Let Them Prove It

documenting human rights abuses in Russia

by by Joy Neumeyer

On a frigid Moscow morning in 1977, physicist Yuri Orlov watched as the KGB men drove up to his apartment and exited their black car. A year earlier, Orlov had founded the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor the Soviet Union’s adherence to the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords. As the number of abuses documented by the group grew, so too did surveillance and searches of its members. Each month, the state confined more of the group’s activists in Siberian gulags and psychiatric wards. As Orlov saw the car approach on that cold morning, he knew that at last they had come for him. After lengthy interrogations, Orlov was convicted of treason and sentenced to seven years in a strict regime labor camp and five years of exile.


On July 15, 2009, Natalia Estemirova exited her apartment in Grozny, Chechnya, where she had been working with Human Rights Watch and other organizations to document the executions, torture, and abductions perpetrated by the Russian-backed government there. A group of men seized her in an unmarked sedan outside her home as neighbors heard her scream that she was being kidnapped. She was found the next day in the woods of Ingushetia with close-range bullet holes in her head.

After initiating a wave of human rights activism across the Soviet bloc, the Moscow Helsinki Group’s handful of remaining members disbanded in 1982 in the face of paralyzing state-sanctioned repression. This summer marked the 20th anniversary of the group’s hopeful refounding on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse. However, in a haunting revival of the repression that forced the group’s dissolution, human rights workers in Russia again live in fear. After Estemirova’s murder in July, the bodies of husband-and-wife activists Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov surfaced in Chechnya in August, also with execution-style bullet wounds. In the '70s, those who worked to protect human rights by publicizing their violation were persecuted with the public fanfare of trials and received the heavy attention of Western governments. In 2009, Estemirova and others investigating abuses have disappeared in silence. As the body count rises and human rights work freezes, the years between Orlov’s arrest and Estemirova’s murder offer mixed lessons on overcoming hostility towards human rights work in Russia—work fueled by courage and paid for in blood.