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Timeline of Rights Activism in the Soviet Union

See text on the Rights activists below.

Rights activists, sometimes referred to as Democratic dissidents, made up the main stream of dissidence in the Soviet Union. Their story began with Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Twentieth Party Congress, which created the conditions for independent activity to begin to take root. People shared unpublished poetry in samizdat and they read verses on public squares, developing the networks and tools for new independent culture and civic activity.

Arrests of authors, notably poet Joseph Brodsky and writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel mobilized international public attention and stimulated efforts by Soviet citizens to increase openness and defend the rights of Soviet individuals. Soviet rights activists developed outstanding tools including the information bulletin the Chronicle of Current Events and the Helsinki Groups that increased the visibility and effectiveness of a movement whose mainstream was committed to democracy and transparency within the framework of the USSR’s constitution and its international treaties. They provided an umbrella of advocacy covering a variety of interests.

Nobel Prize winners Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn became instantly recognizable names and faces for international audiences. Each is associated with rights activism - Sakharov as a leading advocate of human rights, and Solzhenitsyn as one who inspired other activists with his writing about the history of Soviet prison camps. They were not, however, leaders of a centrally organized operation of rights activism. Instead, rights activists belonged to loosely affiliated groups and networks. By the late 1970s, rights activism had developed into a robust sphere in the Soviet Union with various groups pursuing rights advocacy with different areas of focus. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marked the end of détente and the repression of most dissident activity. Soviet rights activists pioneered legalist principles and developed a tradition of civic engagement opposed to charismatic authoritarianism. However the suppression of rights activism in the Soviet Union  in the early 1980s demonstrated that individual political decisions by Soviet leaders still determined the context for independent civic activity. The legacy of Soviet rights activism was precarious in a country with no official institutions to support such independent public behavior.