hope—by Orlov and his small band of fellow dissidents. While Orlov’s name may not be familiar to many current students of global politics, he was once considered to be on par with such noted Soviet dissidents as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

In 1976 Orlov founded the Moscow Helsinki Group as a way to monitor Soviet adherence with the civil rights protections outlined in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Helsinki Accords were signed by 35 nations and were aimed at improving détente between the Soviet bloc and the West. The on-the-ground evidence of Soviet noncompliance with the Helsinki Accords provided by Orlov served as a key component to strengthen the West’s international negotiations with the U.S.S.R. The Helsinki movement would in turn serve as a precursor to the peaceful revolutions that took place across the region beginning in 1989.

Orlov has been lauded as a human rights hero and as an individual whose citizen activism impacted the course of history. While the Helsinki Accords were criticized at the time for their acceptance of Soviet annexation of the Baltic states and status quo border issues, they proved to be a useful vehicle for ordinary citizen dissidents—such as Orlov—in their efforts to draw international attention to Soviet human rights abuses. Orlov’s activities also spurred similar watchdog groups within the Soviet bloc, Europe, and North America and helped institutionalize the practice of human rights monitoring by nongovernmental (NGO) and civil society organizations.

The life of Yuri Orlov and his global impact continue to resonate today in key ways.

  1. The need for vigilance and accountability to supplement international agreements. Yuri Orlov showed that international diplomatic agreements, regardless of their lofty ideals, are incomplete without constant vigilance and monitoring. As his fellow activist and refusenik friend Natan Sharansky feared at the time of the Helsinki Accords’ signing, “As dissidents in the USSR, we read the news with deep mistrust. We had no doubt that the Soviet Union would ignore this commitment and enjoy the benefits of the agreement while shrouding its crimes in lies...But Uri (sic) Orlov put his foot down.” Orlov’s novel approach to citizen monitoring brought teeth, as it were, to the Helsinki Accords’ vision by helping hold its signatories accountable in the eyes of the international community.
  1. The role that concerned citizen action plays in history. Orlov’s significance is an expression of the ordinary individual’s power to impact officialdom and state level diplomacy. Operating outside the halls of power, Orlov’s revolutionary citizen-based approach paved the way for the formation of future NGOs and civil society watchdog groups, such as Human Rights Watch. Moreover, by shining a light on Soviet rights abuses, Orlov’s citizen activist model inspired complementary initiatives such as those that called for freedom of emigration from the U.S.S.R. This emigration from the Soviet Union that followed would dramatically change societies and populations in the United States, Europe, Israel, and elsewhere. Like Yuri Orlov, émigrés from the former Soviet bloc have had a marked impact on societies around the world. Their skills and experiences have enriched a range of national cultures and their perspectives have expanded understanding of totalitarianism in modern times. In their adoptive lands, these émigrés became fierce defenders of freedom and individual liberty and passionate exponents of not taking these values for granted.
  1. The importance of maintaining core principles even as geopolitical circumstances change. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Helsinki Accords morphed into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). This re-envisioned entity would be responsible for monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords across an enlarged 57-member nation region. As the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization today, the OSCE mandate is broad. It includes setting standards in an array of key fields including military security, arms control, economic and environmental cooperation, human rights, freedom of the press, free and fair elections, and conflict resolution. The U.S. Helsinki Commission plays this role on behalf of the United States of monitoring and encouraging compliance with the Helsinki Accords and OSCE commitments.

Yuri Orlov overcame many obstacles in the quest to advance his beliefs. The Helsinki Accords’ human rights provisions were powerless to keep Orlov from enduring nearly a decade of imprisonment, hard labor, and internal exile by Soviet authorities. Still, Orlov remains a symbol of the importance of constant vigilance on behalf of fundamental rights—and of the respect owed to those who fought, and suffered, in the name of these freedoms.