National Post (Latest Edition)
The scientist who took on the Soviet Union
On Sunday, Cornell University Prof. Yuri Fyodorovich Orlov, founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, died at the age of 96. Orlov was a leading particle physicist, but it is for his courage as a critic of the Soviet regime that he will be remembered most widely. Among the Soviet scientists whose steady pressure ultimately helped bring the U. S. S. R. to a fatal crisis, he stands second only to his friend Andrei Sakharov.
Orlov, born in 1924, served as a Red Army officer in the war and moved on to the Soviet Union’s physics establishment, where he came under the protecting wings of giants who had somehow survived Stalinist terror. His masters were Pyotr Kapitsa, Lev Landau and Gersh Budker. By his own admission, Orlov was somewhat naive politically. His generation had not had older scholars’ opportunities for travel, foreign correspondence or study of Western ideas, and the war wasn’t a good substitute. He didn’t know what “human rights” were, but he had learned plenty about coercion and cruelty.
In 1956, Orlov and other young scientists at an outfit called ITEP in Moscow got wind of Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret” ( but widely published) denunciation of Josef Stalin. They staged a local party meeting to discuss it. Their talk, like others from the period, questioned the regime from within the bounds of Marxist- Leninist orthodoxy — orthodoxy, that is, as Khrushchev seemed to have momentarily redefined it. One junior scientist urged the arming of the workers to provide a check against a recurrence of Stalinism. Another urged intellectual openness and asked why BBC Radio was being jammed within the U. S. S.R.
“I was more of a theoretician,” Orlov later recalled. “Although I was a Marxist, I didn’t believe in determinism. In my speech, I said that the socialist economic system was all right, but the political system can be repressive or terrorist.… I suggested the Soviet Union should become more liberal like Yugoslavia. I also talked about the moral degradation of the Soviet people from the top to the bottom.”
This tête- à- tête reached the ears of the Politburo almost immediately. Every party member at ITEP immediately had their cards withdrawn and were forced to sign public denunciations of those who had spoken up. The organizers of the meeting were sacked. Khrushchev apologized to the institute’s director, saying, “All I could do was see to it that they weren’t arrested.”
Older colleagues gave support, but were divided on the wisdom of Orlov’s talk. Budker caught him in a corridor wearing a long face and said, “You’re a hero: cheer up!” Landau, annoyed at the loss of a useful colleague, chastised him: “If you want to make science your career, don’t make speeches.”
Orlov, no longer welcome at the heart of Soviet big science, retreated to Armenia to teach and bide his time. Khrushchev’s revisionism had raised hopes for incremental reform, but by 1965 he was ousted. The inner circle of power fell back on old habits, although the Communist leaders had learned to stop murdering each other at the drop of a hat.
In 1968, two important things happened. One was the famous “Red Square protest” against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: eight young people had the courage to let themselves be arrested, beaten and imprisoned ( some in the gulag, some in psychiatric detention) by the KGB. The other was that Andrei Sakharov, Russia’s most revered physicist, abandoned his strategy of private correspondence with the Politburo and began to circulate signed political articles about arms policy and democratization through illegal “samizdat” journals. As Orlov put it, “It was not important what was written … it was important that Sakharov wrote it.”
With a matter of a few years,
Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were recognized as the two most dangerous internal intellectual enemies of Soviet power. The regime’s attacks on Sakharov initially took the usual form — which is to say that his tamer colleagues were recruited to denounce his political ideas in journals like Pravda. In 1973, Orlov published his own defence of Sakharov, entertainingly titled, “Open Letter to L. I. Brezhnev about the Reasons for the Intellectual Backwardness in the U. S. S. R. and Proposals to Overcome It.” ( It is better known today as the “Thirteen Questions to Brezhnev,” and is credited with popularizing the term “glasnost.”)
Orlov also founded the U. S. S. R.’s first Amnesty International branch, which cost him the last vestiges of his Soviet physics career. He never again held any job until he was released in 1986, expelled from the country and bundled off to meet with U. S. President Ronald Reagan in the White House.
The final straw was the formation of the Helsinki Group in 1976. The year before, the Soviets scored what was then seen as a great diplomatic triumph, taking the form of the so-called Helsinki accords. The U. S. S. R. agreed to honour “fundamental freedoms” of thought within the Soviet empire, confident that the promise could not come back to haunt them, while the West agreed to honour the territorial integrity of the Soviet client states.
Orlov and others seized this otherwise overlooked opportunity, forming a group to monitor freedom of expression in the U. S. S. R. and inform the wider world of its findings. Their dissemination of what the KGB called “slanderous materials” quickly began to turn world opinion further against the Soviet state, and to threaten scientific and economic co- operation with free countries.
The “unemployed Orlov Yu. F.” was arrested in 1977, along with his Helsinki Group collaborators, and spent the next seven years in labour camps. He became the subject, rather than the author, of Helsinki Group circulars. By 1984 he was reported to be emaciated and toothless, and his wife was quoted as saying ,“The authorities are gradually killing him.”
But in that year he was transferred to serve the “internal exile” part of his sentence in Siberia. He was expelled from the U.S.S.R. in advance of the 1986 Reagan- Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, as a show of good faith, and eagerly took up a new scientific career at Cornell. His Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990, for what little it was worth by that time, and he was the very obvious choice to receive the American Physical Society’s first Sakharov Prize for human rights in 2005. The Helsinki Group still exists, having lasted long enough to find itself arrayed against a new kind of Russian menace.
didn’t know what ‘human rights’ were, but he had learned plenty about coercion and cruelty.