Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituary: Lyudmila Alexeyeva

Russian dissident who fought for freedom of thought from the Khrushchev era into the Putin years

DEMONSTRATOR: Lyudmila Alexeyeva, pictured in 2009, campaigned against Russian repression
DEMONSTRATOR: Lyudmila Alexeyeva, pictured in 2009, campaigned against Russian repression

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the Russian dissident, who has died aged 91, fought for civil and human rights from the Khrushchev era of the 1950s and refused to let up after the end of communism, becoming a prominent thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin.

She was co-founder, and later chairman, of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), Russia's oldest and most respected human rights organisation, set up in 1976 to demand the observance of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, to which the Soviet Union was a signatory, notably the principle of "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief".

Her struggle to do the right thing lasted more than half a century, during which she endured harassment, death threats and years of exile. Yet she remained optimistic, observing that however bad things had become under Putin, the Soviet Union had been far worse.

Russia, she told an interviewer in 2017, quoting Alexander Herzen, needed two generations to grow up in freedom to realise the dream of building a country rooted in the rule of law, and "we're already halfway there."

Lyudmila Mikhaylovna Alexeyeva was born on July 20, 1927 in Eupatoria, Crimea, in modern-day Ukraine. Her father was an economist who would be killed in World War II; her mother was a mathematician.

The family moved to Moscow when she was four and she went on to study history and archaeology at Moscow State University, later doing postgraduate work at the Moscow Institute of Economics and Statistics.

After a short stint as a high-school history teacher, she became an editor at a scientific publishing house. In 1952, she joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but subsequently became involved in the dissident movement during the period of relaxed censorship under President Khrushchev.

She became part of a Moscow circle that included the biologist Sergei Kovalyov and the physicist Andrei Sakharov, working in secret cells to deter arrests and taking part in campaigns in support of writers and intellectuals who had fallen foul of the authorities.

In 1968, after signing a letter in defence of two writers who had been jailed in 1968 for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda", she was expelled from the Communist Party and kicked out of her job.

From then until 1972 she worked undercover as a typist for the samizdat bulletin The Chronicle of Current Events, which gathered and circulated information about human rights violations in the USSR.

Repeatedly hauled in for questioning by the KGB, she developed a strategy to disconcert her interrogators by arriving equipped with a ham sandwich and an orange - luxuries in the Soviet Union at the time.

"They reacted very nervously when they started to smell ham," she told The New York Times in 2010. "Then I would start eating the orange, and the aroma would start dissipating through the room." It was, she said, a way to play on her interrogators' nerves.

When she co-founded the MHG (originally called "Soviet Public Support Group for Implementation of Helsinki Accords"), however, the authorities' patience snapped. Branded an "enemy agent" by the Soviet press and threatened with arrest by the KGB, she fled the country with the younger of her two sons.

She eventually settled in the US, where she would remain until the fall of communism and where she published a memoir, The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era and wrote a book, Soviet Dissent. Returning to Russia in 1993, three years later she was appointed chairman of the MHG.

She admired the Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, arguing that, given the magnitude of the system he tried to destroy, a period of chaos had always been inevitable. "We have to thank Yeltsin for the democratic breakthrough he made," she told The Daily Telegraph in 2007. "Now we are steadily rolling back from those achievements. Even so, he managed to do so much in such a historically short period that a complete reversal is already impossible.''

She had a complicated relationship with Putin, earning criticism in 2000 when she agreed to join a government commission set up to advise him on human rights issues, though she continued to criticise the Kremlin's human rights record, including during the war in Chechnya.

She was said to have persuaded the president to tear up plans to evict thousands of Chechen refugees from camps and to withdraw a bill that would have expanded the definition of treason.

In 2006, however, she was accused by the Russian authorities of involvement with British intelligence and received death threats from nationalist groups.

In 2012 the Russian parliament passed a measure branding the MHG and other NGOs as "foreign agents", making it difficult for them to accept foreign donations. As a result staff had to be laid off, while others saw their pay cut.

In her eighties Lyudmila Alexeyeva became prominent in the Strategy-31 civil rights group, which holds protests on Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square every 31st of the month in a nod to the 31st article of the Russian constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly.

On December 31, 2009, attending one such event dressed as Father Christmas's assistant, the Snow Maiden, in a light blue, sparkly coat with matching muff, she was bundled away by police and detained for a few hours.

Two years later, however, she welcomed the fact that where only a few dozen people would turn out for New Year's demonstrations a couple of years before, now there were tens of thousands at similar events. Moreover, she observed: "Now every policeman knows what human rights means. He doesn't enforce them, but he knows. That is why I think that today is much easier for us than in the Soviet times."

On her 90th birthday in 2017, Lyudmila received a surprise visit from Vladimir Putin, who turned up with Champagne and a painting of her native Crimea - a sly effort, suggested critics, to co-opt her support for Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula.

If so, it did not work. The annexation, Lyudmila Alexeyeva declared, had been a "crazy endeavour" that would cost both Russia and Ukraine dearly in the long run.

Among other accolades, Lyudmila Alexeyeva won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2009, the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2015 and the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 2017.

She died on December 8 and is survived by two sons.

©Telegraph

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