A report by the historian introducing Helsinki Group and its activities in Lithuania. This report was read at ”Tolerance and Totalitarianism. Challenges to Freedom” - an international conference held in Vilnius.
When the agreement on Security and Cooperation was signed in Helsinki in the summer of 1975, the Soviet Union for the first time undertook international obligations relating to the defence of human rights. This gave a strong impetus to dissident movement. During this time various dissident groups known as Helsinki groups – a reference to the place where the agreement was signed – were formed in the territory of USSR to monitor the implementation of the Helsinki Accords. The Moscow Helsinki Group was founded in May 1976 and in December of the same year – the Lithuanian Helsinki Group (LHG). Dissidents particularly stressed the struggle for human rights.
The Lithuanian Helsinki Group was founded by five people. Coming from different social backgrounds and having different nationalities, professions, education, even of different characters, the founders of the group were able to find common ground and formed a group, which managed to operate publicly despite the pressure of KGB and its persecutions, and informed the Free World about human rights violations behind the Iron Wall – in the then Lithuanian SSR.
One of the founders of Lithuanian Helsinki Group was Eitan Finkelstein. For many years a Jewish physicist had been trying to leave USSR for Israel to no avail. He considered the obstruction to emigration to be an infringement of human rights – a disregard of one’s freedom to choose residence in other countries. By forming the Helsinki group together with several other colleagues, he managed to turn the Jewish struggle for emigration into a common struggle for human rights in general, and helped many people, not only the Jews, to emigrate from USSR as well as with other issues.
Eitan Finkenstein was born in 1942 in Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg. From 1959 to 1960 he worked as a lathe operator at the factory “PO Box 79” in Sverdlovsk. At the time, this was how all the secret factories in munitions industry in USSR were referred to. In 1959 – 1964 he studied at Ural State Technical University in Sverdlovsk. As he was a student in the Faculty of Radio Engineering he was given secret assignments and had access to secret documentation. After graduating from Technical University, from 1964 to December 1966 he worked as an engineer at Ural Optical-Mechanical Plant (Sverdlovsk). In October 1966 he went to Moscow where he was admitted to PhD programme at the Department of Quantum Electronics, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (the company “Po Box 3652”). Just after a year (1967) he was expelled from the PhD programme on the grounds of expressing support for Israel during the Six-Day War. From July 1968 to August 1970 he worked as an engineer at Ural Hydro meteorological Service. In December 1970 he moved with his family from Sverdlovsk to Vilnius. This relocation was documented in the certificate drawn up by Lithuanian KGB (Finkelstein’s case is stored at the Lithuanian Special Archives) and it mentioned that: "He has moved in pursuit of the permit to emigrate to Israel, as he believes that it is easier to get a permit to emigrate to Israel in Baltic cities”.
He settled in Vilnius, Liepos 21-osios Street (now Tauro Street), house number 10 and flat number 10. This building was famous for being home to famous Lithuanian classic authors such as V. Mykolaitis-Putinas, V. Kreve, B. Sruoga and a linguist J. Jablonskis.
As soon as he arrived to Vilnius, he got a job. Initially he worked as an electrician machinist for a company called “Lithuanian Household Chemicals”, later worked as an engineer at the Vilnius City University Hospital. He also found himself working as a lorry driver.
When in Vilnius, he applied for permission to leave for Israel at once; apparently there was more than one application as in the application submitted to the chairman of USSR KGB he complained that he was not allowed to leave to Israel even though he had previously applied for the permission twice. The reason given for refusing the permission to leave was that he knew some military secrets.
While living in Vilnius he met Tomas Venclova and Viktoras Petkus who lived nearby. T. Venclova in his memoirs wrote that even before the Lithuanian Helsinki Group was formed he knew that E. Finkelstein, being acquainted with Russian dissidents, “for many a long day had been a member of USSR Human Rights Movement: had been participating in demonstrations, had published articles abroad as well as in Soviet Russia (in self-publishing publication “Jews USSR”), had given legal aid for people wishing to emigrate – actually not only to Jew, but to Lithuanians as well”. T. Venclova after having met E. Finkelstein started visiting his flat, which “was one of the few curious spots in Vilnius. This one bedroom below stairs had welcomed many guests, among whom was Nadezhda Mandelstam when Sergei Kovalev – a Russian dissident who had helped Lithuanian Catholics – was tried in Vilnius. Andrei Sakharov also lived with Finkelstein family” (T. Venclova).
After he had left the LHG, Finkelstein worked as an electrical engineer at Vilnius State Factory of Electricity Measuring Equipment. Although he was no longer part of the Group he was still under surveillance; the KGB report written in 1983 reveals that this same year Finkelstein was an object under operational surveillance in the KGB 2nd Board case of “Israeli” under supervision of comrade Chulikov.
In 1983 Finkelstein together with his wife and daughter once again expressed their wish to emigrate to Israel. He had an official invitation from his uncle Erskovicius Anatolijus who was a doctor at Tel Aviv hospital as he had left Vilnius and moved there in 1972. On this occasion he was granted the permission to leave. They moved to Israel at the very end of the year 1983 – in the second half of December.
When perestroika started and warmer policies were introduced in Soviet Union he was offered to move to Munich and work for the local magazine "Страна и мир“ (Country and the World). He accepted the offer.
It has to be noted that E. Finkelstein, while being a physicist, is undoubtedly blessed with talent for writing. Three books in Russian have already been published.
On July 1, 2001, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the reestablishment of Lithuanian independence, the Medals of Independence of Lithuania were awarded to members of Helsinki Group including E. Finkelstein for merits in the reestablishment and strengthening of the independent state of Lithuania. Currently E. Finkelstein lives in Munich, Germany and gives lectures at the university.
Truly it is not easy to establish who had the idea of starting the LHG. It is known that the Lithuanian Helsinki Group was founded by five people. The article written by Tomas Venclova to commemorate the decade of LHG activities reveals that the idea of forming the Helsinki Group was born in Vilnius, on the hill of Tauras, during the many meetings of Petkus, Venclova and Finkelstein. Later, the group of three was joined by Ona Lukauskaite-Poksiene from Siauliai and priest Karolis Garuckas – a parson at Ceikiniai parish.
The group was officially founded in Moscow on 1 December 1976 during the special conference for foreign journalists and held in the flat of Yuri Orlov – the leader of the local Helsinki Group. This same evening the news of the newly established group reached the Western world. The presence of foreign press was the main reason why the founding of LHG was announced in Moscow rather than Vilnius. Also this was implying that the cause was to support universal goal, e. g., the human rights and not necessarily represent those Lithuanians, who thought the realization of their national expectations to be above everything else and who nourished Russophobic sentiments (perhaps reasonably justified). ‟Our group straight away declared that we were not going to be strictly nationalistic or limit ourselves to being catholic dissidents - these we already had plenty; we were going to try to represent the whole of Lithuanian society“ – in his article wrote T. Venclova.
The idea to establish a group for monitoring the human rights movement in Lithuania was born long ago the Moscow Helsinki group was founded. E. Finkelstein wrote in his article dedicated to commemorate 10 years of LHG: The possibility of establishing the public monitoring group in Lithuania Viktoras Petkus and I had discussed long before the official announcement of the Moscow Helsinki Group.”
On the other occasion E. Finkelstein said: "The possibility of forming a non-governmental group for monitoring the human rights Viktoras Petkus and I had discussed straight after the Helsinki Final Act was signed. Surely the people in Moscow encouraged us to move quicker. People in Moscow had found a very convenient platform that launched various forces interested in having the human rights and civil liberties implemented in USSR; Moscow Helsinki Group had announced itself to be one of the human rights movement groups rather than the main leading organization. Therefore we together with Ukrainians, Georgians and Armenians joined the international Helsinki movement and not the Moscow Helsinki Group. Thus all the decisions were made independently and collaboration with people in Moscow, the human rights defenders, was based on mutual understanding with no pressure from either side”.
The fact that the idea of forming the LHG came from Petkus and Finkelstein has been recently (beginning of July 2011) confirmed by T. Venclova in his interview with Radio Liberty. When radio presenter Mikhail Sokolov asked him a question: “How did you arrive to the establishment of Helsinki Group?” He replied: “I was approached by two future members of the group - they were the initiators. One of them was a Lithuanian man Petkus and the other one was a Jew named Finkelstein. Two people very different in their origins, opinions and religious background: one of them was catholic while the other professed Judaism. But they were united by great consideration for human rights; they looked up to each other. They came to me and offered me to join. At that time I was trying to emigrate and although the situation seemed to be hopeless I made every endeavour to leave. I said: “I sympathize with your ideas and strongly believe this should be done, that it is good. However, if I join you, I will probably get expelled and you'll be put in prison. What good will I be then…” They replied: “You won’t get expelled but you’ll be put to prison like the rest – this you may be sure of. And if they will expel you, then they may expel Eitan as well. The one that will get expelled will represent us abroad – we need it.” After some consideration I finally joined the group.”
Even though LHG did not have a leader, Finkelstein said that “Viktoras Petkus was the soul of the group. It was not only the fact that he was the most active member of the group, but as well that he was known, trusted and respected among different groups of Lithuanian society”.
Petkus represented the catholic world view, Gruckas - Catholic Church, Poskiene – Lithuanian intelligentsia as well as traditions and culture of independent Lithuania, Venclova – intelligentsia of new generation, Finkelstein – non Lithuanian, mostly Jewish world view. Although every member concentrated on some particular issues, there were no strict boundaries. For example Finkelstein was also busy helping the families of political prisoners out.
It was the unwritten rule that only people of respectful background could join the group”. Finkelstein says that while choosing the candidates for the group, LGH founders were guided by these rules:
Defend the principles of Helsinki Final Act and to contribute to their implementation;
Do not encourage violent resistance or take part in one. People who had served German or USSRA criminal prosecution services as well as the Wermacht could not join LHG. We also decided that former partisans (so called Forest Brothers) should not join the group.
E. Finkelstein’s opinion was that the nationalistic and religious tendencies of Lithuanian resistance (which he thought to be its weak point) had to be purely democratic. “This could win the support of wider Lithuanian society and attract new members, mainly from technical and academic intelligentsia (...)
This democratic direction would also allow citizens of non Lithuanian origin to get involved in the struggle for changes in country’s social and political life." This kind of resistance to totalitarianism would be better received abroadand would encourage closer cooperation with human rights defenders in other USSR countries.
From the very beginning there were changes within LHG as members were leaving the group. T. Venclova emigrated, V. Petkus was arrested and jailed, E. Finkelstein had refused to attend Petkus’ trial (held on 10 – 13 July 1978) altogether and explained in his written statement:
“I refuse to attend as a witness in the case of V. Petkus because I am also a member of Lithuanian group, just the same as V. Petkus is, therefore I am together with Petkus responsible for the activities of this group and the documents prepared by LHG. I may only attend as the defendant.” Later Garuckas and Poskiene passed away and Finkelstein resigned. They were replaced by new members.
In 2010 during the interview with Radio Liberty, Finkelstein said: “Unfortunately we have to admit that this Lithuanian democratic movement was not deeply rooted and basically was in its early days of formation. Consequences of this can be seen in Lithuania today. It was also just an historical direction – here we were, an independent state, this is how the state was. However the years had passed and of course things had to be done differently, on other grounds. Of course mistakes were made - initially the emotions ruled, many things were done incorrectly, especially in the field of democratic values and most importantly, the democratic spirit was missing, there was no democratic basis.”
E. Finkelstein was acting as the link in the chain of Lithuanian Helsinki Group chain bringing Lithuanian dissidents and Russian and Jewish dissents together. Russion dissident movement did not have any connection with the main Lithuanian dissident groups until the mid 80‘s of 20th century. However, with time the connecton with Russian dissidednts was established and this was especially evident at the trial of S. Kovalev in 1975 in Vilnius. It was one year to the establishment of LHG. The main intermediary between Russian, Jewish and Lithuanian dissidents at the time was Finkelstein, who already knew some of the USSR (not only Lithuanian) dissidents even before the trial. The academic A. Sakharov he had met while studying in Moscow. In 2010 Finkelstein, during the intwriew with Radio Liberty, said that it was in fact Sakharov‘s visit to Vilnius at the time of Kovalev trial, that consolidated the group where people of different view points but united by common commitment to human rights had met. “Until then it was difficult to imagine that everyone could sit at one table.“
E. Finkelstein in the article dedicated to commemorate a decade of LHG existence has wrote: Furthermore I had “external” connections. I had made long lasting and useful contacts with human rights defenders in Moscow, Georgia and Estonia, pretty regularly stayed in touch with journalists abroad and foreign diplomats, was meeting some important foreigners coming to Soviet Union.”
Good relations established with Russian and Jewish dissidents later were of great service to LHG. Finkelstein's contribution is obvious.
E. Finkelstein in the Group was mainly dealing with emigration issues. He gave legal advice for those who was getting ready to leave, informed people about emigration issues. He, as well as T. Venclova, had to fight very hard for the right to emigrate therefore this infringement of human rights was only too familiar to these men.
On 30 April 1977, in the reply to KGB accusations of “denigration of Soviet social and political order”, he stated: “My role in Lithuanian Helsinki Group is mainly to provide citizens with legal aid with regards to emigration issues as well as familiarising them with the rights and liberties stemming from Helsinki Final Act. In the case of Helsinki Accords being violated in respect of some of the citizens, members of the group and I try to assist them with their pursue for justice and also try to convince the authorities to amend these infringements."
In the article commemorating the decate of LHG exstance he wrote that mainly ‟he provided legal advice on emigration issues to potential emigrants. The families that wished to leave USSR, Germans that had moved to Lithuania, Russian Baptists and of course the Jews used to approach the Group for advice. Mostly a practical advice was enough and only in exceptional cases I would draw up a document in the name of LHG.“
In the letter to the auther of this report, Finkelstein explained in more detail: ‟First, if you wanted to apply for permission to leave, you had to get an invitation from abroad – only from your relatives. These relatives had to be ‟found“, the invitation had to be organized and all this cost a lot of efforts. What to do if you got a negative answer, where to get money for the visa and renunciation of Russian nationality (900 Roubles), how to make your name known in the West – all these questions and other issues had to be resolved and there was no information available. So these where the issues that LHG was dealing with based on the individuals right to free emigration.“
Aforementioned Finkelstein‘s efforts to help people with the issues of emigration were mostly of practical nature, e. i., giving legal advice to people wishing to emigrate, and was not limited to drawing up documents that were also signed by other group members. Therefore, as Finkelstein later noted, ‟a lack of documentation in the West gave a misleading image of insufficient LHG activity.“
T. Vencova in the already mentioned interview with the Radio Liberty said that during several years of existence “we managed to produce around 20 documents. We documented specific human rights infringements as this was the main and perhaps the only function of this group. We had time for this. The documents were distributed in the West and perhaps played role in informing the West of the situation here. Later Petkus ended up in prison and I was expelled to the West.”
Issues covered in public reports were also described in one of Finkelstein’s public report signed on 30 April 1977. In this report to answer the KGB accusations of “denigration of Soviet social and political order”, E. Finkelstein noted, that appeals and reports – individually signed or signed as a group – are more to do with the request to free prisoners of conscience, protests against legal persecutions for political opinions or expressed wish to emigrate, and defence of the right to emigrate.
Many of Finkelstein’s publications were published abroad: “My publications in foreign press were mainly about the issues of emigration to Israel, the Jews in USSR and their specific problems as well as life in current Lithuania” – he wrote in 1977 about the warning given by Lithuanian KGB.
A. Finkelstein’s small book of 88 pages written in Russian should be mentioned. It’s name is rather practical – “How to go to Israel from USSR” (in Russian: “Как уехать из СССP в Израиль“). Several editions have been published in the West. Having a flick through the book one may get an impression that its author is really literally gifted – on the subject so grave he managed to produce a text that is easily read. In the context these chapters are found: “You have decided", "You have applied for permission", "Permission", “You’ve got a reply”. One explanation has stuck in my mind: USSR customs officers at the airport will have one way to search a person that had worked as a technician, and quite another to search the rest. Also the conclusion is drawn: why to risk trying to smuggle out gold or other valuables, if the same equivalent in money can be earned for example in few years in Israel. A person could be given ten or more years for smuggling the valuables out of USSR. The author leaves it to the readers to chose what is best for them.
Without doubt Finkelstein, once arrived to Vilnius, was under the spotlight of KGB. His apartment was monitored (as T. Venclova remembers: “of course the flat was being monitored and not occasionally, but rather regularly”). In his flat were carried out few searches.
Figuratively speaking Finkelstein „засветился“ (Eng. was enlightened) still in 1967 when all the staff of the embassy of Israel had left Moscow. He was acquainted with some people from that embassy, was meeting them. When they were leaving a lot of people gathered to see them out amongst them was Finkelstein. That according to Finkelstein was a “public provocation” to the Soviet authorities.
The first serious attempt to scare him off and make him abandon his work in the struggle for human rights and Helsinki movement was made on 27 April 1977, when E. Finkelstein was summoned to Lithuanian KGB and accused of gathering “libellous lies and information insinuating the Soviet public and social order” and passing it on to the foreign intelligence services”. The KGB had in mind his involvement with Helsinki Group, his articles and reports published in foreign publications and announcements made via the radio stations abroad including Radio Liberty. He was officially warned that if he was not to stop this behavious immediately, he will be liable to legal persecution based on specific articles in the Criminal Code.
It is not clear if Finkelstein was referring to this instance or the other when he later wrote: “Shortly after the announcement about newly established LHG was made, I was brought to KGB to see interrogator Lazarevicius, whom I had the “pleasure” of meeting before. He wanted to convince me that “all Lithuanians were anti-Semites” and that “Catholics, Lithuanian nationalists and even intelligentsia deep down inside all hated Jews” and so on.”
The news of Finkelstein’s situation while waiting for the permission to emigrate reached the West. On 28 May 1981 the congressman Philip Burton (California) spoke of him in the House of Representatives in USA: He is not allowed to work in his trade and he’s even prevented from getting a manual labour job. Finkelstein family lives in near total isolation – they are constantly under surveillance, their telephone calls are being monitored, their letters missing. Perhaps he is not yet in prison thanks to the attention given to his case by the Jewish community in the West.
Finkelstein left LHG while still in Lithuania. A well known Estonian dissident and political prisoner Martas Niklusas, who was a good friend of Lithuanian dissidents, visited Vilnius in 1979 and shared his impressions in his article. He also mentioned E. Finkelstein, who was “said to have been lately withdrawn from the public and mainly taking care of the business of his nation”. By this time Finkelstein had definitely left LHG. But what were the reasons?
As T. Venclova mentioned in the article he wrote to commemorate the decade of LHG existence, when LHG was formed the Liberum Veto principle was adopted and any founding member could have used his Veto against any later member without giving any reasons. After the arrest of V. Petkus the Veto right was disrespected and this led to internal group division. This surely refers to resignation of E. Finkelstein and the reasons for this resignation. T. Venclova in the interview with Radio Liberty also said that once V. Petkus was arrested and he (T. Venclova) emigrated, new members joined the group and this shaped the group differently. New members not neceserilly were purely interested in human rights issues and were mor econcerned with the nationalistic questions. This even led to disagreements among them and E. Finkelstein.“
When talking about the resaons of his resignation E. Finkelstein to the author ofthis article he wrote: ‟To all Helsinki movement groups in the world, USSR and in this case - Lithuania - the most important thing was the priciple of peaceful resistance. That‘s why there was a rule that LHG can only accept people that had never took part in a violent resistance or never supported it. I was especially vulnerable as I was constantly being accused of “accommodating Lithuanian bandits, collaboration with Nazis”. Some of my old friends were avoiding me. However, all the members of LHG were clean and I always refused these accusations. So my resignation can only be explained by what I have already written in my report – accepting someone who took part in an armed resistance even if he had nothing wrong. I had no other intention when leaving. If my resignation had any other motivation – this was it. Suddenly after Petkus was arrested, Venclova expeled and Poskiene died, new LHG members showed up (no one even asked my opinion!). I decided that KGB may be infiltrating people that should not be there not only according to our rules, but also people that one day will go out on TV and say things about Helsinki Group that KGB will tell them to say (this happened with Georgian Helsinki Group). My intention was to stop this”.
So to conclude it may be said that the idea to establish an organization monitoring human rights in Lithuania came to V. Petkus and E. Finkelstein. Later they were amongst 5 founders of Lithuanian Helsinki Group. E. Finkelstein mainly covered emigration issues – he helped future emigrants and gave legal or other advice relating to emigration from USSR. Most of these emigrants were Jews, but there were few Lithuanian and other nationalities. Finkelstein’s work was important as he made connections and nourished LHG relationships with Russian and Jewish dissidents. His biggest achievement is that he had pushed Lithuanian dissident movement to democratic direction.
Translated by Kristina Dujauskaitė