After being denied an exit visa to Israel on the grounds of national security in 1973, Natan Sharansky became an activist
in the human rights movement led by prominent physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. He soon became a founder and spokesperson of two major human rights causes in the Soviet Union: the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Jewish Refusenik movement.
The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 was a monumental piece of legislation that called for the recognition of universal human rights. It was signed by 35 countries including the United States, Canada, and all European states (with the exception of Albania and Andorra). Shortly thereafter in 1976, a physicist and activist named Yuri Orlov, together with Natan Sharansky and ten others founded the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the provisions outlined in the act.
Members of the group met fierce opposition from the Soviet authorities since its inception. Many were arrested, imprisoned, sent into exile, and even placed into psychiatric hospitals. Natan Sharansky was one of those arrested as he was on his way to a demonstration in Moscow. The demonstrations sponsored by the group and arrest of Sharansky and other activists immediately garnered international attention. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter sent a telegram to Sharansky in support of the group and an urgent plea to the Soviet authorities for their release. Upon his victory only a couple weeks later, all but two of those arrested were released.
Among the most famous acts of protest of the group occurred in 1978 when members Vladimir and Maria Slepak stood on the balcony of an eighth floor apartment in protest of being denied emigration visas to Israel. Ida Nudel, a fellow activist and refusenik, held a similar display on her apartment balcony. Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel were arrested and sent to five and four years of Siberian exile.
The group was instrumental in exposing the human rights violations of the Soviet Union and for garnering international pressure to the plight of all citizens behind the Iron Curtain. The group continues to function to this day and is the oldest human rights organization in Russia. The Moscow Helsinki Group was the inspiration behind the creation of worldwide movements including Human Rights Watch and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.