Departing Soviet dissident: intellectual able to talk to peasants

Eight years ago, Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov packed his bags and was sent to shape metal on a lathe in a forced-labor camp in the Urals. Today, the supporter of democratic reform and human rights is packing his bags for a flight to freedom. Dr. Orlov is scheduled to depart the Soviet Union by Oct. 7 as part of the arrangement that freed convicted Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov and American journalist Nicholas Daniloff.

``As a scientist, as a citizen, he thought that the democratic way was the only way to prosperity and peace,'' says Ludmilla Alexeyeva, who worked with Orlov as a human rights activist and has written a book on the Soviet dissident movement.

``The life of an individual means a great deal to him,'' says Tatiana Yankelevich, who, as the step-daughter of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, met regularly with Orlov. ``He wanted to do something constructive that would reach out to the rest of the world.''

The human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki accords provided the opportunity. Because the agreement was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and 33 other states, Orlov saw that it provided the opportunity for citizens to urge Soviet compliance with basic human rights while creating similar pressure on the Kremlin from the West.

To publicize the plight of persecuted citizens, Orlov joined in founding the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group in May 1976.

``By all accounts he was an organizational genius,'' says Joshua Rubenstein, an authority on Soviet dissent and the northeast regional director of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group. Under Orlov's leadership, Jews, Christians, nationalists from various republics, monitors of Soviet abuse of psychiatry to suppress dissidents, and other groups united to pursue their agendas. ``That's what really infuriated the regime,'' says Mr. Rubenstein, author of ``Soviet Dissidents.'' Later, sister Helsinki groups were formed in Lithuania, the Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

``I think he really accomplished a great deal,'' Rubenstein says.

Visitors from all levels of society came to see him in those days, and he proved a good listener, Ms. Alexeyeva says. ``You should see him. It's impossible to explain. He is intellectual with intellectuals, and he is warm and simple enough to talk with peasants.''

The movement encountered dark days in the first three months of 1977. The apartments of Orlov, Alexeyeva, Alexander Ginzburg, and other Helsinki monitors were searched. Orlov and Jewish refusednik Anatoly Shcharansky were arrested. Alexeyeva was expelled.

Although the Helsinki group managed to flourish until September 1982, Orlov was sentenced in May 1978 to seven years in a labor camp and five years in exile for ``anti-Soviet propaganda.''

Orlov's wife, who will join him in the West, visited him in Siberia this summer and reports that his health was ``really not bad.''

Still, he wears dentures because he lost most of his teeth during his term in a forced labor camp. And he has aged much in the last decade -- so much so that Mrs. Yankelevich didn't immediately recognize him when she saw his photograph a few years ago.

Through it all, he has clung to the ideal of democracy.

``I cannot explain how it happens that in a totalitarian country a person is born with such freedom of thinking,'' Alexeyeva says.

Orlov first publicly called for democratic change in his country in 1956, in a meeting to discuss the 20th Communist Party Congress, where Nikita Khrushchev had denounced the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in a secret speech.

Although Orlov was applauded by those present, he was expelled from the party a few days later and left to join his brother in the Soviet republic of Armenia, where he earned his doctorate in physics.

In 1973, a year after his return to Moscow, Orlov wrote a long letter to then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev defending Dr. Sakharov from charges in the Soviet press and expressing his conviction that, without democratization, the Soviet Union could not be a leader in science and technology. The letter eventually cost him his job.

His friends, however, always provided support. After he was jailed in 1977, several dissidents signed letters of defense for him and his colleagues.

One letter from a group of 500 Pentacostal Christians expressed gratitude for the work of the Helsinki Watch Group on their behalf.

`` `Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friend.'

``Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Orlov, and Anatoly Shcharansky have fulfilled this precept of Christ to the end,'' it said.

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