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Lyudmila Alexeyeva Speaks Her Mind

Published: June 15, 2004 (Issue # 977)



  • Alexeyeva attending a rally protesting Mayor Yury Luzhkov's attempt to re-erect a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in 2002.
    Photo: Igor Tabakov / The St. Petersburg Times

When human rights investigators visiting Ingushetia heard reports of troops shelling a civilian house in neighboring Chechnya, most members froze. Lyudmila Alexeyeva left the police-escorted delegation, found a car and sped to the scene.

The 77-year-old Alexeyeva, one of the few veterans of the Soviet dissident movement still active, is renowned for her energy and bravery. She received an award in Washington on Wednesday from the National Endowment for Democracy.

"This brave woman doesn't think twice of getting into a car and going there to see the situation with her own eyes and talk to the people there in person," said Alexeyeva's colleague, Alexander Petrov, of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, recalling her impromptu visit to Chechnya.

The doyenne of Russia's human rights community, Alexeyeva was outspoken even during the repression of the Stalin years. An archaeology graduate, she spent her first years out of Moscow State University teaching history at a trade school that trained metalworkers and turners.

That was the university's punishment for speaking out against the expulsion of a Jewish student, which she alleged was motivated by anti-Semitism.

After Nikita Khrushchev became Soviet leader and triggered a period of relative openness known as the "thaw," Alexeyeva was energized.

"We started feeling somewhat more free, and would spend hours and hours at each other's flats discussing everything we knew, experienced, and felt," she said in an interview.

But by 1965, the thaw was over. Khrushchev had been shoved out of power and the small dissident community was shaken by a series of arrests of intellectuals who wrote and spoke out against the regime.

Alexeyeva campaigned for fairer trials and their objective coverage in the media. She collected signatures for a petition in support of the arrested - a venture that cost her Communist Party membership and her job editing scientific magazines.

Together with friends, Alexeyeva also set up an informal Red Cross that collected money and other aid for families of the repressed.

"I couldn't live my life differently - I had to speak out if I wanted to be true to myself and my children to respect me," she said.

In 1977 Alexeyeva and her family were allowed to emigrate to the United States, after the KGB hinted that she would likely be arrested otherwise.

While her husband, Nikolai Williams, taught mathematics in U.S. universities, Alexeyeva continued her human rights activity and wrote histories of the Soviet dissident movement.

"Even in my sweetest dreams, I could not dare to hope to return home one day," she recounted.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and Alexeyeva returned.

Since 1996 Alexeyeva has headed the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization. She also has been president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights since 1998.

Four years later, Alexeyeva joined a commission intended to advise President Vladimir Putin on human rights issues, a move that brought her criticism from rights activists who see themselves as permanently opposed to power.

"My job is to see to it that authorities observe human rights," she said. "Unless you come out and talk to them, you cannot make that happen."





 


ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Aug. 23


Uppsala Park plays host to Fairy Noon today, a performance of five separate fairy tales ranging from folk classics to more haunting selections. There will be three different renditions of the tales throughout the day and tickets start at 500 rubles ($13.80) for adults and 300 rubles ($8.30) for children.


Classic Finnish cartoon characters the Moomins expect to receive a warm welcome from Russian fans during today’s Moomin Festival at the Pearl Plaza Shopping Center at 51 Petergofskoye Shosse. Become a kid again or introduce a new generation to the beloved creation of Finnish writer Tove Jansson.



Sunday, Aug. 24


The tortured genius of Dutch master Vincent van Gogh gets his day in the center’s Konnushnaya Ploschad during Make Art Like Van Gogh, a daylong celebration of the artist that will allow amateur artists to try and replicate the work that made the famed painter world-renowned.


Experience a variety of dances highlighting the diversity of the world around as at the final day of the Ethno-Dance International Dance Festival that has been at the St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions this past week. Tonight’s performance will feature Egyptian dancers accompanied by local orchestras.



Monday, Aug. 25


Today kicks off the Elena Obraztsovoy International Competition for Young Vocalists in the large hall of the Shostakovich Philharmonic. Talented youngsters will showcase their range over the next six days before a winner is chosen on Aug. 30.



Tuesday, Aug. 26


Love movies but hate all those words? Then check out Rodina Cinema Center’s Factor of Consensus film forum this evening. Silent movie classics from the beginning of the 20th century will be screened and accompanied by a pianist, who will provide the soundtrack for the ongoing action. The screenings begin at 7 p.m. Check Rodina’s website for more details.



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