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Putin’s Brezhnev Moment

Having failed to achieve a quick victory in Ukraine, the Russian president is embracing increasingly totalitarian tactics in an effort to suppress critical voices, just as Soviet leaders did before him. The recent court-ordered dissolution of the storied Moscow Helsinki Group is a case in point.

NEW YORK – Late last month, a Russian court ordered the closure of the country’s oldest human rights organization. Founded in 1976, the Moscow Helsinki Group became the latest victim of an ongoing government crackdown on civil society that is eerily reminiscent of a similar effort by former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Brezhnev, in power from 1964 to 1982, signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords, together with the United States, Canada, and most of Europe. Eager for formal recognition of its borders at the time, the USSR under Brezhnev, together with its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe, underestimated the potential impact of the Accords. That is probably why it agreed to include commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of information and movement, in the agreement’s Final Act.

The Soviet Union abstained when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, so its accession to the Helsinki Accords marked the first time that it made such a pledge. When a handful of human rights activists in Moscow heard the news, they formed the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor the USSR’s compliance with the agreement it had just signed. Although the organization had only 11 members at the time, Brezhnev’s government identified it as a threat and sought to dissolve it.