Velikanova also co-founded the first human rights organizations in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, the Initiative Group (sometimes known as the "Action Group") on Human Rights in the USSR. For nearly nine years she was condemned to life in a prison camp and internal exile within the USSR as a political prisoner.
Born on 3 February 1932, Velikanova graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University in 1954. A mathematician by training, she began work as a teacher in a school in the Urals. Then, from 1957 onwards, she was employed as a programmer in Moscow.
Velikanova became a dissident in 1968. That year she witnessed the 1968 Red Square demonstration, an open protest by seven people against the crushing of the Prague Spring reforms by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. She had gone to the Square with one of the demonstrators, her husband Konstantin Babitsky, so as to testify as a witness in court if needed.
Like the other protestors Babitsky was arrested on the spot. He was sentenced to three years in exile in the Far Northern Komi Region. Velikanova's experience at the trial where her testimony was distorted and used against Babitsky, led her to decide she would never again participate in such judicial proceedings. (Nor did she, see below, when she was herself put on trial in 1980.)
In May 1969, with 14 other dissidents, Velikanova co-founded the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR. Unusually for the dissident movement at the time, the organization tried to appeal to the international community. Speaking on behalf of the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union the Group wrote to the UN Commission on Human Rights.
In 1970, Velikanova began contributing to the samizdat periodical A Chronicle of Current Events. The unofficial bi-monthly gathered reports from all over the USSR of violations by the Soviet authorities of civil rights and judicial procedure, and recorded the response to those violations. It became the principal uncensored Russian-language source of information about political repressions during Leonid Brezhnev's time as Party leader. Velikanova eventually became one of its main organizers and editors. As the years passed similar journals came into existence in other Soviet republics. Their information continued to flow to Moscow, however, for translation into Russian and publication in the Chronicle of Current Events.
In 1979, Velikanova along with Arina Ginzburg, Malva Landa, Viktor Nekipelov and Andrei Sakharov demanded a referendum in the Baltic States to allow them to determine their own political fate.
In 1974, the KGB initiated a major crackdown on the bulletin, arresting several of its editors and distributors, threatening to make more arrests, regardless of authorship, for every published issue of the Chronicle.
In order to deflect pressure from other participants, and to stress that the Chronicle was in their view a legal publication, three of those involved decided to forsake anonymity. On 7 May, Tatyana Velikanova, Sergei Kovalev and Tatyana Khodorovich assumed public responsibility at a press conference in Moscow for the bulletin's future distribution. They then released three delayed issues, one for December 1972 and two covering 1973, and a statement that "we regard it as our duty to facilitate as wide a circulation for [the Chronicle] as possible."
Sergei Kovalev was arrested at the end of 1974 and given a long term of imprisonment and internal exile at his trial the next year; Tatyana Khodorovich emigrated from the USSR in 1977. Velikanova was arrested in 1979 on charges of "anti-Soviet propaganda". After her arrest, several prominent dissidents, among them Larisa Bogoraz, Elena Bonner, Sofiya Kalistratova and Lev Kopelev, formed a "Committee for the Defense of Velikanova". The Committee collected and disseminated information on her case in samizdat. A petition in defense of Velikanova was signed by almost 500 people. Others who independently petitioned for her were Andrei Sakharov, the philosopher Grigory Pomerants, and the writer Vladimir Voinovich.
At her trial in August 1980, she refused to defend herself, stating that "by participating in this trial, I would be collaborating in an unlawful act. I respect the law, and therefore, I refuse to take part in this trial." When the verdict was handed down, she responded: "The farce is over." Velikanova was sentenced to four years in prison camp, followed by five years of exile.
Velikanova spent her camp term in Mordovia, east of Moscow, and in 1984 was sent into internal exile in western Kazakhstan. An account of Velikanova's time in the Mordovian camps can be found in Grey Is the Color of Hope, written by fellow prisoner Irina Ratushinskaya.
In September 1987 an amnesty was announced by the Gorbachev Politburo, but it required individual prisoners to write an appeal for clemency, and to sign a statement promising not to commit "illegal" behavior in the future, before they were freed. Like a number of other political prisoners Velikanova refused to agree to such conditions, and she served her full term of exile.
After her return to Moscow late in 1988, she took up work in the School 57, teaching math and Russian language and literature.
She died on 19 September 2002.
In late 1989 Sergei Kovalyov, Tatiana Velikovanova and Alexander Lavut were interviewed about their dissident activities for the seven-part "Red Empire" TV series (Central TV), fronted by Robert Conquest. Unfortunately, Granite Productions (CEO Simon Welfare, series director Gwyneth Hughes), the company which made the film, destroyed the tapes of this interview. Naturally, the recording ran for many minutes, and was much longer than the short excerpt which showed the three chatting round Alexander Lavut's kitchen table.
Kovalyov subsequently became a familiar figure on Russian TV as the country's first Human Rights Ombudsman and a member of successive convocations of parliament (Supreme Soviet, State Duma). Velikanova and Lavut lived the rest of their lives, known only to a few, and died in comparative obscurity.