If you’d spent half your life in a labour camp — perhaps you’d never left your Siberian village, until the NKVD arrested you on the charge of being an American spy, then tortured you until you admitted it — you would rightly be insulted by the question.
So why do historians ask it?
The first reason is that Stalin insisted that the answer was yes. Most famously, the 1936 Constitution proclaimed three types of rights: personal, political, and socio-economic. So constitutional rights of free speech, voting and welfare — to name just one from each group — were apparently embedded into Stalin-era life. By the 1930s, with the revolution securely won, it was safe to ascribe rights in a universal way. People were no longer denied rights on the basis of their class origins. Propaganda insisting on people’s rights was ubiquitous. Documents sometimes used the very phrase ‘human rights’, before it was common anywhere. All this was, in practice, a nonsense, but it made sense as an ideal system for incubating communism, and if you mocked any part of it, you were by definition an enemy of everyone else, the right-thinking people. Perhaps you were indeed a foreign spy.
There is a second reason: after Stalin, the dictatorship changed. Life became more predictable, government much less arbitrary. Some personal rights, such as the right to an inviolable home, made a kind of sense, and one entire group of rights, the socio-economic, began to function plausibly. Other personal rights, such as the right to travel, were absent, while all political rights, in a one-party state, were of course derisory. But some rights — some ingredients of the complex blend of human rights — really did exist, in the sense that they were broadly protected in practice and that many people believed they possessed them.
And the third reason is that the Soviet Union renewed its official commitment to human rights when it signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The agreement confirmed the post-1945 international settlement, the borders that defined the Iron Curtain. Signatories, in both East and West, also made a commitment to human rights. Perhaps this helped those Soviet bloc dissidents who bravely asked their governments to abide by their own laws and treaties. But some observers surmise that human rights — driven forward by political rebels, eventually accepted by Mikhail Gorbachev — became the very fuel of revolution, toppling the Eastern bloc.
Surely not: you can accept the significance of human rights in Soviet history without believing in fairy tales.