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Remembering Yuri Orlov

Soviet Dissident, Physicist Was Early Inspiration for Human Rights Watch

Yuri Orlov, renowned human rights activist and distinguished physicist, died on September 27, at the age of 96. He was a major inspiration for us when we founded Helsinki Watch, which eventually grew to be Human Rights Watch.

Orlov was the founder of the Moscow Helsinki Committee, a courageous band of 11 intellectuals who came together in 1976 to monitor the Soviet government's compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, a 35-nation treaty that the Soviet government had signed. 

The arrests began in February 1977, nine months after the Moscow Helsinki group began its work. Charged with the “crime” of defending others who had been punished for exercising their right to free expression, the Helsinki group members became victims themselves. Orlov was among the first to be taken.

He was sentenced to seven years in a strict regime labor camp and five years of exile under harsh conditions. A photograph taken seven years into his sentence showed the white hair and ravaged face of an old man, barely recognizable as the once boyish-looking, red-haired young physicist.

To protest Orlov’s arrest and the arrests of his colleagues, we formed the US Helsinki Watch Committee in 1978. Our aim was to support the Moscow Helsinki Committee and to demonstrate how a Helsinki group could and should function in a free society.

Working for the freedom of imprisoned activists in the Soviet bloc countries seemed like a hopeless task back then. Our protests appeared to fall on deaf ears. But in 1985 a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, broke with tradition and agreed to participate in summit meetings with US President Ronald Reagan. In the fall of 1986, I met with Rozanne Ridgway, US assistant secretary of state for Europe. Ridgway told me she would soon be accompanying Reagan to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a second summit meeting with Gorbachev and that they hoped to advocate for the release of some political prisoners. She asked me for a suggestion. “Yuri Orlov,” I said immediately and described his situation. Ridgway took out a notepad and wrote down his name.

At the end of September, Ridgway called our office to announce that Orlov would be released as part of a pre-summit exchange agreement in which a Soviet spy arrested in the United States would be traded for an American journalist, Nicholas Daniloff. Daniloff had been framed by the KGB, the Soviet security agency, and Reagan considered him a hostage, not a spy. Reagan wanted to add someone else to the bargain. And Ridgway had Orlov’s name. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Ridgway said: “One of the nicest phone calls I was ever able to make was to call Helsinki Watch in New York and tell the staff there that Yuri Orlov would be leaving the Soviet Union and could they help us in receiving him in the United States.”

Whisked from Siberia, half-way through his second sentence, Orlov was stripped of his Soviet citizenship, put on a plane, and deported to the United States. We met him at John F. Kennedy airport, where he was greeted by a mob of journalists, friends, and human rights activists, all clamoring for the attention of one weary and confused man, self-conscious before the cameras because his teeth had rotted away in prison.

Orlov quickly adjusted to a new life. The youthful twinkle in his eye returned, as did his impish smile –his teeth having been fixed free of charge by a New York City dentist. He had a quick and lively sense of humor. He was curious and interested to learn about everything around him and eager to resume his human rights activities, not just for his imprisoned colleagues in the Soviet Union but for political prisoners everywhere. He asked Helsinki Watch to prepare two photographs for him – one of his friend Anatoly Marchenko, then on a hunger strike in the Soviet Union’s Chistopol Prison, and one of Nelson Mandela, then detained on Robben Island in South Africa. “One from the right in a left country; one from the left in a right country,” he told me. He was prepared to campaign for them both. And he did, in a multi-nation tour that Helsinki Watch organized, meeting with presidents and prime ministers in European capitals and with local human rights groups.

Orlov settled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he met and married a lecturer in the humanities, Brooklyn-born Sidney Siskin, a delightfully outspoken woman who became his perfect partner in life and in his human rights work. He resumed his scientific work at Cornell's Laboratory for Elementary-Particle Physics and became a Professor of Physics at Cornell. He was a visiting scientist at CERN, the esteemed center for nuclear research in Switzerland, a consultant at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the author or co-author of more than 230 scientific publications and technical reports.

Also a Professor of Government at Cornell, he taught about human rights, and continued his human rights work throughout his life. He received many honors and awards, too numerous to list here, in recognition of both his human rights work and his accomplishments in physics. In 1991 he published a memoir, “Dangerous Thoughts.” In 1993, he became a US citizen.

Yuri Orlov will be remembered for his resilience, his brilliance, his humanity, and his dedication. And I will always remember that twinkle in his eye.

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