Leading Light of the Helsinki Human Rights Movement
By Aaron Rhodes
Dr. Yuri Orlov, a founder of the Helsinki human rights movement and one of its main guiding lights, died on 27 September 2020, at age 96.Orlov was a physicist who became a leading Soviet human rights dissident, beginning in the mid-1950s with his courageous denunciations of Stalin’s atrocities.
He is best known for having co-founded, along with the late historian Ludmilla Alexeyeva, the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, following the signing of the Helsinki Accords the previous year. The organization inspired the formation of numerous other “Helsinki committees” throughout the Helsinki signatory states, both behind Iron Curtain and in the West. These organizations, by documenting the communist regimes’ abuses, played a significant role in their eventual demise.
As punishment for initiating this remarkable process, Orlov spent seven years in Soviet gulag camps.
It was my great privilege to know and work with Yuri Orlov during my tenure as executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), of which Orlov was Honorary Chairman.
Yuri Orlov articulated a non-partisan, scientific approach to defending and promoting human rights. Neither the Moscow Helsinki Group, nor the other organizations adhering to its principles, were political opposition organizations; instead, they sought to objectively monitor their governments’ compliance with human rights commitments undertaken in the Helsinki process, and with international law.
He once explained that “human rights is not about what, but about how.” By this he clarified that human rights work, properly conceived, was not aimed at any particular political goal, but at protecting basic freedoms.
This ethical position has inspired human rights organizations ever since, and around the world, and where it has been honored, it has increased their credibility and effectiveness.
All of us who try to defend and promote human rights, as well as the many millions who gained freedoms after 1989, owe a huge debt to Yuri Orlov.
May he rest in peace.