Alexander Volpin and the Origins of the Soviet Human Rights Movement
July 6th, 2006
This paper traces the life and thought of Aleksandr Volpin, the person widely credited with inventing the rights-based approach to dissent in the former Soviet Union. It is conceived as part of a larger study of the fate of the idea of rights, including human rights, in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. After considering some of the leading explanations for the emergence of "legal" dissent in the USSR, the paper attempts to reconstruct the intensely inter-disciplinary milieu within which a law-based approach emerged as a leading conceptual tool for a wide variety of dissident positions. Volpin's scientific-technical training, his literary pursuits and his fascination with cybernetics serve as windows onto the intellectual life of an important segment of the post-war urban intelligentsia. By closely examining Volpin's encounters with the Soviet government and its courts, I attempt to illuminate on the micro level the unlikely journey of a Soviet intellectual to the idea of rights – and thus to the dominant global moral discourse of the second half of the twentieth century.