‘The Transnational Activism of British human rights organisations, 1965-1985’, British International
History Group 2015
1. Introduction
a. During the Cold War, a number of activist organisations formed to campaign
against the persecution of prisoners of conscience and political dissidents
around the world. My research to date has focused on organisations formed
in Britain between 1960 and 1991 who focused their attention on the Soviet
Union, and the persecution of political dissidents challenging the authority of
the Soviet regime.
b. These organisations sought to raise the profile of these persecuted prisoners
of conscience, and rally international opinion against the Soviet regime.
2. Outline
a. My paper today has two aims:
i. First, to highlight the transnational nature of political dissent in the
Soviet Union and how, in order to fully understand the activism of
prominent dissidents, we need to have a broad awareness of the
global picture. Indeed, one of the major reasons that dissidents in the
Soviet Union achieved success was because they were able to harness
international opinion to put pressure on the Soviet authorities,
something that they were prevented from doing domestically by the
actions of the KGB.
ii. Second, this paper will also highlight that the reason that these
organisations began to achieve wider recognition amongst the public
in the late-1970s was because of developments in the Cold War,
rather than through the fruits of their own activism. The shift in
international relations during this period opened an opportunity for
these organisations, something that resulted in a ‘rush to their
iii. This paper offers a snapshot of the work which is discussed in much
greater depth in my forthcoming monograph, ‘British human rights
organisations and Soviet Dissent, 1965-1985’, which is being
published in early-2016.
3. Soviet Dissent
a. Soviet dissent was not conducted in a domestic vacuum
i. Anatoly Shcharansky
ii. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
iii. Natalya Gorbanevskaya
iv. Andrei Sakharov
v. Clear desire from a number of dissidents from the mid-1960s onwards
to obtain the support of international opinion
b. International support was integral to their activism
i. 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment – Directly linked the plight of Soviet
Jewry to the Most Favored Nation trading status that the Soviet
authorities craved
ii. 1975 Helsinki Accords
c. Developments in the West, however, were a little slower. I’d like to look at
this through the response to a number of different facets of the Soviet
4. Psychiatry
a. First awareness of the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union in
i. Valery Tarsis - Ward 7 (May 1965)
1. Publication of semi-autobiographical account of detention in a
psychiatric institution.
2. Serialised in the Guardian, first real discussion of the issue in
Britain that attracted the attention of activists. Truth of the
story reasserted by the case of
ii. Evgeny Belov (October 1965)
1. 4 British students visit him
2. Return a year later, disappeared into psychiatric institutions
after criticising the regime
3. Began campaign on his behalf in Britain. Relatively well
reported, but lacked widespread support
b. Petro Grigorenko (late-1960s) – relative lack of reporting
c. Zhores Medvedev (1971) – increased levels of reporting, but still limited
(possibly due to the short incarceration)
d. 1972 Bukovsky Documents
i. Led to the creation of the Working Group on the Internment of
Dissenters in Mental Hospitals
ii. But largely overlooked by the international psychiatric community
iii. Soviet responses to the reports of abuse were a complete dismissal of
the accusations.
iv. Only following the Bukovsky exchange for the Chilean Communist
Leader Luis Corvalan in December 1976 that things change. This
event was an admission by the Soviet Union that it held political
prisoners, something that it had vehemently dismissed in previous
v. World Psychiatric Association World Congress in 1977 in Honolulu
takes the matter much more seriously
1. Declaration of Hawaii
2. Formation of WPA Review Committee
vi. Eventually leads to the Soviet AUSNP resigning from the WPA in the
weeks leading up to its 1983 World Congress in Vienna when rising
international pressure indicated that it would be expelled from the
5. Soviet Jewry Campaigns
a. Similar trajectory in the campaigning efforts for Soviet Jewry.
b. Early-1970s based on gaining media attention for the refuseniks, Soviet Jews
who had been refused the necessary permissions to emigrate and were
persecuted for their requests to leave.
c. Initial campaigns led by groups such as the Women’s Campaign for Soviet
Jewry (nicknamed the 35’s) in the early 1970s focused on drawing attention
to this issue using colourful demonstrations – often with lots of fancy dress.
d. Much of this was supported by the refuseniks themselves, who assisted the
work of these groups once been released – perhaps most notably in the case
of Avital Shcharansky who led a large campaign on behalf of her husband
Anatoly, who was refused permission to leave.
e. From the mid-1970s onwards, the tactics of these groups changed to focus
on obtaining the support of those in political power (Politicians, Trade Unions
f. Highlights that their cause was no longer ephemeral as it had been in the
early-1970s, but a genuine political concern in the late-1970s that group’s
such as the 35’s sought to influence, rather than promote. This, much like the
political abuse of psychiatry, was due to concern for the plight of Soviet
dissidents becoming a salient political issue in this period rather than, in my
opinion, the explicit efforts of Soviet Jewry organisations.
6. Keston College
a. An international perspective was also central to the work of Keston College,
an organisation founded in the early-1970s by Michael Bourdeaux to ‘be the
voice’ of the persecuted religious believer in the Soviet bloc. His activism was
focused on the collation of an archive of underground samizdat materials
from persecuted believers in order to build up a picture of life behind the iron
curtain. These materials were then used to create an array of publications
documenting the Soviet persecution of religion.
b. Early publications produced by those affiliated to Keston College, such as
Bourdeaux’s Opium of the People, failed to have the impact that he had
hoped for, and was arguably largely overlooked.
c. However, much like psychiatric organisations and the campaigns for Soviet
Jewry, the broader successes of Keston College was dependent on the
climate in international relations being right for its work, something that
occurred in the mid-to-late-1970s when the group went from being on the
fringes of political society to the centre stage, something that culminated in
Bourdeaux being involved in the ‘Chequers seminars’ initiated by Thatcher in
1984 to develop her awareness of the Soviet Union.
7. Amnesty
a. Discussion of human rights organisations in Britain in this period would be
incomplete without discussion of the work of Amnesty International
b. Despite the group’s desire to remain impartial in the context of the Cold War,
it was anything but in its dealing with Soviet prisoners of conscience.
c. In fact, it could be argued that Amnesty became an extension of the dissident
movement through its reproduction of the Chronicle of Current Events in an
English translation.
i. The Chronicle was an underground journal concerned with
documenting the situation in the Soviet Union.
ii. Impartiality of the Chronicle
iii. Despite this, it was still a dissident publication
iv. Amnesty attempted to distance itself from the Chronicle on a number
of occasions, including obtaining an agreement by Writers and
Scholars International (the group behind Index on Censorship) to
produce the Chronicle. However, given Amnesty’s reputation WSI’s
publication was produced in Amnesty’s name.
v. Amnesty’s support for the Chronicle also offered a sense of protection
for dissidents in the Soviet Union, who were aware that Western
production of material about their position prevented the Soviet
authorities from the most brutal of attacks.
vi. This in turn raised Amnesty’s profile in the Soviet Union, to the extent
that a collection of dissidents formed an Amnesty group in Moscow,
further blurring the lines between Soviet dissident and Western
d. Amnesty’s reputation in the mid-1970s is a really good indication of the rising
profile of human rights issues in this period, highlighting how it is easy to
overlook the transition that occurred.
i. Amnesty awarded 1977 Nobel Peace prize, heralded by the group as a
moment when its work was widely recognised.
ii. The reality, however, is a little murkier.
iii. As there was no peace prize awarded in 1976 there were two awards
in 1977 – to Amnesty and the founders of the Ulster Peace Campaign
Mairead [ma-raid] Corrigan and Betty Williams.
iv. The news coverage following the award, however, focused entirely on
the award to Corrigan and Williams
v. Example of the Mirror Front Page and p. 3.
vi. The Daily Express wasn’t much better – in full
The 1977 Nobel Peace Prize went to Amnesty International, London-based, which works for political
prisoners around the world and against torture. “We are,” said secretary-general Mr Martin Ennals,
vii. This was echoed across the British press, with the Observer later
noting how much this lack of coverage had demoralised Amnesty’s
e. Important to note that human rights concerns, even presented by groups
that currently maintain a high status such as Amnesty, were not always a
major political issue
8. The Rush to Expertise
a. 1960s – Establishment of expertise
b. Mid-1970s – recognition of activists work
c. Late-1970s onwards – Expansion of activists’ work
9. Conclusion
a. Need to understand Western activism alongside developments in the Soviet
Union – they are absolutely intertwined.
b. Cold War developments are integral to the developing political salience of
human rights. As a result, the successes of activist groups in Britain were
dependant on conditions in international relations. Following the major
events of the mid-1970s, including the end of the Vietnam War and the
signing of the Helsinki accords, human rights becomes an important issue. As
a result, there is a ‘rush to the expertise’ that activists had developed on the
issue over the preceding decade by journalists and politicians alike
c. This all has ramifications for the current crop of political activists in Russia,
who are utilising Western Support as a part of their activism against Putin’s
government (in the case of Pussy Riot) or conducting activism that is drawing
the attention of the international community (in the case of Petr Pavlensky).
d. While the actions of these individuals are being widely reported in the West,
it will only be when conditions in international relations are right that the
campaigns on their behalf will gain political traction and, like their
counterparts in the 1970s, will rise to prominence.

`The Transnational Activism of British human rights organisations