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Human Rights under (Post-)Communism

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For the initial period of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, resistance to authoritarian rule was emblematized by dissident voices, speaking first from the underground and later from exile. However, after the events of 1968, there was an important paradigm shift towards collective action, based on the concept of human rights as articulated in the Helsinki Charter of 1975. Beginning with the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, oppositional groups emerged that looked to the letter of the law, to challenge their respective regimes to fulfill the ideals laid out in each constitution, and to respect the group rights of minorities and other disenfranchised groups. This particular challenge remains in place after 1989, and continues to echo in today's political climate. This module will examine the longer historical story behind the concept of human rights as it was conceived and deployed in Eastern Europe, at times even by those with an ethno-national agenda of their own.




  • Ilakovac, K. (Ed.). (2013). Ivan Supek: 1915. - 2007. (Vol. 187). Hrvatska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti.
  • Donert, C. (n.d.). The rights of the Roma : the struggle for citizenship in postwar Czechoslovakia /.
  • Snyder, S. B. (2011). Human rights activism and the end of the Cold War: a transnational history of the Helsinki network. Cambridge University Press.
  • Szulecki, K. (2011). Hijacked Ideas: Human Rights, Peace, and Environmentalism in Czechoslovak and Polish Dissident Discourses. East European Politics & Societies, 25(2), 272–295.
  • Kopecek, M. (2012). Human Rights Facing a National Past Dissident “Civic Patriotism” and the Return of History in East Central Europe, 1968-1989. Geschichte Und Gesellschaft, 38(4), 573–602. ://WOS:000313857800003
  • Thomas, D. C. (c2001.). The Helsinki effect : international norms, human rights, and the demise of communism /. Princeton University Press,.
  • Eckel, J., & Moyn, S. (Eds.). (2014). The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Villaume, P., Mariager, R., & Porsdam, H. (Eds.). (2016). The “Long 1970s”: human rights, East-West détente and transnational relations. Routledge.

Featured Items from COURAGE Registry (selection)

Related Collections from COURAGE Registry (selection)

Further Sources


In-class or short-term assignments
1) Identify which items from the registry concern the rights of an individual (dissident or other public figure), and which ones concern the rights of a group (linguistic, ethnic, religious, or other minority). Is one set of items from and earlier or later period of the Cold War? Are different terms used, or different arguments made on behalf of an individual or a group?

2) Look up some basic information about the Helsinki Accords of 1975, and try to find references to the Helsinki agreement or uses of its terms in the selected items. Has our thinking about human rights changed at all since the mid-1970s, or are we still in a "Helsinki moment"?

3) Where do you see divisions and tensions among the different groups represented here under the larger rubric of "human rights"? Follow two of these groups into the postsocialist period and report on what happened to them after 1989.

4) How did the human rights discourse dovetail with ecological issues during the socialist period? How does this compare to the way that people discuss ecological problems today? Is climate change a question of human rights, or is it now framed differently?
Offsite, longer-term assignments
1) Take the single issue of Roma rights and trace how it has changed between the socialist and postsocialist period. Although the condition of Roma minority differs dramatically from country to country, socialist governments frequently intervened into Roma affairs with changes to lifestyle, cultural activities, and economic outlook. Can we see the longer-term effect of these policies in the postsocialist period?

2) Several of the selected collections feature national patriotic movements and/or religious movements who used the language of human rights to bring their causes to an international public during the Cold war. Do they still use this language today? Are they similar to any national patriotic from your home countries today? Research two national patriotic and/or religious movements that began before 1989 (from any country), and try to analyze how their politics and public face has changed over the last few decades.


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