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“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” With this quote, article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, opened the first issue of A Chronicle of Current Events.

The Chronicle was one of the longest-running samizdat publications in the Soviet Union. Samizdat was the name for unofficial leaflets, pamphlets and literature documenting and reporting human rights violations by the government — produced on dissident’s typewriters at home or work and passed on from reader to reader in order to avoid severe Soviet censorship. In the words of dissident Vladimir Bukosvky: “Samizdat: I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend jail time for it myself.”

The first issue of A Chronicle of Current Events (in Russian: Хро́ника теку́щих собы́тий) appeared in April, 1968. It reported on the trial of the Social Christian Union in Leningrad and carried information from the labor camps in Siberia. Its main focus, however, was the trial of Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg in Moscow. Galanskov and Ginzburg, along with Alexander Dobrovolsky and Vera Lashova, were prosecuted for publicizing information about another trial — of the writers Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, two years earlier.

It was poet and translator Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who continued the task of the imprisoned Galanskov and others. She collected information about what happened to Dobrovolsky, Galanskov, Ginzburg and Lashkova, detailing the nature of the trial and reaction from society, as well as other cases of politically-motivated injustices. (Gorbanevskaya herself was sentenced to incarceration in a psychiatric hospital in 1970, before emigrating to France in 1975.)

 

VIDEO: Natella Boltyanskaya investigates the story of one of the most influential Soviet samizdat newsletters, the Chronicle of Current Events.

 

The Chronicle soon became an important voice of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union. The Action (Initiative) Group, started in 1969 by 15 dissidents, and the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, founded in 1970 by the renowned dissident Andrei Sakharov, all grounded their work in human rights and referenced principles like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion enshrined in the Soviet constitution and international human rights agreements.

With the Moscow Helsinki Group, founded in 1977, human rights dissidents in the USSR increasingly gained international attention. Critical for this development was the adoption of the so-called Helsinki Accords or Helsinki Final Act in 1975. Benefiting from a thaw in the Cold War, the United States, Canada, Soviet Union, and all European states (except Albania and Andorra) signed this declaration aimed at improving relations between the Communist bloc and the West. The civil and human rights portion of the agreement provided the basis for the work of the Moscow Helsinki Group and other groups that monitored compliance with the human rights provisions in communist states.

The Russian samizdat literature and Helsinki Final Act, in turn, inspired dissidents in Eastern bloc countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They were instrumental in creating more civil society space, which ultimately resulted in the undermining of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe by such organizations as Charta 77 — an informal civic initiative of which dissident playwright and first post-communist Czechoslovakian president Václav Havel was a prominent member.

Unfortunately, the current political and media climate in the Russian Federation resembles, to a great extent, that of the former Soviet Union. Freedom of assembly is regularly curbed by the authoritarian regime in Moscow. Independent media are under fire and organizations like the Moscow Helsinki Group are fighting against being labeled a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin in order not to be shutdown.

Fifty years after the first issue of A Chronicle of Current Events, in the era of fake news and Russian cyber-propaganda, the mission of human rights-based grassroots organizations and alternative media is as relevant as ever.

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