Tatyana Velikanova, 1932-2002

Tatyana Velikanova’s intelligent smiling face came out of the shadows only in 1979 when she was arrested for the most remarkable publishing venture of the Soviet era.

A Chronicle of Current Events (in Russian Khronika tekushchikh sobytii) gave an uncensored account of what was going on in the Soviet Union, and so prefigured the events of the 1980s that so surprised the world, in a way that Izvestia never could. You can search the official press in vain for word of nationalism in Georgia or Ukraine, but through the pages of the Chronicle trace the lives of people who first led their republics as independent states, and others who became Nobel laureates or members of the new Russian government.

The Chronicle was the only underground journal devoted to “freedom of information” as such and ran for 14 years – longer than any other samizdat journal in the Soviet era. It began as a brief record of what happened to the seven people who demonstrated in Red Square against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, among them Tatyana Velikanova’s husband, Konstantin Babitsky. By the time the authorities finally suppressed it in 1983 it had regular rubrics on emigration, religion, nationalities, psychiatry, prisoners and the press. [This is not entirely accurate, see Notes below.]

“If you want the public to know what is going on in the country,” an early issue advised, give your information to the person who gave you the Chronicle and they will pass it on to the person who gave it to them. Only don’t try to follow the trail to the end, or people will take you for an informer. These were the constraints the Chronicle was forced to work under in the years of Soviet censorship. Ten years in, the trail led to Tatyana Velikanova, but by then it was evidently a long and intricate one. After her arrest a Pentecostalist living 11 time zones away in the Pacific town of Nakhodka was questioned about her case.

Tatyana Velikanova was well versed in political trials, so took no part in the investigation of her own case, refused a defence lawyer and did not appeal against her nine-year sentence in 1980 for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” – her only response to the verdict being: “The farce is over.” She served four years in a Mordovian labour camp, then was exiled to a camel station in Kazakhstan, where she worked as a book keeper. The first information about women political prisoners in the Soviet Union and their conditions emerged when she was in Mordovia.

A Chronicle of Current Events is utterly free of “magisterial” tone. From first issue to last the same neutral and unassuming voice speaks through its pages, that I believe must have been very close to Tatyana Velikanova’s own. She faced and surmounted enormous difficulties as its editor. Apart from the constant danger of arrest, there were the practical problems of typing copies on manual machines and distributing them to trusted people. Sources needed protection and there was the risk of fake information fed by the KGB to discredit the journal. Each Chronicle was careful to correct any errors in previous issues.

Velikanova took immense risks – but on the other hand so did her contributors. How could they know that the Chronicle would reproduce their words fairly and protect their identity? The journal’s continual growth in depth and scope was counterpoint to Velikanova’s own integrity and skill.

Tatyana Velikanova and her fellow Chronicle founders Sergey Kovalyov and Tatyana Khodorovich set up the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in 1969. Until she was sacked from the Academy of Sciences in 1977 and began work as a cleaner in a children’s hospital, she did mathematical research. After her release in 1987 she united her two great loves and became a mathematics teacher in a Moscow school, where she still worked at the time of her death.

I once heard her speak at the Moscow Aviation Institute, which was a venue for public discussions in the late Gorbachev era. She was shy in public and never became known as a magnet for the foreign press and funders. A complete set of her edited works survives her, however. A Chronicle of Current Events is available in English and in Russian on the website of the human rights group Memorial: http://www.memo.ru

2 October 2002, obituary in The Independent

Tatyana Mikhailovna Velikanova, mathematician and human-rights campaigner: born Moscow 3 February 1932; married Konstantin Babitsky (one son, two daughters); died Moscow 21 September 2002.

Marjorie Farquharson


[1] The chronological span and origins of A Chronicle of Current Events, as presented here, are not entirely accurate. The first issue appeared in April 1968 and was almost entirely devoted to the trial in January that year of Yury Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg and to the protests in various parts of the USSR that preceded and followed that event. It was already issue 3 of the Chronicle that reported on the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the famous protest on Red Square.

The Chronicle continued to appear in 1982 and 1983, although the last issue (which was 115 pages long) covered events up to June 1982, no later.