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The extraordinary life of Lyudmila Alexeyeva Meduza remembers a Russian human rights icon

Meduza
Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Late on December 8, Russian human rights icon Lyudmila Alexeyeva passed away at the age of 91. Since the mid-1990s, she led the Moscow Helsinki Group, earning the respect of both state officials and the anti-Kremlin opposition. Alexeyeva worked with everyone equally in pursuit of her mission: the protection of people’s rights by all means available. Meduza’s Andrey Kozenko looks back at her extraordinary life.

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In the mid-2000s, the Moscow Helsinki Group was Russia’s benchmark human rights organization, bringing together expert roundtables and drafting research papers about human rights violations at home and around the world. For example, the group was one of the initiators behind an international appeal to American and British officials demanding an end to the war in Iraq, arguing that the invasion was “destroying the foundations of the modern world order.”

The Moscow Helsinki Group was led by Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a woman with an impeccable reputation and experience as a Soviet dissident and emigre in the United States. On an almost annual basis, she received awards for her contributions to the development of the human rights movement. In those years, Russia’s domestic agenda still allowed Russian human rights activists to divert their attention to the Middle East.

In January 2006, Rossiya television network correspondent Arkady Mamontov broke the “spy rock” story, accusing British intelligence of using an artificial rock, which housed an electronic dead drop, to download and transmit classified information through hand-held computers. Mamontov’s report also focused on the British officials who used the dead drop and how they met with Lyudmila Alexeyeva and helped her organization win Western grants and funding. The broadcast included footage of payment orders, signatures, and copies of documents, including personal information. This was the start of a major attack on Russian NGOs.

When approaching Lyudmila Alexeyeva for a comment, it was always best to call her home phone in the afternoon. She never really made peace with mobile phones, and it was always her assistant who answered those calls. Alexeyeva always spoke very calmly, with a certain ironic intonation. “I’ve consulted many experts and decided to sue for damages to my professional reputation,” she said back in 2006. “I want to emphasize that we intend to speak not only about my particular case; we will defend all nongovernmental organizations pressured by the authorities.”

It was in these years that the Russian state formulated the unflattering picture of human rights activists that still dominates the airwaves today. This was also the era when Russian human rights activists settled into the work that would occupy them for years to come: defending themselves against the government — a task that now consumes no less of their energies than promoting human rights itself. This was also when Lyudmila Alexeyeva became the single most important figure in Russia’s human rights movement.

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As a rule, this history unfolded in the conference halls of the “Izmailovo” hotel, with its signature mid-1990s interiors. This venue hosted conferences, roundtables, and constituent congresses for movements that more often than not contained the word “all-Russian.” In the latter half of the decade, Russia’s opposition looked for ways to unite, while human rights activists debated their right to get involved directly in politics.

Alexeyeva was a co-chairperson of the All-Russian Civil Congress, alongside sociologist Georgy Satarov and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. It’s hard to say what this “congress” did exactly. It adopted certain resolutions and apparently condemned the regime. From the perspective of a journalist, whose job is to write up stories, the group’s meetings were a nightmare, full of long-winded, wandering speeches that vanished like water into sand.

Things only got interesting when the group’s leadership started fracturing. Kasparov went looking for a political alliance with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was then in charge of “Other Russia” (a name later claimed by Eduard Limonov, whose National Bolshevik Party was ultimately declared extremist and banned). Satarov and Alexeyeva demanded that Kasparov leave the All-Russian Civil Congress, and he demanded the same of them. In a nutshell, there was no shortage of melodrama.

“Ms. Alexeyeva, is your line of work politics or human rights? Don’t you think they’re basically one and the same?” I once asked her during a coffee break at an event. “I’m against being dragged into politics. We defend supreme human values, not the interests of any party or individual,” she told me without batting an eye.

President Vladimir Putin congratulates Lyudmila Alexeyeva on her 90th birthday at her apartment in Moscow on April 20, 2017
Alexey Nikolsky / Kremlin press service / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Alexeyeva brought the same composure to her seat on the Presidential Human Rights Committee (and later Council), where she enjoyed the respect of Vladislav Surkov, then the head of the Kremlin’s domestic policy. She also participated in every meeting of the Moscow police department’s public council, working with other influential human rights activists and journalists to transform this essentially decorative body into an effective aid for detained protesters, whose numbers were rising every year. Of course, when new elections were held, the council’s most troublesome members were swapped out for more loyal people. Alexeyeva was excluded on a technicality (she had dual citizenship). Immediately afterwards, she defiantly joined an identical public council at the federal level. Wherever she found a seat, Alexeyeva spoke inconvenient truths with her trademark tranquility.

It turns out that there’s politics (whatever figures are holding the strings) and then there are universal values, and Alexeyeva spent her whole life defending them any way she could.

Alexeyeva welcomed Vladimir Putin into her home on her birthday, just as she met with anti-Putin demonstrators from the “Bolotnaya Case” for friendly chats. A few days before she died, Alexeyeva was included once again on the Presidential Human Rights Council.

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The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi’s annual summer retreat at Lake Seliger was always an odious event, but the organization outdid itself in 2010 with an exhibit featuring mannequin heads atop wooden stakes, plastered with the faces of Lyudmila Alexeyeva, journalist Nikolai Svanidze, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and other “enemies of Russia,” as they saw it. Above this display, there was a banner in big read letters that read “You’re not welcome here.”

By this time, Alexeyeva and I spoke regularly on the phone, as there were now more reasons to report on human rights in Russia than anyone would have liked. Before this call, however, I had to collect myself. “Ms. Alexeyeva, greetings,” I began. “I don’t even know how to put this, but at a summer retreat…” But she had already heard about the exhibit. “Oh don’t you go worrying,” she told me. “Public figures shouldn’t get all sensitive if they’re insulted.”

The show “Downton Abbey” started airing around this time. I smiled when I first saw Maggie Smith in the role of Violet Crawley, the composed and quick-witted Dowager Countess of Grantham. I already knew a woman very much like this.

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The “Strategy 31” movement in 2009 belonged to Limonov’s National Bolsheviks. That year, on the 31st day of any month with so many days, a crowd of journalists would burst from the Mayakovsky subway station and descend on Triumfalnaya Square to watch the same spectacle unfold: protesters gathered to honor the Russian Constitution’s 31st article (which guarantees freedom of assembly), with some dragged into police vans, while officers shouted into megaphones: “Disperse! This is an unlawful assembly.” It was especially amusing to watch passersby, running late for a play at the next-door Moscow Satire Theater, completely perplexed by what was happening. Some of the least patient of these theatergoers also ended up in police vans.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, “For Human Rights” head Lev Ponomarev, and several other activists then formed a temporary and enormously fragile union with Eduard Limonov, the leader of “Other Russia.” At first, they simply provided assistance to detained demonstrators, but on December 31, 2009, Alexeyeva attended the meeting in person, dressed self-deprecatingly as Snegurochka (the mythological character commonly depicted as the granddaughter and helper of Old Man Frost, whose cultural role in Russia is similar to Santa Claus in the West). She was detained and shockingly manhandled by police. “They’ll probably charge me with swearing at them,” she told me in a call that night (this time from a mobile phone), citing the grounds most often used back then to detain demonstrators. Despite the holiday celebrations, the police released Alexeyeva with blinding speed, just as the outcry from state officials around the world started pouring in.

The falling out with Limonov didn’t take long. As always, Alexeyeva and the other human rights activists sought compromises and common ground with the authorities, and eventually they found some. The “31” rallies starting winning permits, but this approach didn’t appeal to the National Bolsheviks, and so they parted ways.

Police officers detain Lyudmila Alexeyeva during the Strategy 31 rally at Triumfalnaya Square on December 31, 2009
Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On December 5, 2018, Alexeyeva’s longtime friend and colleague Lev Ponomarev was sentenced to 25 days in jail, just for encouraging people to attend a public demonstration. As a result, he will not be allowed to attend Alexeyeva’s funeral.

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In the early 2010s, former Deputy Prime Minister and ex Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin went looking for a way to get involved in social activism. In late 2013, he organized the “Civic Forum,” bringing together human rights activists from across the country. The days of meetings at the Izmailovo hotel were over: Kudrin’s forum met at the Moscow World Trade Center business complex.

It can’t be said that this was a terribly important event. Both before and after the forum, state officials and human rights activists largely talked past each other. Whatever participants said, there was no chance of implementing any of it in reality. Lyudmila Alexeyeva — who naturally took the podium here, as well — said Russia needs only two “unrepressed generations” and an active civil society would appear.

Afterwards, while in the elevator with Alexeyeva, I commented on her speech and inadvertently made an incredibly awkward remark, complaining that I’d be old and gray by the time her active civil society arrives. For the next several seconds, I was sure that I’d fallen into an abyss, even though the elevator was rising. Alexeyeva pursed her lips, and then burst out laughing. After the lunch break, she had the floor again and returned to the same simple truths to which she devoted her life.

Text by Andrey Kozenko

Translation by Kevin Rothrock