Ryl’sk, 1907–Moscow, 1989

In no way can the word “indifference” be applied to Sof’ia Vasilevna [Kallistratova]. Her activity as a lawyer was, from beginning to end, a passionate struggle for authentic justice, for just and humane sentencing.
(Pechuro 1998).

Pëtr Grigorenko e Sof’ia Kallistratova. Public Domain. Fonte: https://mhg.ru/kallistratova-sofya-vasilevna.

Sof’ia Kallistratova was born in 1907 in Ryl’sk, a small town in the Russian oblast’ of Kursk, on the border with Ukraine. In 1925 she moved to Moscow, where, after completing her legal studies, she began practicing law as a member of the Moscow Bar Association (1943-1976) (cf. Moskovskaia Chel’sinskaia Gruppa).
Kallistratova became a human rights activist from the end of the 1960s when, thanks to her friend and colleague Dina Kaminskaia, she became part of Moscow’s dissident circles by offering legal advice to members of the nascent human rights movement in the Soviet Union (cf. Alekseeva 2006: 213). In 1966 she was asked to defend A. Siniavskii and Iu. Daniel’, indicted according to Art. 70 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the RSFSR for anti-Soviet activity, specifically for publishing their works in the West. Kallistratova had to refuse the case as she did not have the necessary authorisation to represent defendants in “political” cases. In order to control and direct the outcome of political trials, the Soviet authorities stipulated that defence lawyers had to be in possession of the dopusk, a special authorization allowing them access to confidential documents, which, evidently, was essential for defending political cases (cf. Amnesty International 1975: 30). This explains why so many indicted dissidents did not choose their own defense lawyer, despite the right being guaranteed in article 48 of the RSFSR Code of Criminal Procedure. This mechanism made sure that although the College of Lawyers was theoretically composed of members with moral and professional objectivity, only lawyers who were trusted by the regime could work on political cases. According to the Soviet Constitution, every defense lawyer had the duty to assist their client and to protect the interests of society, but in reality lawyers were often reprimanded for siding with the political dissidents they were called on to defend (cf. Amnesty International 1975: 31).
During the Siniavskii-Daniėl’ trial, Sof’ia Kallistratova harshly criticized her colleagues who asked for a reduction in sentences rather than full acquittal. She underlined the fact, that for the first time in the history of political trials in the Soviet Union, the defendants had not pleaded guilty (cf. Pechuro 1997).
It was not until 1967 that Sofia Kallistratova was permitted to represent dissidents in court, the first of whom was V. Chaustov, a worker and activist sentenced to seven years in prison, who had been arrested for taking part in the demonstration in Pushkin Square, on 22nd January 1967, in support of A. Ginzburg, Iu. Galanskov, V. Lashkova and A. Dobrovol’skii. Sof’ia Kallistratova demonstrated considerable professional acumen in insisting that her client be acquitted under Art. 190-3 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR, which provided for criminal prosecution for “organizing or participating in group actions in violation of public order” (Amnesty International 1975: 22), by arguing that the place of the demonstration had been specially chosen so as not to disrupt civic activity. She persuaded the court to reclassify her client’s crime, meaning that instead of being tried for disobedience to the authorities under Article 206, he was found guilty of the lesser offence of “resistance to a druzhinnik” (member of a volunteer squad) under Article 191-1 (Amnesty International 1975: 22) and sentenced to three years in prison under “normal” conditions. This was the first time that a lawyer had fought for acquittal in a political case without contesting the fact of the criminal act itself. With this brilliant debut S. Kallistratova earned the esteem of many of Chaustov’s dissident friends, including L. Bogoraz, P. Grigorenko, R. Jakobson and V. Bukovskii (cf. Pechuro 1997).
Kallistratova was the defense attorney for the poetess and dissident Natal’ia Gorbanevskaia. Between 1967 and 1968, a relationship of strong solidarity and understanding developed between the two women and at the time of Gorbanevskaia’s trial, when she was unable to attend the hearings in person because she had been declared insane, Kallistratova openly and courageously confronted Judge Bogdanov. She asked him to let her bring Gorbanevskaia to court, so that he could see with his own eyes that she was in full possession of her mental and physical faculties (cf. Pechuro 1997). During the trial, she cross-examined the doctors who had diagnosed her client, including Daniil Lunc, who she called on to describe the symptoms of so-called ‘latent/slow-onset schizophrenia’ (vialotekushchaia/maloprogreditel’naia shizofreniia), a psychiatric illness only recognized in the USSR: “[…] Tell us, what symptoms of latent schizophrenia do you notice in Gorbanevskaia?” she asked, to which Lunc replied: “Latent schizophrenia, as is known, has no symptoms” (Pechuro 1997).
In 1968, S. Kallistratova met General P. Grigorenko and, two years later, became his lawyer. When Sof’ia Kallistratova joined Grigorenko in Tashkent, the two discussed the conflicting results of two psychiatric examinations Grigorenko had been subjected to: the first, carried out in 1969 in the prison in Uzbekistan declared him sane; the second, carried out by psychiatrists from Moscow’s Serbskii Institute, declared him incapable of understanding (cf. Clementi 2007: 119). Grigorenko recounted that Kallistratova insistently requested – by petitioning the judge – a third psychiatric opinion. Both the lawyer and her client were well aware that Grigorenko’s fate was already decided, but Kallistratova wanted to make her point: when Professor Detengof, the chairman of the first commission, without producing any new documentation, stated that mistakes had been made in the first report and that, in fact, the examined person was unfit to plead as had been concluded by the Serbskii Institute (cf. Pechuro 1997), Kallistratova drafted a document in which she strongly contested the methods and outcomes of the psychiatric reports: “The experts do not evaluate the actions of the examined subject, they do not ascertain their congruence or incongruence with reality, their soundness, but merely indicate that it was not possible to dissuade the examined subject from the wrongness of his judgements … the members of the psychiatric-forensic commission of 18 August clearly demonstrate that Grigorenko’s statements do not have a morbid or delusional character but, on the contrary, represent a common belief not only held by him but by a number of people” (Pechuro 1997).
During Grigorenko’s trial, Kallistratova worked tirelessly to denounce irregularities and distortions of the legal process, which often operated with total disregard of the law (cf. Amnesty International 1975: 110). The report of the Serbskii Institute, she claimed, violated the principles of apoliticality and objectivity, which acted as a guarantee of legitimacy, given the close cooperation between the Institute’s psychiatrists, health ministers and the KGB; Grigorenko himself declared that he had seen Dr Lunts in military uniform more than once at the Serbskii Institute (cf. Amnesty International 1975: 112). Despite his lawyer’s efforts and tenacity, Grigorenko, like many of Kallistratova’s clients, was convicted and imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. However, given the impossibility of securing a fair trial, no defence, no matter how convincing, would not have led to the defendant’s acquittal; it was already a great achievement to prevent the defendant from being declared insane.
As a human rights activist, Kallistratova espoused Petr Grigorenko’s cause and fought for a long time for the recognition of the rights of the Tatars expelled from the Crimea. A decree issued on 5 September 1967 recognised the Tatar nationality but it remained almost impossible for Tartars to register in their home territory, and when the local authorities tightened legislation on passports and residence through unconstitutional regulations, there was a wave of protests and demonstrations (cf. Clementi 2007: 114).
In October 1968 Kallistratova – together with the lawyer Dina Kaminskaya and other colleagues – took on the defense of the demonstrators of the so-called ‘demonstration of the seven’ (demonstratsiia semerykh), which took place on 25 August in Red Square in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Sof’ia Kallistratova defended Vadim Delone (cf. ibid.).
From the 1970s onwards, defence lawyers who had vocally defended human rights began to be targeted by the authorities. Kallistratova defended her colleague Dina Kaminskaia, who was accused of taking a position of opposition to the state, as well as the lawyers Monakhov and Safonov, who had been expelled from the Moscow Bar Association for their conduct, which was considered by the authorities to be in breach of the principles of advocacy. Kallistratova herself was less openly persecuted, although she was denied the right to represent defendants in political trials who were accused of violating Article 190-1, which provided for the prosecution of the crime of defamation against the Soviet state and the socialist system (cf. ibid.). In spite of these obstacles, Sof’ia Kallistratova did not give up and continued to practice her profession in court until 1975, the year of the last trial in which she participated as a defence lawyer.
Even after retiring from the legal profession, Kallistratova never stopped fighting against the illegalities of Soviet power and began to collaborate actively with human rights groups (cf. Pechuro 1997). In 1971, Valerii Khalidze, one of the founders of the Committee for Human Rights in the USSR (Komitet prav cheloveka v SSSR), invited her to join the group as an advisor on legal and judicial matters. Kallistratova wrote an anonymous report entitled The Right to Defence (Pravo na zashchitu) in which she reaffirmed the right of the accused to be assisted at all stages of the legal process by their chosen lawyer, as enshrined in Article 3 of the Soviet Constitution (cf. Kallistratova 1971). As an activist of the Committee, Kallistratova offered legal support to dissidents and politically persecuted people who asked for help and support (cf. Klein 2004: 37-38). She also took part in several campaigns in their defence: in 1974, for example, she wrote an open letter on behalf of V. Bukovskii, who was then interned in a psychiatric prison hospital (Pechuro 1997).
In 1977 Kallistratova joined the Moscow Helsinki Group (Moskovskaia Khel’sinskaia Gruppa, MKhG) – created on the initiative of Iu. Orlov – which aimed to monitor the USSR’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords of the previous year and to report human rights violations in the Soviet Union to the other signatory States. Kallistratova participated in the activities of the MChG as a member-consultant of the Commission of Inquiry into the Abuse of Psychiatry for Political Purposes, collaborating in drafting almost all the documents prepared by the group (cf. Alekseeva 2006: 405). These documents, often published in the samizdat bulletin “Chronicle of Current Events”, and frequently reported on by foreign news agencies, provided evidence of all kinds of human rights violations in a precise and detailed manner and were usually accompanied by statistical data. The data collected concerned detention camps, the living conditions of former political prisoners, the fight against forced emigration, and the violation of the rights of national minorities, disabled people and relatives of victims of repression. The Moscow Helsinki Group also monitored violations of freedom of expression and of the press.
As its human rights activities intensified, so did the authorities’ interest in the group. From the end of the 1970s onwards, Kallistratova was subject to special observation, and when in January 1980 the government clamped down on activists and the members of the MKhG were arrested, she became a victim of the repression and arbitrariness of the system that she had fought so hard against  (cf. Pechuro 1997). Arrested and tried in 1982 under Article 190-1, the same article under which many of her clients had been charged, her case was not made public until 1988. Her fellow activists wrote an open letter in her defence: They indict you for the documents sent by the Moscow Helsinki Group to the governments of all the countries that signed the Final Act [of the Helsinki Conference] and, primarily, to the Soviet government. This means running the risk of deprivation of liberty, of removal from one’s family […] in the very harsh conditions of imprisonment or confinement. […] An old, seriously ill person who has survived a heart attack and a stroke is obviously a great danger to the state in the opinion of the authorities. But is it really true that no one, apart from a small group of her friends, will come to her defence? Is world public opinion really going to let this reprisal happen?” (Pechuro 1997).
Kallistratova’s arrest marked the end of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was disbanded shortly afterwards and the government suspended proceedings against the lawyer for ‘health reasons’ (cf. ibid.). When the criminal case against her was dismissed, she continued to profess her innocence.
In 1986 Kallistratova signed a petition calling for amnesty for all political prisoners; in January 1988 she took part in the conference to mark the foundation of Memorial, an organisation committed to preserving the memory of past political repression and monitoring human rights violations. She died in 1989, on 5 December –  the day on which until 1977 the Soviet Constitution had been celebrated – and was buried in Moscow’s Vostriakovskii Cemetery (cf. Moskovskaia Khel’sinskaia Gruppa).

Giulia Caponi
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Claudia Pieralli

This article was produced as a result of the seminar “Civil Rights Movement in the USSR”, held by Ilaria Sicari (Course of Russian Literature, Master’s Degree in Euro-American Languages and Literatures, University of Florence, a.y. 2019-2020).


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  • Amnesty International, Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR: Their treatment and conditions, Amnesty International Publications, London 1975.
  • Clementi M., Storia del Dissenso Sovietico (1953-1991), ODRADEK edizioni, Roma 2007.
  • Kallistratova S., “Pravo na zashchitu”, in E. Pechuro (ed.), Zastupnitsa: advokat S.V. Kallistratova (1907-1989), Zven’ia, Moskva 1997, http://www.belousenko.com/books/gulag/kallistratova/kallistratova.htm#44, online (last accessed: 30/6/2021).
  • Klain E., Moskovskii komitet prav cheloveka, Publikatsii Muzeia i obshestvennogo centra imeni Andreia Sakharova, Sakharovskii Tsentr, Moskva 2004.
  • Moskovskaia Khel’sinskaya Gruppa, Kallistratova Sof’ia Vasil’evna, “Moskovskaia Khel’sinskaia Gruppa”, https://mhg.ru/kallistratova-sofya-vasilevna, online (last accessed: 30/6/2021).
  • Pechuro E. (ed.), Zastupnitsa: advokat S.V. Kallistratova (1907-1989), Zven’ia, Moskva 1997, http://www.belousenko.com/books/gulag/kallistratova/kallistratova.htm, online (last accessed: 30/6/2021).

To cite this article:
Giulia Caponi, Sof’ia Kallistratova, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <vocilibereurss.fupress.net>.
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