Russia’s best-known human rights activist, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, whose life spanned from the Stalinist purges of the 1930s to post-Soviet Russia under the restrictive rule of President Vladimir Putin, was honored in a memorial in Moscow on Tuesday.
Lines of people stood outside of Moscow's Central House for Journalists to pay their respects to Alexeyeva, the longtime heart of the Russian human rights community. A truce between rights organizers and the government seemed to be in effect as both Putin and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny attended. The president sat next to Alexeyeva's son, Indiana University professor Mikhail Alekseev, during the service.
Not present at the ceremony: Lev Ponomaryov, a 77-year-old activist and longtime friend of Alexeyeva. Ponomaryov was jailed last week for writing a Facebook post in October calling for a protest in Moscow. Though he petitioned a Moscow court on Sunday, reportedly asking that his two-week sentence be lifted so he could say goodbye, he remained behind bars during the event.
Dmitry Gudkov, leader of the opposition Party of Changes, told the AFP that he found Putin's presence at the funeral "disgusting."
"Ponomaryov is under arrest but everything is closed off so that Putin can come," he said. "He probably wants to look human. But it looks disgusting on the background of what's happening in the country."
Alexeyeva spent her life fighting for human rights in her home country, even when her life was on the line. Under threat from the KGB, Alexeyeva emigrated to the US in 1977 and later became a US citizen. She returned to live in Russia in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union and continued to protest for various issues, including the right to protest. She was repeatedly arrested at such protests, well into her eighties.
Despite Alexeyeva's many decades of provoking the authorities in Moscow, a country with little tolerance for activism found it difficult to completely marginalize her. An outspoken critic of the Kremlin, Alexeyeva also served on the presidential human rights council — she quit the toothless advisory group in protest in 2012 but later rejoined it — and maintained a cordial relationship with Putin. On her 90th birthday, he even paid her a visit at her home, toasting her with champagne as the cameras clicked away.
"It was amazing how she was able to have a dialogue with the authorities and with her opponents," Russia's commissioner for human rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, told AFP at her memorial service. "She aimed for compromise in the name of results."
Born on July 20, 1927, in Yevpatoria, Crimea, to an economist father and a mathematician mother, Alexeyeva moved to Moscow as a small child. As a teenager during World War II, she tended to wounded Red Army soldiers after school and lost her father in the fighting. She later said her experience during the war years motivated her to return to Russia after 16 years of US exile.
Alexeyeva trained as an archeologist after the war and worked as an editor at the Soviet academic publishing house Nauka until 1968, when she was fired and expelled from the Communist Party for her public support of fellow dissidents Yury Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg. Alexeyeva also put her editing skills to use producing samizdat, self-published reports about true conditions in the Soviet Union, and her apartment served as a hub for dissident activity. She typed the Chronicle of Current Events, a landmark underground journal documenting political trials and human rights violations, while its founder endured a forced stay in a psychiatric hospital.
In 1976 Alexeyeva became one of the founding members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, established to monitor the USSR’s adherence to the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki accords. The following year, she was forced to emigrate under threat of arrest by the KGB, but she continued her advocacy for human rights while abroad, producing a definitive account of the Soviet dissident movement.
When Alexeyeva returned to Russia from the US in 1993, she soon faced a new foe in her human rights activism: the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB.
The KGB “were more honest than our present FSB,” she said in a 2017 interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets.
“They had strict rules, which they didn’t tell us about, of course,” she said, referring to protocols such as a requirement for there to be two witnesses in a case. “Now it’s not like that, of course. The investigators invent what they want. The court does what it wants. The laws are only for the average citizen. For the authorities, the laws are not in effect.”
“It’s not about Putin,” she told Moskovsky Komsomolets, when asked if removing him from the presidency would solve Russia’s human rights issues. “It’s about us.”
She predicted it would take 20–25 years for Russia to become a “decent” country, when the second generation to grow up without having lived under Soviet rule comes of age. “I won't live to see it,” she said. “But I believe in it.”
“It doesn't matter what you live to see. What's important is how you live.”