The Chronicle of Current Events is a type-written, informational bulletin of human rights activists, published over the course of fifteen years, from 1968 to 1983. In this time, sixty-three issues of the Chronicle came out.
The United Nations declared 1968 the International Year for Human Rights, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the acceptance of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the Soviet Union, this year began with one of the most notorious political affairs of the Brezhnev era, the trial of A. Ginzburg, Y. Galanskov, A. Dobrovolsky, and V. Lashkova; the persecution of dissidents and those who spoke out on their behalf; and an increasing censorship of literature. Printed on the title page of the first issue of the bulletin, dated the 30th of April 1968, was the heading: “The International Year for Human Rights in the Soviet Union.” A bit lower appeared an epigraph containing the text of article nineteen of the Universal Declaration concerning everyone’s right to look for, obtain, and disseminate information, and below this, the words: “Chronicle of Current Events.” Strictly speaking, the first compiler of the bulletin, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, planned calling the publication “The Year for Human Rights in the USSR” (which, incidentally, demonstrates the initial intention to publish the bulletin for only a short period of time), while the words “Chronicle of Current Events” appeared as a subtitle and were more likely intended to announce the genre of the publication. However, readers took it to be the title, and the words “A Year for Human Rights in the USSR” as a motto designating the theme of the bulletin. This reading of the title page persisted and was accepted by the founder, all the more so given that the publication continued to be published beyond the International Year for Human Rights. In 1969, a new motto appeared on the title page: “The Year for Human Rights continues in the USSR.” It subsequently changed several times: “The movement for the protection of human rights in the USSR continues,” “The struggle for human rights in the USSR continues,” and “Campaigns for the protection of human rights in the USSR continue.” The bulletin’s structure was already determined in the very first issues — the Chronicle was divided into two parts. The first contained a detailed presentation of the most important events (in the compiler’s opinion) happening between the date of the previous issue and the present number. The second part consisted of recurring headings, organized according to thematic divisions and genre attributes: “Arrests, searches, interrogations,” “Unlawful prosecutions,” “In prisons and camps,” “Samizdat news,” “Short reports,” “Corrections and supplements.” The initial heading system, of course, was expanded and became more complicated in light of new problems that came to the attention of human rights activists. Soon the heading “Persecution of the faithful” appeared, as well as “Persecution of Crimean Tatars” and “Repression in Ukraine.” In the beginning of 1972, the category of “Persecution of believers in Lithuania” sprung up, and in the middle of the same year a new, more general title “Events in Lithuania” appeared and became a regular feature.
The Chronicle’s style remained unchanged: reserved, non-judgmental, factual. Its subject matter remained unchanged: the destruction of basic civil rights and freedoms in the USSR and the campaigns and “unauthorized” actions for their protection. The publication’s principles remained unchanged: striving for maximum precision and completeness of information, with objectivity in its delivery.
The compilers of the Chronicle did not announce their names openly. However, it would be an exaggeration to claim that the bulletin was created in the “depths of the underground”; in the course of the first year and a half of the publication’s existence it was widely known that N. Gorbanevskaya, whose personal efforts allowed for the publication of the first nine issues (with the exception, perhaps, of the third, in whose work Ilya Gabai and his wife Galina actively participated), took on the central work of preparing the editions. It is hard to say why in this period of time the KGB refrained from arrests. Perhaps the reason is that it was not so easy to charge an unbiased, strictly informational and factual bulletin — without calls to overthrow Soviet power, nor crude distortions of its activity — with “anti-Soviet propaganda” or “slander of Soviet construction.” At the time, the leadership of the state security bodies was trying to safeguard itself from accusations of blatantly false charges. Later, the KGB set aside such scruples. After the arrest of Gorbanevskaya on the charge of participation in the preparation and/or dissemination of the Chronicle, Yuri Shikhanovich, Pyotr Yakir, Viktor Krasin, Gabriel Superfin, Sergei Kovalev, Aleksander Lavut, Tatyana Velikanova were also arrested in various years, with Yuri Shikhanovich being arrested twice. Obviously, this list is not complete: we cited only those who were actually involved in the compiling of issues or, in the very least, in their reproduction or transmission abroad. The majority of those arrested were accused with charges of an analogous character.
The Chronicle received information for its issues by a simple and effective means, developed spontaneously to a significant degree: the established mechanism for the dissemination of samizdat texts worked in a “reverse” order. This mechanism is clearly described in an address to the readers of the Chronicle, found in the fifth issue of the bulletin:
The Chronicle is in no sense an illegal publication, and the difficult conditions in which it is produced are created by the peculiar notions about law and freedom of information which, in the course of long years, have become established in certain Soviet organizations. For this reason the Chronicle cannot, like any other journal, give its postal address on the last page. Nevertheless, anybody who is interested in seeing that the Soviet public is informed about what goes on in the country, may easily pass on information to the editors of the Chronicle. Simply tell it to the person from whom you received the Chronicle, and he will tell the person from whom he received the Chronicle, and so on. But do not try to trace back the whole chain of communication yourself, or else you will be taken for a police informer.
Later, in the 1970s, reports obtained in the above-described manner were supplemented by information received from independent human rights associations having their own sources of information (for example, the Moscow-Helsinki group) or extracted from other samizdat periodicals. Even later, specialized human rights publications appeared, such as “Bulletin V,” intended not as much for samizdat distribution, but rather as a primary source for other publications. The Chronicle came out regularly, about every two months, until the end of 1972. Then, after the twenty-seventh issue, the publication was suspended. The reason for this hiatus was blackmail on the part of the KGB, who openly threatened that every new issue would serve as a reason for additional arrests, with those arrested not necessarily directly involved with publication of the Chronicle. (Irina Belogorodskaya, who wasn’t actually taking part in the preparation of the bulletin at this particular moment and in the past only organized the retyping of issues, was arrested in fulfillment of this threat.)
However, already around autumn of the next year preparation began for the Chronicle’s resumption. It was decided to work on three issues at once, the contents of which would relate to the time of the “break” and would cover the gap formed by this period. Around the beginning of May 1974, all three editions — the twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth, and thirtieth — were ready. At the same time, the possibility of announcing the creation of an editorial board was discussed among those close to the bulletin. The advantages of such a decision were obvious: first of all, it would strictly limit the capability of the KGB to blackmail the Chronicle with arrests of non-participants or small-time participants in the publication; second, it would become easier for the correspondents and readers of the Chronicle to pass along information. The minuses were also evident: this step would be perceived by the government as a further challenge, and the announced editors, most likely, would soon find themselves behind bars.
More general considerations against such a step were also expressed: the Chronicle represented a common, and perhaps, the most important project of the entire human-rights movement, its heart; this is precisely how its disseminators, readers, correspondents, and helpers understood it. They felt as much a part of the project as those who selected and edited texts or who had created the framework of an issue. And they had concrete reasons to consider themselves as participants, since they risked just as much by taking part. Consequently, is it even legitimate to employ the phrase “editorial board” when speaking about the Chronicle of Current Events? In the end, an intermediary decision was made: the composition of the editorial board would not be printed on the title page, however, on May 7th 1974, a few members of the Initiative group for the protection of human rights in the USSR called a press conference. At this press conference, the three prepared issues were openly handed over to journalists, and with them, a statement for the press signed by three members of the Initiative group: Tatyana Velikanova, Sergei Kovalev, and Tatyana Khodorovich. The statement consisted of only a few sentences:
Since we do not consider, despite the repeated assertions of the KGB and the USSR court instances, that the Chronicle of Current Events is an illegal or libelous publication, we regard it as our duty to facilitate as wide a circulation for it as possible. We believe it is essential that truthful information about violations of basic human rights in the Soviet Union should be available to all who are interested in it.
In this way, the authors took upon themselves the responsibility for the distribution of the bulletin but not for its compilation. This nuance, however, was far from being understood by everyone, and many took the May 7th announcement as a declaration of the “editorial board” staff. It should be noted that this was not so far from the truth: of the three people who signed the announcement, two — Velikanova and Kovalev — were actually compilers of the Chronicle. At the same time, a decision was made to normalize foreign reissues of the Chronicle by clarifying copyrights. The Chronicle announced Pavel Litvinov as the authorized representative of the publication abroad, having the copyright for its reproduction in other countries. The May 7th press conference had a strong effect since everyone, even the KGB, was certain that the Chronicle had ceased publication a year and a half before. The flood of information grew drastically, and consequently the subject matter and geographical locales from where the journal obtained information also expanded.
Hereafter the Chronicle was issued without interruption to its very end, although in February 1981 the already-prepared 59th issue was confiscated during the search of Leonid Vul’s (one of the compilers) apartment. It was decided not to restore this issue, but rather to turn right away to the preparation of the 60th issue. The resumed Chronicle retained all its characteristics, except for two: its compactness (as already mentioned, the flood of information grew much larger, and in turn, the size of the publication) and, as a consequence, efficiency (the preparation of an issue took much longer). Even before, the date appearing on the title page did not agree with the date the issue was completed: in reality it indicated only the time period of content included in the given issue. For the three “retrospective” issues prepared in order to cover the break in publication, this difference in dates was agreed on in advance. Yet from here on maintaining the former frequency and restoring its production efficiency was not possible. In the period from May 1974 through October 1983 only thirty-five issues were prepared (including the seized 59th and the never released 65th issue), on average 3-4 issues a year as compared to the earlier six. But this is on average; in reality, the time lag grew greater from year to year. The last issue to come out, the 64th, was dated June 30th 1982, while the next, the 65th, was prepared only in the fall of 1983, and did not appear in either samizdat or abroad. A type-written copy of the 65th issue, saved by Boris Smushkevich, one of the compilers of the last issues of the Chronicle, can now be found in Memorial’s archives.
The publication of the Chronicle of Current Events ceased after the arrest of Yuri Shikhanovich on November 17th 1983. For many years, he played an essential role in the preparation of the issues (especially since May 1980). The Chronicle would never be resumed. The tradition of human rights oriented informational periodicals was in part continued by Aleksander Podrabinek, who in 1987 created the newspaper Express-Chronicle, and Sergei Grigoryants, the main editor the bulletin Glasnost', created in the same year. But this was, of course, an entirely different samizdat of an entirely different era.
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The Chronicle of Current Events played a historic role in the beginnings of independent public opinion in the Soviet Union.
First of all, it practically began the periodical tradition of samizdat, if you don’t count Aleksander Ginzburg’s journal Sintaksis of 1959-60 and a few of the SMOG (an unofficial artistic youth group) journals of the early 1960s. Sintaksis and the SMOG publications were poetic collections and cannot be considered a source of “mass information” in the strict sense of the word. Consequently, it was the Chronicle that marked the beginning of free press in Russia in the second half of the twentieth century.
Secondly, the Chronicle played a definitive role in the consolidation of human rights activity in the USSR. Its method of dissemination and, in particular, its mechanism for collecting information resulted in the creation of a unified information field that included all the significant manifestations of dissident and, in several cases, non-dissident, public activity. The Chronicle created the human rights movement in the USSR and, in a certain way, was the movement itself.
Later on, with the appearance of other human rights organizations, the Chronicle ceased to be unique. However, it never lost its importance as a record of the dissident movement even after the appearance in 1976 in the USSR of the Helsinki movement.
At the present time, researchers have at their disposal several basic sources for studying the history of Soviet dissidence and the human rights movement in the USSR, for example, the Radio Liberty Samizdat Archive, which publishes the limited-circulation “Collection of Samizdat Documents” and “Samizdat Materials.” Another important source is the bulletin News from the USSR published since 1978 by Kronid Lyubarsky in Munich. But the Chronicle of Current Events remains for researchers the first and most important source. It is precisely for this reason that the scholarly-informational and educational organization Memorial made the decision to make the Chronicle maximally available, placing its texts on the Internet for all of those interested.
Memorial’s archive has at its disposal practically the entire series of type-written copies of the bulletin (including several reprints of the publication’s initial model). Nevertheless, the main preparation of the text’s electronic version was based on the two-volume publication published by the Alexander Herzen Foundation of Amsterdam in 1979 (volume 1: issues 1-15; volume 2: issues 16-27). In several cases, the publishers’ remarks concerning the text were preserved, and these notes were taken into consideration during Possev-Verlag’s (Frankfurt-am-Main) publication of these issues in brochures.
We are also developing a system of reference indexes:
– An annotated index of names;
– A thematic index;
– An index of mentioned texts and documents;
– An index of geographical names.
Within the framework of the program we also intend to prepare short historical essays about the creation of each issue, using the oral recollections and existing memoirs of the participants of the Chronicle. We will be grateful to all who will be able to provide assistance in this (in our opinion) very important work. In the long-term we are considering the possibility of preparing practical commentary to the Chronicle’s reports, based on supplementary sources that we have at our disposal.
Translated by Julie Draskoczy
Edited by Maria Fokin