The Soviet Union and the Birth of Human Rights

By Eric D. WeitzSeptember 24, 2019

The Soviet Union and the Birth of Human Rights
LARB presents an excerpt from Eric D. Weitz’s A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States, out today from Princeton University Press.


THE MODERN HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM, an assemblage of international treaties, state laws, and thousands of NGOs, is the work, to a very significant degree, of the Soviet Union. This simple contention is likely to inspire screams of outrage. How can we talk about human rights in a country that, under Josef Stalin, killed, tortured, and deported millions of its own citizens? Even under Stalin’s successors, the Soviet state remained deeply repressive and imprisoned and confined to psychiatric hospitals thousands of people who spoke out for freedom of speech and assembly and other basic rights.

Yet from a variety of angles, the Soviet Union contributed many panes in the construction of the fragile, glass house of human rights. Whatever its practices at home, at the international level after 1945 the Soviet Union promoted a robust conception of human rights that included national self-determination and economic and social rights. Its moves beyond the narrow, classically liberal conception of political rights inspired great hostility from the United States and many other liberal states that are usually considered the singular creators of human rights — and won the Soviets support in the Global South. Together, the Soviet bloc–Global South alliance largely defined the meaning of international human rights from the 1960s onward.

Moreover, when a human rights movement first emerged in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, its members drew not on Western liberal thinking, but on the highly democratic and rights-espousing — at least in rhetoric — Soviet constitution of 1936, proclaimed by none other than Stalin. Only after suffering some 15 years of severe repression by the state and the immobility of the Soviet system did Soviet dissidents and human rights advocates turn their gaze westward. At the same time, support for Soviet dissidents (along with opposition to apartheid South Africa) gave a much-needed jolt to Western human rights organizations, Amnesty International and (what became) Human Rights Watch the most prominent among them.

Strange but true: A country that on its home turf was deeply repressive, that denied large segments of its populace basic rights and at times murdered and terrorized its own citizens on a vast scale, this same country played a critical role in the formation of the modern human rights system. Its actions also demonstrate that the meaning of human rights is never simple and straightforward, but always contested.


In 1947, at nothing less than the United Nations debate on Palestine, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador to the UN and later foreign minister (and many other things besides), gave an acute and moving speech in support of the foundation of a Jewish state. Before the UN, Gromyko spoke with great sympathy about the “indescribable” Jewish suffering and “almost complete physical annihilation” of Jews under the Nazis. Gromyko went on to lament the sorrowful state of Jewish survivors, many of them homeless or living in displaced persons camps, all of them impoverished. If the UN ignores their plight, he argued, it would violate “the high principles proclaimed in [the UN] Charter, which provide for the defense of human rights, irrespective of race, religion, or sex.” The Western powers had utterly failed the Jews, he charged. None had been able to protect them from Nazi violence, none had helped Jews defend their rights. “The time has come to help these people, not by words, but by deeds.” Hence, the Jews aspire to their own state, and the UN should not deny them this right. Gromyko went on to call for a single state in which the rights of both peoples, Arabs and Jews, would be protected. If that proved impossible, then the Soviet Union would support partition. [1]

The USSR’s position in favor of a Jewish state should not be reduced to an early campaign in the vitriolic competition of the Cold War. Gromyko’s recognition of the Holocaust — as it would later be called — and the necessity of a Jewish state were not one-show wonders, singular and temporary exceptions to the overall thrust of Soviet foreign policy. Rather, they had deep roots in the ideology and politics of the USSR and socialist tradition in general.

In 1912, at the behest of V. I. Lenin, Stalin wrote Marxism and the National Question, a work that would shape communist thinking and communist policies around the globe, not only in Leningrad and Moscow but also in East Berlin, Pyongyang, Havana, and everywhere else communist parties came to power. Stalin argued that the nation is a form of political organization specific to the period of capitalism. Yet it has a certain stability that is reproduced among its members through culture. Therefore, the path to communism lay through the nation, not through antiquated empires that represented the ancien régime of feudalism.

Stalin was not the first communist to ponder the problem of the nation. Even Marx and Engels, who had bravely declared that the proletariat has no country, became reconciled to the power of the nation and nationalism in the modern era. After all, they were living in the great era of nation-state foundings: the establishment of Italy and Germany in 1871 and Bulgaria, Montenegro, Serbia, and Romania at the Congress of Berlin in 1878; the Meiji Restoration in Japan; and the re-founding of the United States through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and westward expansion. Not individual rights but national rights became the primary focus of state founders and political activists, including the socialists of the Second International (with a very few notable exceptions like Rosa Luxemburg) and the communists who followed.

Stalin’s writings, then, were not arcane, theoretical flights. They underlay the formation of the USSR as a federation of nationalities and the policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) in the 1920s and 1930s, which promoted the development of nationalities even while some of them would later be brutally repressed. At the same time, the Soviet Union, in 1936 and amid the Stalin Terror, trumpeted the success of the communist system in providing housing, employment, education, and health care for its citizens — all the provisions that would be bundled into social and economic rights as we now understand them. However limited, to say the least, was the Soviet reality, these positions underlay the USSR’s international involvement in human rights after 1945.

When the Allied countries met in San Francisco in spring 1945 to negotiate the creation of the United Nations, human rights stood high on the agenda. The conflicts over their meaning began on day one and continued for the next two decades, straight through the approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the General Assembly’s passage in 1966 of two covenants, one on political and civic rights and the other on economic, social, and cultural rights. All three documents landmark documents that established in international law universal human rights. (While the UDHR was a resolution, not a covenant, many legal scholars believe that it has today acquired force of law.)

During all these years, in all the councils of the UN, Soviet representatives forcefully advocated decolonization, national independence, self-determination, and economic and social rights as essential elements of human rights. Those positions won the USSR great support from the countries of the Global South, many of them newly emergent from the bonds of colonialism.

In contrast, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and the United States denied that self-determination and economic and social matters had the force of rights. The European states rightly feared that the concept of self-determination would undermine their colonial empires. The US and its allies also raised the fearsome specter of continual instability in the global order if every self-proclaimed people demanded its own state. The Western powers, including the United States, continually invoked the old imperial line that only “mature” populations had the capacity to exercise self-determination. René Cassin, one of the 20th century’s great advocates of human rights, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his work on the UDHR, argued that human rights are “purely individual rights” and therefore could not include self-determination, by definition a collective right. Eleanor Roosevelt, the head of the UN Human Rights Commission, to no one’s surprise, allied the United States with Cassin’s position. [2] Moreover, to the US, the notion of public health care, guaranteed living standards, and state-promoted jobs and housing smacked of socialism and communism. It fought fervently against any consideration of these items as human rights.

Cassin and the US partly prevailed in 1948. Social and economic rights but not self-determination made it into the UDHR. In the years afterward, however, the Soviet and Global South position won the day. In 1966, “after two decades of laborious, indeed epic endeavor,” as the delegate from the Dominican Republic phrased it, the UN passed two human rights covenants. [3] Article 1 of both treaties inscribed into international law the “right of self-determination” of “all peoples.” Ponce de Leon of Columbia, the rapporteur of the UN’s Third Committee, which drafted the treaties, expressed the prevailing sentiment:

The right of self-determination is one of the most important human rights, since it is a prerequisite for the full enjoyment of other fundamental freedoms and rights […] [including] the equal rights of women and men in all fields of human rights. […] With the adoption of these instruments [the two covenants] every imaginable aspect of the life of the individual is covered. [4]

Moreover, to the Soviet bloc and Global South representatives, political and civil rights were meaningless if people did not have adequate food and clothing, shelter, means of employment, and health care. In contrast, the United States signed but has never ratified the covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights. 

The UDHR and the two 1966 covenants provide the touchstone for every human rights claim in the last half century, from the Argentine mothers and grandmothers in the Plaza de Mayo demonstrations to the African National Congress’s fight against apartheid. As a result of the efforts of the Soviet Union and the Global South, that touchstone has broadened to include self-determination and social and economic provisions in our understanding of universal human rights.

Self-determination, however, asserts the primacy of national over individual rights. In the modern world of 193 sovereign countries, we have human rights first and foremost as citizens of nation-states. Even though international human rights assert that we have rights irrespective of national citizenship, the reality is that the nation-state is the first port of call when people seek the right to speak out, assemble, and have adequate health care. The nation-state, in the best of circumstances, is the powerful defender of human rights. It is also the supreme violator, the exclusion-enforcing institution that defines some people, whether by dint of race, nationality, religion, or political belief, out of the charmed circle of rights-bearing citizens.


On December 5, 1965, a small group of Soviet citizens ventured to Pushkin Square in Moscow. Fifty or so people appeared along with about two hundred observers, quite a number of them incognito Committee for State Security (KGB) agents. Two writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, had been seized by the KGB and placed on trial. The charges were trumped up, the event echoing the worst of the Stalin years. “Socialist legality,” the term Nikita Khrushchev had touted in his famed 1956 speech decrying Stalin’s arbitrary and brutal exercise of power, was nowhere in evidence. The mathematician Alexander Esenin-Vol’pin organized the demonstration. He had chosen the date and place carefully. Pushkin Square honored the great Russian literary figure; it faced the house of Isvestiia, the government’s newspaper. And December 5 was Constitution Day, the anniversary of the promulgation of the 1936 constitution. The participants unfurled signs, “Respect the Constitution,” and “The Sinyavsky-Daniel Trial Should be Open to the Public.” [5] The police quickly moved in, tore down the signs, and shut down the demonstration.

Vol’pin broke through the long, cold winter of the Stalin years and the timidity of his successors to organize a civil society action, an event that is widely recognized as the birth of the Soviet human rights movement. Vol’pin did not look westward to liberal countries like the United States, France, and the United Kingdom for the ideological and political resources to demand human rights. He found them at home in broad daylight, in the Soviet Union and the socialist tradition it claimed to embody. Vol’pin, a mercurial mathematician, and Valery Chalidze, a scientist turned legal scholar, argued that Soviet citizens already had rights. They were spelled out in the Stalin constitution of 1936, probably the most democratic and progressive document — on paper — anywhere in the world. Vol’pin, Chalidze, Andrei Sakharov, the brothers Roy and Zhores Medvedev, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, and many others, in the 1960s and 1970s, simply demanded that the state fulfill in deed as well as in rhetoric the Soviet constitution and Soviet laws, and that Soviet citizens act on the rights pronounced in their name.

It was a wild and fanciful notion; some people thought Vol’pin was literally crazy. “Have you forgotten where you live?” was one common response to his call for the demonstration on Constitution Day in 1965. [6] Vladimir Bukovsky, another important human rights campaigner, remarked that Vol’pin’s ideas were:

both inspired and insane. The suggestion was that citizens who were fed up with terror and coercion should simply refuse to acknowledge them. […] The inspiration of this idea consisted in eliminating the split in our personalities by shattering the internal excuses with which we justified our complicity in all the crimes. It presupposed a small core of freedom in each individual. […] [and] a consciousness of his personal responsibility. Which meant, in effect, inner freedom. [7]

When the Soviet Union signed on to the 1966 UN covenants on human rights, Vol’pin added another arrow to his quiver. He managed to obtain the text of the treaties and circulated them as samizdat documents. Now he and others demanded that the Soviet Union not only follow its own laws; it also had to adhere to the international treaties it had signed.

The Helsinki Accords in 1975 gave Soviet human rights activists yet another weapon. The Final Act, signed by 35 countries on August 1, 1975, contained an explicit statement in support of human rights. But why, pray tell, did the USSR sign an international agreement that stood in such direct opposition to its own domestic practice? For multiple reasons. The diplomatic gains were simply too enticing, first and foremost the formal recognition of the borders in the regions of Europe presided over by the USSR since the defeat of Nazi Germany. That agreement also signified an informal recognition of the USSR as a great power, something always important to the Soviet leadership. Moreover, although the USSR had abstained on the final vote, already in the 1950s it had adopted the rhetoric of the UDHR. [8] Gromyko used the term, as we have seen, as did Khrushchev in numerous speeches. They probably believed that the Helsinki Final Act expressed nothing that contradicted the principles laid out in the Stalin constitution and in Soviet law, and soon to be embedded again in the Brezhnev constitution of 1977. Like all dictators, the Soviet leaders had the hubris to believe that they could contain any opposition that emerged, that demanded the implementation in fact and not just in rhetoric of human rights principles.

In August 1975, the government even published in newspapers the Helsinki Final Act, touting it as a great Soviet achievement. The text had a lightening effect on the human rights movement. Soviet readers “were stunned” by its humanitarian and human rights provisions. [9] Quickly, some activists recognized the potential, just as Vol’pin had seen the potential in the Soviet affirmation of the two 1966 human rights covenants. Even more forcefully with the Helsinki Final Act, dissidents demanded that the USSR follow the international treaties it had signed as well as its own laws and constitution. Within a year, another scientist turned dissident, Yuri Orlov, spearheaded the foundation of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. It was a brilliant stroke, soon followed by analogues in a variety of cities. Inspiring stories of Soviet dissidents and human rights campaigners soon trickled out of the country and had a galvanizing impact on nascent human rights NGOs in the West. Within just a few years of its signing, a Helsinki network had emerged that included both governmental bodies and NGOs and linked East and West. Prominent among the groups were the UK-based Amnesty International and, in the United States, Helsinki Watch, which soon developed into one of the most important of all NGOs, Human Rights Watch.


“The regime conquered the majority,” wrote Valery Chalidze. [10] My great-aunt said much the same thing, if not so dramatically, when I met her in Moscow in 1978: most of our countrymen support Brezhnev, she said. Amid all the repressions and the terror, the Soviet system had accomplished the aspirations of many 20th-century dictatorships: it won the loyalty of a significant segment of the population. It did so by providing avenues of upward mobility for many common people and improved their living conditions, at least until the 1980s. Those nationalities not categorized as enemies continued to enjoy some cultural freedoms. And the USSR fought off the massive Nazi invasion, a point of great pride for Soviet citizens, not one of whose families was left untouched by the atrocities and disasters the Third Reich wrought on Soviet soil.

Chalidze, in the 1980s, had been living in exile in the United States for more than 15 years. He observed from afar Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform Soviet communism. Chalidze ranted against the insufficiencies of the system. He lambasted the shoddy construction of Soviet apartments, the many families crowded into small spaces, sometimes without even an indoor toilet, the interminable waiting lists for better apartments. New automobiles quickly fell to pieces. Soviet citizens spent endless hours searching for basic goods. The quality of services, including in such vital areas as health care, was absolutely dismal.

What kind of social rights are these? Chalidze asked. What can they mean when the level of social life is so abysmally low? He went further. In international fora the USSR always touted its achievements in the social and economic arena. No one went hungry in the Soviet Union, its officials claimed. Everyone had an apartment and a job. Chalidze argued that the Soviet claim of the “primacy of social and economic rights” was an utter fallacy and deception, a way the Soviet Union and other dictatorial systems diverted attention from their consistent violation of civil and political rights. [11]

Chalidze was right. Any state, including the worst dictatorship, with a half-way functioning economy can provision its population. But rights give people a sense of power. They come not as supplicants, happy that the king, emperor, or dictator grants them another bowl of soup. That policy is as old as Rome. But social and economic rights mean that people expect and demand what is theirs simply by virtue of their humanity — a decent living, adequate food, clean water, a decent environment, and participation in how their economy and society are ordered. To be worthy of the title, social and economic rights are inextricably entwined with political rights. Otherwise they are mere provisions that a regime in all its glory grants, and just as easily rescinds, whether out of sheer caprice or in moments of crisis. Rights have to mean an active citizenry that can protest, that can place demands on its government to ensure that it provides a reasonable condition of life for all its citizens and protects their ability to protest and speak out.

Not only liberalism, not just the liberal (and still-imperial) states created the postwar human rights system. Instead, the Soviet bloc and the Global South played the central role — whatever their domestic practices. Nor were human rights Soviet-style an import from the liberal West. The socialist tradition provided their basis, and that included the large mix of political, social and economic, and national rights.

The Soviet experience is, then, critical to any history of human rights. But the history, present, and future of human rights remain fraught with difficulties. Self-determination puts the nation-state first, ahead of individual rights. The 193 nation-states on the planet exclude as fast as they include people in the charmed circle of rights-bearing citizens, whether the basis of exclusion is race, nation, gender, religion, or political belief. Access to health care, education, and employment is all well and good. But what the state gives the state can take away. Absent political rights, there are no economic and social rights, just a regime providing benefits to keep its populace quiescent.


Eric D. Weitz is Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, A Century of Genocide, and A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. He lives in Princeton and New York City.


[1] Andrei Gromyko, quoted in Howard M. Sachar, et al., eds., The Rise of Israel: A Documentary Record from the Nineteenth Century to 1948, 39 vols. (New York: Garland, 1987), vol. 37: quotes 42, 43, 45.

[2] United Nations, Third Committee, 373rd Meeting, 5 February 1952: 515.

[3] Ornes-Coiscou, United Nations General Assembly (hereafter UNGA), Official Records, Twenty-First Session (1966), Plenary Meetings, vol. 2: 1495th Meeting, 16 December 1966: 12.

[4] UNGA, Official Records, Twenty-First Session (1966), Plenary Meetings, 1495th Plenary Meeting, vol. 3 (continued), 16 December 1966: 7.

[5] Edward Kline, “Preface,” to Valery Chalidze, The Soviet Human Rights Movement: A Memoir (New York: Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee, 1984), vii-xii, quote ix. On Vol’pin, see the important article by Benjamin Benjamin Nathans, “The Dictatorship of Reason: Aleksandr Vol’pin and the Idea of Rights under ‘Developed Socialism,’“ Slavic Review 66:4 (2007): 630-63,

[6] Quoted in Nathans, “Dictatorship of Resaon,” 655.

[7] Vladimir Bukovsky, quoted in Joshua Rubenstein, Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 36.

[8] See Jennifer Amos, “Embracing and Contesting: The Soviet Union and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948-1958,” in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 147-65.

[9] Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985), 336.

[10] Valery Chalidze, To Defend These Rights: Human Rights and the Soviet Union, trans. Guy Daniels (New York: Random House, 1974), 149.

[11] Valery Chalidze, Glasnost and Social and Economic Rights (New York: Freedom House, 1988), 11–30.

LARB Contributor

Eric D. Weitz is Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, A Century of Genocide, and A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. He lives in Princeton and New York City.


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