Although the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948, the Soviet Constitution (established in 1936) already had some basic human rights listed. However, the constant crackdowns and purges meant that these laws could not be reinforced or even brought up until the late 1960s. Political dissidents were able to create a literary “resistance” by self-publishing illegal works and scathing criticisms of the Soviet Union (as mentioned in the last blog post). The general public realized that ordinary Soviet citizens had no legal protection in their own society if they could be arrested for no solid reason. Alexander Esenin-Volpin, a mathematician and logician, decided to state the simple idea that the Constitution should be followed by the government. To highlight his point, he was arrested and thrown in a psychiatric institution until 1960.
When he was released, Esenin-Volpin held public protests and made a “Glasnost Meeting” in 1965, in which many protesters stood in the center of Moscow protesting the fact that two “Enemies of the People” were arrested and to respect the Soviet Constitution. Unsurprisingly, they were all arrested, driving Esenin-Volpin to write his Memo for Those who Expect to Be Interrogated in 1968. In 1970, Volpin joined the Human Rights Committee of the USSR and worked with many other activists, fervently debating the exile of Solzhenitsyn (mentioned in the past two blog posts) from the Soviet Union after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. The days of Khrushchev’s “breached dam” of public gulag discussion were over though, and it took the final president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, to finally start the discussion again.
In November 1987, Gorbachev made a speech on national television in which he openly stated that there were “violations of the law, arbitrariness and repressions” in the 1930s. Gorbachev’s openness about his country’s and his party’s past led to the “opening of the floodgates” and the height of public discussion of the gulag, where Soviet citizens were FINALLY able to read previously illegal copies of gulag criticism and memoirs. The “rehabilitation” process was resumed and accelerated. In this new atmosphere of discussion and debate about the camps, the “Memorial” Society was founded. Memorial, as it was called, grew out of informal meetings of academics and young professionals interested in social justice and political reform during the Gorbachev era.
(The discussion of the Memorial Society will resume in Part II of this blog post next week)
Do Svidaniya, Comrades