Sunday 19 November 2017

The Soviet dissident who faced down an unforgiving Kremlin

Alexander Lavut
Alexander Lavut

Alexander Lavut, who has died aged 83, was a Soviet dissident and human rights activist whose work for the underground bulletin A Chronicle of Current Events led to his arrest and subsequent internal exile.

Founded in 1968, A Chronicle of Current Events ran for 63 issues over 15 years, and described the campaign of persecution conducted by the Soviet government against its opponents. Each issue was produced as a few dozen typewritten copies, passed on to friends and then replicated in the manner of a chain-letter.

Alexander Lavut was a talented mathematician and a close friend of Sergei Kovalev, a biologist who had helped set up the Chronicle. After Kovalev was imprisoned for his dissident activities in 1974, Lavut took over as a principal author and editor.

On April 29, 1980, Lavut was arrested in turn and charged with "dissemination of knowingly false fabrications discrediting the Soviet social and political system". During his trial at the Moscow People's Court, Lavut admitted distributing material but claimed that his actions fell within the remit of the law. But he was convicted and sentenced to a maximum term of three years, beginning at the notorious Butyrka remand prison in the north of Moscow.

Later, he was transferred to the east coast province of Khabarovsk, more than 4,000 miles east of Moscow. Though his initial sentence came to an end in April 1983, his refusal to sign a statement agreeing to cease all political activity saw him placed under house arrest, and he was not free to travel for another three years.

Throughout his incarceration and subsequent exile, Lavut had a friend and champion in Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and recipient of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. Himself exiled to Gorky, Sakharov wrote an open letter to the scientific community, calling upon his colleagues' sense of "common duty" and including Lavut's name in the list of persecuted individuals whose causes he espoused. He renewed the struggle after his release from Gorky, and in 1988 succeeded in obtaining official permission for Lavut to join a Soviet-American commission on civil and political rights in Washington. "This is how heroes look," wrote The New York Times.

Born on July 4 1929, Alexander Pavlovich Lavut graduated from the Mechanics and Mathematics faculty of Moscow State University in 1951 and taught at secondary schools in the city, and in Kazakhstan.

His political activities began while he was employed at Moscow State University when, in 1968, he added his name to an open letter in defence of the poet Alexander Ginzburg. In May 1969, with Sergei Kovalev, he joined the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights, the first such organisation in Soviet history, signing an open letter to the UN Human Rights Commission. Of Lavut's 14 co-signatories, 10 would later be arrested and imprisoned, and Lavut lost his job in November that year. "They hunted us, and viciously. We were constantly being watched and listened to," he recalled.

For many years, he campaigned on behalf of the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group forcibly exiled under Stalin in 1944. An active opponent of Russia's wars in Chechnya, he was arrested in December 1994 during an unsanctioned picket of the administration of the Russian Federation in Staraya Square.

He was a member of the Public Committee for the Preservation of Legacy of Andrei Sakharov, and served on the board of Memorial, an international civil rights society.

Alexander Lavut married Serafima Mostinskaya, with whom he had one child.

Irish Independent

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