TO DEFEND THESE RIGHTS: HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE SOVIET UNION.
By Valery Chalidze, translated by Guy Daniels 340pp (Collins and Harvill) 4 pounds
Valery Chalidze was a founder member of the Soviet Human Rights Committee together with the Nobel Prize winner, Andrei Sakharov. Chalidze was the legal expert of the group. His political weapons were far stronger than any open letter or indeed any demonstration.
Trained as a physicist, Chalidze had mastered the basic precepts of Soviet law and in so doing has exposed and ridiculed the KGB who had twisted that law to fit its own brand of justice.
Sometimes the law is so twisted to fit the KGB version of events that lies are necessarily justified. Something as sacred as the Universal Declaration of 1948 was highly praised by the then Soviet representative to the United Nations. He even accepted the basic right to emigrate as long as a number of legal formalities were complied with.
At the same time, Jews were being arrested and sentenced to death and of up to twenty years in a camp just because they wished to leave.
Further proof of the bending of the law is cited in the arrest of Victor Polsky on the eve of President Nixon’s visit to Moscow in 1972. Polsky was held for ten days Until Nixon had left. No records of the action were kept. No sentence was made known.
Clearly the arrest was a preventative one from the KGB’s viewpoint, but the incident has no basis in Soviet law.
After his release, Polsky went to Chalidze to ask him to draw up a legal complaint. Chalidze agreed, but pointed out that the police would state that the arrest had never taken place. Shortly, afterwards Polsky received from the police an answer saying that there were no records about the case and that they knew nothing about it.
Chalidze shows the KGB’s disregard for freedom of speech, of press, of assembly and of association very clearly in this book. He also documents the violation of international legal agreements, for example, on the free passage of mail.
One young inhabitant of Leningrad, Yuri Levin, actually tried to show that his registered letters to the Voice of America were not lost as claimed by the Soviet postal authorities. Levin tried to prove his point by sending a statement condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia to the American Embassy in Moscow. He assumed that the KGB would take reprisals, thus exposing itself as a violator of the secrecy of correspondence. Levin was arrested shortly afterwards and interned in a psychiatric hospital. All that is known is that the first and final stages are examined by the Ministry of the Interior. In similar fashion there appear to be no administrative regulations on how to apply to OVIR, the visa and foreign registration office for permission to leave.
Even freedom of movement within the USSR becomes an anomaly under certain circumstances. Article 40 of the unpublished regulations on passports prohibits ex-convicts from returning home.
Chalidze takes a long hard at trials and camps in the USSR. In particular, he draws attention to discrimination by the authorities against honest lawyers in criminal cases, evebn though the right of defence includes the right of the accused to choose his own lawyer. He points out that more often than not, citizens are forced to break the law because of all the illegality that surrounds them.
My only criticism of this book is that it is too short and in some parts slightly obscure. Apart from this, it offers a significant insight into understanding of human rights. I look forward to more of Valery Chalidze’s works translated into English.
Chalidze concludes with some optimism for the future. He points out that the succeeding generation in the party is made up of cynical careerists who become Communists to further their own interests rather than out of commitment to the ideals of Marx and Lenin. Chalidze remarks: “Repugnant to decent people, cynicism is nonetheless more humane than fanaticism.”
This coupled with the trend against the cynics to imitate the intelligentsia, gives Chalidze hope that the Soviet system will gradually become liberalised.
Jewish Observer 7 November 1975