The Fire at Malva Landa’s

The harassment of an outspoken pensioner

<< 13 June 2016 >>

The court case concerning the door of FSB headquarters burnt by PYOTR PAVLENSKY and the fine imposed (500,000 roubles) recall, by contrast, another notorious fire in the mid-1970s. This mysterious conflagration broke out on 18 December 1976 in the room occupied by Malva Landa in Krasnogorsk, a town northwest of Moscow. As became obvious over the succeeding months, this was no domestic accident.

By the end of 1976 the newly-founded Moscow Helsinki Group, of which Landa was a member, had compiled 15 reports documenting violations of the rights the USSR pledged to uphold when it signed the Helsinki Accords. Acting openly the Group then circulated its findings to international bodies, Moscow embassies and the Soviet authorities. The Soviet regime was keen to move against the irksome monitors who already had companion organisations in other republics, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Arrests began in spring 1977. The authorities proceeded cautiously, however. They were concerned as to how the West might respond. On 1 July Helsinki Group members in the Ukraine Mykola Rudenko and Oleksa Tikhy received lengthy terms of imprisonment. The veteran dissident Alexander Ginzburg, and fellow activists Yury Orlov and Anatoly Shcharansky were kept in custody but not put on trial until the summer of 1978. Those still at liberty kept reporting and their persistence met with new rounds of repression. In May when Malva Landa’s trial was finally due to begin Andrei Sakharov issued a warning that this would be “the first in a series of trials being prepared for the Helsinki Group. …” and appealed to world leaders, especially those who signed the Helsinki Accords, to defend the accused.

The account of the trial (CCE 46.1, 15 August 1977)  throws more light on the curious origins of the fire and, thanks to Malva Landa’s dissection of witness testimony, further exposed how the incident was planned. The court exercised leniency: it was her first conviction and she had suffered herself in the fire. A woman in her late 50s, already receiving a State pension, was sentenced in June 1977 to two years’ exile to the Chita Region (eastern Siberia). In March 1980 Malva Landa was prosecuted under Article 190-1 (CCE 56.3, 30 April 1980). This time she was sentenced to five years’ exile in Kazakhstan.

John Crowfoot

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