(30) Human Rights: Past and Present

USSR's concentration camps 1929 - 1960s - GULAG system

Human Rights in the Soviet Union: The Policy of Dissimulation


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Post-Stalin

Moving beyond the UN: The Declaration in International and Domestic Publics

Given the pervasiveness of government control in the Soviet Union , one might think that human rights diplomacy would remain within the narrow confines of the Foreign Ministry, or, at most, within the government sphere. In fact, various journalists and a voluntary association began promoting Soviet understandings of human rights both abroad and domestically. For these groups, international diplomacy was not distinct from domestic politics. Instead, the promotion of human rights occurred in a sphere where the international and domestic intertwined.

In one of the earliest signs of the change in post-Stalin policy, the journal Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’ (International Affairs) published the Declaration in its entirety, ending seven years of silence. This journal circulated both within the Soviet Union and internationally, with translations available in English and French. In the article, an anonymous author introduced the Declaration with a brief, two-page history, in which he depicted the Declaration as vindication of Socialist legality and the 1936 Constitution; thus domestic ideology infl uenced the rights enumerated globally. The international Declaration was not, despite its more recent origins, a substitute for or improvement on the domestic Socialist legality, as the Soviets compromised with capitalist states.

The author explained how the “task of internationally protecting human rights and freedoms” was that of the Soviet Union, the United States, and others of the anti-Hitler coalition. In so doing, he stressed cooperation between the former allies and refl ected a reduction of Cold War tensions. The author then inaccurately posited that the Soviet delegation pressed the other great powers to include human rights as one of the goals of the United Nations and instigated subsequent human rights efforts. Subsequent articles would continue to link the Declaration to the Soviet Constitution, but place it in a Cold War context, rather than in that of the World War II alliance.

Not only were journals reaching simultaneously foreign and domestic audiences, but new voluntary organizations began crossing the international–domestic border. At this stage in the Cold War, the Soviet Union began participating in more global organizations, both intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in order to gain more infl uence internationally. Previously the USSR had founded a series of transnational political organizations, such as the Comintern (1919-1943) and the Cominform (1947-1956), but limited interaction to other communist groups.

After the death of Stalin, the government reversed earlier positions and began playing an active part in intergovernmental organizations, particularly the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which were peripheral sites of human rights diplomacy. Additionally, the Soviet Union joined already existing NGOs such as the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), which, unlike the Comintern and Cominform, were not communist.

The Soviet organization activists justifi ed their projects (and requests for funding) to the government by explaining that their efforts within the larger NGO movement would enable Soviet ideas to reach people outside of governments, who would be more sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause. The Soviets did not form a branch of the World Federation of United Nations Associations until after Stalin’s death, despite sincere international efforts to include the USSR. WFUNA began in 1946, when several NGOs, many developed from the remnants of earlier League of Nations associations, formed a “peoples’ United Nations.” The Federation pursued two, at times conflicting, and goals: (1) to make the United Nations accountable to the international public and (2) to promote the UN and its decisions within the associations’ states. At its very beginning, a representative of the nascent organization wrote to Soviet diplomats at the UN inviting them to either recommend an NGO to participate in the founding meeting or attend them. The British author of the request, John A. F. Ennols, pointed out that the British and French Communist Parties supported both the UN and the WFUNA initiative. Further, he stressed his regard for communism by revealing that during the war he had worked closely with the communist forces in Yugoslavia. Ten years later, the Soviet government finally formed their own branch of WFUNA, the Association for the Promotion of the United Nations Organization (ASOON), a government directed organization to participate in this international NGO movement.

In the earliest discussions of establishing a Soviet branch of WFUNA, the Foreign Ministry proposed Anna Mikhailovna Pankratova, a figure who linked the nascent association with de-Stalinization. Pankratova first entered the global arena when she led the Soviet delegation to the Rome International Historians’ Conference and was elected to the governing Bureau. While ASOON was being formed, Pankratova served as the editor-in-chief of the journal Voprosy istorii (Questions of History). She led the journal as it explored the boundaries of de-Stalinization, delving into issues such as the relationship between Lenin and Stalin in 1917, Russian colonialism, and other previously taboo subjects. Furthermore, Pankratova spoke at the Twentieth Party Congress, during which Khrushchev delivered his famous “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality. Subsequently she led official discussions concerning the speech at nine different locations throughout Leningrad in a three-day period. 48 In choosing Pankratova to head the ASOON, the Foreign Ministry picked not only someone with international experience, but someone who represented the new spirit of the times.

As part of WFUNA, ASOON was nominally an NGO, by definition independent from the government. In reality, it received direct orders from the Soviet Central Committee and coordinated its policy with representatives of the Foreign Ministry. Despite these government links, ASOON pushed other WFUNA members to stand in opposition to their governments. For example, it urged the American Association for the United Nations to speak out against the U.S. policy of nuclear testing and rearming West Germany. The head of the American Association, Irving Salomon, replied, I am greatly pleased, to begin with, by your implied recognition of the principle that a United Nations Association ought to be willing and able to oppose the official position of its government on such questions if it so desires. You, of course, know that the AAUN has in fact from time to time spoken out against particular policies of the United States Government… It is this independence and our willingness to exert it that qualifi es us to deal with your association and others as free agents with no responsibility for upholding the foreign policy of our government.

Although WFUNA was technically composed of organizations independent of their governments, the United States and others assumed, accurately, that ASOON was a tool of the Soviet Foreign Ministry. That said, WFUNA preferred the participation of the Soviet organization, even under false pretences, to its absence.

ASOON received directives from the Foreign Ministry, which focused exclusively on ASOON’s international activities, leaving ASOON space for independent initiative domestically. Simultaneously WFUNA tasked the associations, through an annual reporting system, to promote the United Nations domestically. In 1957, WFUNA asked its affi liates to include in their annual report a description of both their activities throughout the year to promote human rights and how the associations observed International Human Rights Day (December 10th). To maintain legitimacy in WFUNA, ASOON had to observe Human Rights Day domestically. Although the Soviet government created ASOON to work internationally, the association needed to work within the Soviet society to achieve its international goals. WFUNA members discussed various associations’ domestic activities as part of determining who would be on the global executive board, and highlights of these were disseminated internationally. ASOON conducted domestic human rights programs in order to bolster its claim to leadership during elections to the executive board and with other associations in general. The Soviet Foreign Ministry may have envisioned ASOON as an international instrument when it gave its approval to the group; it certainly drafted the directives to the group only dealing with its international activities. At the same time, WFUNA judged its associations on their domestic activities. One year after its creation, ASOON organized the USSR’s first observation of International Human Rights Day, commemorating the vote on the Universal Declaration.

In 1957, ASOON collaborated with the Soviet Committee on UNESCO to celebrate Human Rights Day, focusing on the rights of children, infants, and mothers. It convened discussions with education specialists from the Academy of Sciences, the Soviet Women’s Committee, and other domestic volunteer organizations, and the Association concluded the event with a children’s concert.

According to ASOON’s report to the World Federation, it was the organization’s “most important” event of the year, and a synopsis of the activities was published in the Izvestiia, Moscow News, and Novoe Vremiia (New Times). These newspapers commemorated International Human Rights Day for the first time that year and, building off ASOON’s events, wrote particularly about children’s rights.

Izvestiia published an editorial, subsequently republished in Moscow News, which best explained Soviet attitudes toward the Declaration: “The Soviet Union considers that the implementation of the principles proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is inseparably connected with the struggle of the nations against the danger of a new war, with their fight for peaceful coexistence and friendship.” The Novoe Vremiia article declared the Declaration “on the whole a progressive document,” including some provisions “based on the same principles that underlie the Soviet constitution.”

The unnamed author echoed earlier writings and condemned the Declaration for its aspirational rather than legal nature. In contrast, as the Novoe Vremiia article explained, Soviet laws guaranteed basic human rights, some rights achieved even during the Civil War: “The rights and freedoms proclaimed in the U.N. Declaration are legislatively guaranteed and faithfully exercised in the Soviet Union. The same is true of the People’s Republic of China and the other socialist countries.”

Meanwhile, the article elaborated, Italy had hungry children, Japan had unemployment, and the United States suffered from not only these problems but also “McCarthyism and the terrible thought-control interrogations that drove scientists and actors to suicide.”  These articles used the Universal Declaration to legitimize the Soviet rule, as the rights therein were already attained in the Soviet Union, with the Constitution infl uencing and inspiring the Declaration and shaping international goals. In writing its article, New Times continued to bridge the divide between Soviet internal and international press. Like the 1955 article in the monthly Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’ (International Affairs), this article appeared in a weekly journal that was predominately, but not exclusively, published for an international audience, with six different language editions, including Russian. The article targeted an international audience, but simultaneously reached an internal one.

For the tenth anniversary, ASOON claimed responsibility for the fact that the government had released a commemorative postage stamp – a tangible piece of propaganda for the Declaration it failed to initially support.

Additionally, ASOON commissioned Anatolii Petrovich Movchan, a historian and member of the Association, to write a book that provided a brief history of the Declaration and the draft covenants as well as a complete version of the Declaration in the annex. Movchan, like previous authors, portrayed the Declaration as the product of a battle between two blocs, the people’s democracies against the Anglo-American bourgeois states. The representatives of other states became, in the Soviet version of history, primarily invisible or, on rare occasion, puppets of the Anglo-American cabal. Charles Malik of Lebanon, René Cassin of France, P. C. Chang of China , and Carlos Pena Romulo of the Philippines , who played such infl uential roles in the drafting of the Declaration, were absent. Similarly, the disagreements between the United Kingdom and the United States over the Declaration (as well as most foreign policy issues) disappeared. In so doing, Movchan glossed over issues on which Soviet and American diplomats agreed.

When the press, journalists, and jurists discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , it was linked to the Soviet 1936 (Stalin) Constitution. The diplomatic corps described the enumerated rights in the Constitution to push for similar rights in the Declaration and the subsequent covenants. Later, articles in both legal journals and general publications used the perceived influence of the Constitution on the Declaration to validate the progressive nature of the Constitution. However, the 1936 Constitution was always depicted as the more progressive of the two documents, as the Declaration was a compromise with the bourgeois powers. What then, if any, was the domestic impact of this diplomatic and internal propaganda? Ben Nathans’ work in this volume concludes that the Soviet public did not embrace ideas of universal, inalienable human rights in their proposals to revise the Constitution. Perhaps the domestic discourse failed to foster rights-talk among Soviet citizens, but the diplomatic discourse directly impacted the 1977 Constitution. This Constitution included a greatly expanded section of “The Basic Rights, Freedoms, and Duties of Citizens of the USSR” with forty articles in comparison to the 1936 Constitution’s sixteen. Of these, twenty were rights (as opposed to obligations), and they reflected seventeen of the rights enumerated in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The domestic Constitution refl ected international diplomacy on human rights.

When Stalin purged his enemies, he directed a cadre of photographers and cinematographers to erase their images from photos. Stalin-era scholars would send revisions to those who purchased the Soviet encyclopedia, replacing entries on the politically excised with elaborate entries on natural science. Although many may think this ended with Stalin’s death, Khrushchev’s regime similarly erased all mention of the Soviet abstention on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, the Declaration became a sign of the progressive nature of Soviet law and morality both domestically and internationally.

Soviet diplomats, journalists, jurists, and others turned to the Universal Declaration in order to further government policies. They succeeded to an extent because the Declaration was elastic, facilitating multiple, even conflicting, and interpretations of human rights. In the international sphere, the Soviet Foreign Ministry prevailed on the United Nations to include economic, social, and cultural rights in a legally binding covenant by arguing for a unity of the rights enumerated in the Declaration. As Soviet human rights diplomacy increased, it spread from the confines of the Foreign Ministry and the United Nations to reach international and domestic public audiences through approved publications and volunteer organizations, who used the Declaration to promote socialist ideology, Soviet legality, and their own legitimacy. The Cold War did not freeze human rights diplomacy; on the contrary, the debates heated up as multiple political ideologies, religious convictions, and historical experiences attempted to move beyond the generalities of the Declaration to the specifi cities of the covenants. Instead of the silence portrayed by some historians, one prominent delegate – Charles Malik of Lebanon – described this period as “the exciting drama of man seeking to grasp himself.”

 The Declaration did not end this drama, nor did the Cold War. Instead, it provided the vocabulary to define and redefi ne ideas of human rights, and one of the lexicographers was the Soviet Union. By recognizing the Soviet Union as an active participant in human rights diplomacy, a perceived silence in human rights history - from the Declaration to the 1970s - instead becomes a noisy space of debate.



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