During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘singled me out.’
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there)—‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered—‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
These are the famous words of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, written about the great terror in the Soviet Union, in her best-known work, “Requiem.”
It sometimes takes the power of a writer or a poet to remind us that the words we use in the human rights world can lose their meaning and their depth because they are heard so very often. The words, by their simplicity, become detached from the ugly and horrific acts that they seek to describe in language that is clean, professional, and unemotional.
Words like political prisoners, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, impunity.
Torture is about having electric shocks applied under your fingernails. It’s also about unthinkable acts of degradation, of rape, of sodomy performed with blunt instruments. Political prisoners are in reality just human beings like everyone in this room, human beings who have dared to express thoughts that they know to be truths.
Many live in an excruciating state of anxiety and uncertainty, waiting for the moment that men in masks and with guns show up in the night to lock them away, leaving their children, parents, wives, and husbands helpless and fearful.
Anna Akhmatova’s son spent nearly 20 years in Soviet gulags. Her husband died in one in Siberia. He had spent years cold, alone, hungry, sick, and broken.
We often hear that international human rights mechanisms and human rights organizations are limited because they only have the power to name and shame, pitting mere words and ideas against governments with their security apparatuses, their weapons, their instruments of torture.
Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem,” which was written in the second half of the 1930s, was published only in samizdat and outside the country until 1987. Such was the authorities’ fear of the power of her words and her ideas.
And this is the reason why the world’s most shameful violators of human rights devote tremendous sources, their most skilled diplomats, and stores of political capital to subverting the world’s international human rights mechanisms.
Freedom House is an organization of ideas. As you may remember, Freedom House was founded in 1941 to present an alternative vision to the Nazis’ Brown House. We are here because we believe humans can combat ideas like fascism, which killed at least 10 million people, and communism, which has killed perhaps four times that many—some estimate many more.
The idea of Freedom House is the idea of human freedom and dignity, the idea that certain human rights are universal and are outside the purview of governments or other men to take away. It is an idea that led to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an idea that has led to billions of people on this planet being endowed with the ability to hold their own beliefs and to express them, to determine how their societies are governed and by whom.
Freedom House didn’t begin measuring levels of freedom until 1972, but in these past 40 years, we have seen the percentage of Free countries improve from only 23 percent to 45 percent. Had we begun measuring back in 1941, the improvements would be even more dramatic.
The idea of freedom and universal human rights is an idea that people who live in even the most repressive societies, from Burma to Syria to Uzbekistan, continue to pursue in whatever ways they can, and in whatever space they have for their own dignity.
For the Americans in the room, it helps ground us and it sometimes humbles us to be reminded that while we too are human rights defenders, we live in a very different world from that of our colleagues and friends overseas, whose work can carry real and frightening consequences.
But it should also fill us with great pride that given the many choices we had for careers and professions, with the many talents and substantial intellects in this room, that we all made the choice to work for the idea that is also our cause, the spread of freedom.
I began working with the organization that merged into Freedom House back in February 1994. Over these past 18 years, I have had the deepest sense of pride for being a part of Freedom House.
I’ve watched the organization grow from a small NGO of 20 staff members that worked almost exclusively in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to an organization of 150 people working in all regions of the world.
I’ve worked under two executive directors, two presidents, and five chairpersons. And I can honestly say, Freedom House has never been as visible, influential, and respected as it is right now.
So, all this is to say that Freedom House is in great hands, and it is with pride that I will finally leave to take on a new role at the State Department, where I promise I will work equally hard for the spread of freedom and the protection of human rights.