Chalidze remembered for human rights work


Valery Chalidze was a renowned Georgian physicist, writer and Soviet dissident who created a new language of lawful protest and continued to publish documents smuggled out of Soviet gulags even while exiled in the United States, leaving a legacy of conviction, passion and service in Vermont and around the world, his friends said. Chalidze, a resident of Benson, died last month at the age of 79. “It was the time of the beginning of the human rights movements in the Soviet Union,” said close friend and fellow dissident Pavel Litvinov. “People were being arrested for their beliefs. We didn’t know how to fight the Soviet regime, because we didn’t want another Russian Revolution. So many people died.” Chalidze was born in 1938 and raised in Moscow, and later became a physicist at the Universities of Tbilisi and Moscow. “In 1965, he was working for the government and felt a moral compulsion to transform his country into something other than a dictatorship,” said his wife, lawyer Lisa Chalidze, who teaches criminal justice at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland. “So he spent several years studying international and Soviet law.” Chalidze published a periodical in the 1960s titled “Social Problems” and in 1970 he started the Moscow Human Rights Committee and became politically active. “He called himself an ‘evolutionary’ rather than a revolutionary,” his wife said. Chalidze’s approach to protest was unusual in the post-Stalinist USSR, where everyone worked for the government and the KGB had seemingly unlimited power. “The Soviet Union had total control of press and media,” Litvinov said. “They would arrest someone and keep it quiet. Valery was one of the first people who formulated that you treat power politely. Let’s have dialogue. That was his language: the memorandum of loyalty. We demanded the Soviet institution to respect the citizens the way the American government did. We won’t attack them as enemies. You respect the law, and we respect the law.” Chalidze and other dissidents worked tirelessly to reach out to the West and spread word of the abuse of power in the Soviet Union, Litvinov said. “We opened contact with the West in ‘67-’68 with Amnesty International,” he said. “ We started to develop personal relationships with prisoners. We could gather information from incarcerated family and friends and send messages to America, smuggled in various ways. Sometimes a foreign journalist would carry it out. Sometimes they’d use diplomatic mail, which weren’t searched. People would smuggle out messages however they could. They would publish in the New York Times, and that’s how Amnesty International found out, and we were adopted as political prisoners.” Many people applied to leave the Soviet Union during that time, and were denied exit by the Soviet government, who labelled them “refuseniks.” In 1969, a group of Jewish refuseniks approached Chalidze, wanting to write a press release to get to the West in order to secure safe passage to Israel. The letter was originally titled “The Announcement,” but Chalidze renamed it “Letter of 39” for the 39 signatures it contained. “They came to him for help and he stayed up all night writing this document, putting forth the case that anyone should be allowed to leave their country and return to it,” Lisa said. “After they signed, they went home and packed warm clothes because they thought they were going to Siberia.” The letter was published in The New York Times, which generated pressure on the Soviet government, which released them; 44 people ended up signing the document and made it safely to Israel, Lisa said. What made Chalidze different was his willingness to dissent openly. “Valery would always put his name on a public document,” Lisa said. “Soviets used the law to harass and persecute people. Valery respected the law and valued the law, so others respected him.” The government never stopped trying to smear Chalidze’s name, Litninov recalled. “ They developed indirect ways,” Litvinov said. “ They declared that he was a homosexual. They had in law that consensual homosexual relationship was a crime. That’s five years of labor camp.” In 1972, Chalidze was invited to New York University and Georgetown University to give lectures on human rights. Two Soviet agents followed him to his hotel, where they found him and requested his passport. “They looked at it, and they said ‘we consider you a criminal who violates law about anti- Soviet propaganda and you are deprived of Soviet citizenship,’” Lisa said. As a result, his sister was blackballed from her work as a botanist and the rest of his family was forbidden to relocate to the U.S. His mother died in the Soviet Union, and he didn’t reunite with his family until Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in 1985. In 1973 he established the Khronika Press, where the Ford Foundation funded initial efforts for the Chronicle of Current Events, a periodical detailing the human rights violations of the USSR. “With Khronika, the goal was reporting human rights violations with scrupulous accuracy,” Lisa said. “Their reputation for accuracy was so high, it possibly exceeded that of Amnesty International.” In 1979 Chalidze started Chalidze Publications, which focused on reprinting or translating literary works into Russian that were unavailable to Russians due to censorship. That year he became a U.S. citizen, and he met his wife, Lisa, in 1980. “It was love at first sight,” she said. The Chalidzes moved to Benson in 1983, and Valery continued both publishing houses until 1990, when he founded the Central Asia Monitor, the world’s leading chronicle of events in central Asia. Valery finally retired from publishing in 2000. In his retirement he wrote books on mathematical logic, paleolinguistics, hierarchies, and he published “Mass and Electric Charge Vortex Theory of Matter” in 2001. Valery Chalidze’s lawful protest and dedication to human rights was his legacy, Lisa said. “He became a model for civil rights movements.” For Lisa Chalidze, her husband will be remembered for his indomitable spirit and courage. “He used to say, ‘It’s not easy to be human.’ His recognition of that made him so compassionate, and brave,” she said. “Things are clarified when you decide what it is you are willing to die for. Valery was willing to die for rule of law, and for his friends. He was willing to die for me.”

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