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Harshly Treated : Orlov: Ordeal for Symbol of Dissent Ends

October 01, 1986|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Yuri Orlov, the Soviet physicist who will be freed from internal exile in Siberia as part of the arrangement that also released an American journalist, has endured isolation, illness and some of the worst prison conditions in the Soviet gulag-- for speaking his mind.

In 1978, Orlov was sentenced to seven years in labor camp and then five years in exile near the Arctic Circle for his activities as chairman of a Moscow group monitoring Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights.

In the official view here, he was guilty of anti-Soviet agitation. But to his friends in the West and to international human rights organizations, he has become a towering figure, a symbol of dissent and a leading victim of harsh retaliation by a regime that tolerates no dissent.

Announced by Shultz

Orlov's release was announced Tuesday by Secretary of State George P. Shultz in Washington after American reporter Nicholas Daniloff was allowed to leave the Soviet Union and a Soviet employee at the United Nations pleaded no contest to espionage charges and was allowed to leave the United States. Shultz said Orlov and his wife, Irina, will leave the Soviet Union by Oct. 7.

Orlov's wife has been his main link to the outside world since his imprisonment in 1978 and exile last year to the village of Kobyai in the Yakutia region, one of the coldest places on Earth.

After hearing the news, Irina Orlov said, "I'm happy because at last Yuri's suffering is ending. When we've talked in the past, he always said he would continue his scientific work and his human rights work, even it became possible to go to the West."

In prison camps, Orlov, now 62, suffered long spells of solitary confinement, primitive medical care and cancellation of his family's visiting rights.

Last November, American biologist George Wald, co-winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize for Medicine, warned Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev that Orlov would soon be dead of tuberculosis unless he were freed from exile in the Siberian wilderness.

Wald said Gorbachev told him that "this is a very big country" and that he did not know "what happens to every individual in it."

Orlov, a blunt man with bushy red hair, has long been a thorn to the Communist regime.

Born in 1924 to a working-class family, he operated a lathe as a young man, then served in the Red Army during World War II. After the war, he graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in physics. He joined the Communist Party and for four years worked at Moscow's Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics.

But, in 1956, when public dissent was very rare, Orlov offered to a party meeting a proposal for democratic reforms in the government and the party. He was promptly expelled from the party and dismissed from his job.

Moving to Armenia, he found work again in physics, earned a doctorate and was elected a corresponding member of Armenia's Academy of Sciences. In 1972, he was transferred back to Moscow to work in the prestigious Institute of Earth Magnetism of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. As a theoretical physicist, he specialized in subatomic particles.

Defended Sakharov

A year after his transfer, Soviet scientists were recruited by the authorities to sign a letter condemning Andrei D. Sakharov, another physicist, for his dissident activities. Orlov instead composed a letter defending Sakharov, then was fired a second time and forced to support himself by tutoring physics students.

In 1976, Orlov became the driving force behind the Moscow committee organized to monitor the Soviet Union's observation of the human rights provisions of the 35-nation Helsinki accords.

The Moscow group openly wrote position papers, distributed open letters and met with Western news correspondents, becoming a link between Soviet dissidents and the outside world.

Part of Crackdown

Orlov's arrest on charges of anti-Soviet agitation was part of the Soviet regime's crackdown on the organization. Although it once claimed 30 members, the group was shattered by the crackdown and disbanded in 1982, when only three of its members were still free.

In his first three years in a prison camp, Orlov was sent five times to what is called a punishment cell.

"The cell is cold, and he is forbidden boots and warm clothing," his wife once said. "There is no bed, only bare planks for sleeping. Hot food is brought every other day. On the days when it is not brought, he is given hot water and 450 grams of bread."

The New York-based Helsinki Watch, a committee set up to monitor compliance with the Helsinki accords, said that Orlov suffered from chronic poor health while in prison camp.

"He has frequent headaches and dizzy spells, resulting from an old skull injury," the committee said. "He suffers from kidney and prostate inflammation, low blood pressure, rheumatic pains, toothaches, insomnia and vitamin deficiency. Medical care in the labor camp is extremely inadequate."

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