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A Different Country: Promoting Human Rights in the Wake of Soviet Collapse

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

Article / I profile Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

In July 1991, a month before a group of hard-liners from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union attempted a coup to unseat its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rachel Denber was hired as a research associate for the Helsinki Watch Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). She would start that fall, and her job would be to investigate the human rights situation in various Soviet republics and to open the organization’s Moscow office—the first in the Soviet Union.

It was an exciting and turbulent period. The Baltic republics had declared independence the previous year, and even the Kremlin’s tanks were unable to stop them; nationalist unrest and calls for independence permeated other republics; and, in June, Boris Yeltsin won a sweeping victory in the first open and democratic election to take place in Russia. When Gorbachev essentially dissolved the Communist Party in August, the world was poised for democracy to prevail in the Soviet Union. Denber watched the events unfold and wondered whether she would still have a job. “I was actually very worried they would tell me, ‘We don’t need a researcher on the Soviet Union anymore because everything is just fine,’” she says. But she started the position in September as planned (spending the first two months in the New York office and just missing, to her disappointment, the first international human rights conference to be hosted by the Soviet Union). “It only took five minutes to see how much work there was to be done”—the collapsing Communist system was devolving into a state of lawless chaos and the Soviet republics were riddled with clashes and conflicts.

Read the profile in the Summer 2016 issue of Harriman Magazine.

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