Lyudmila Alexeyeva Speaks Her Mind
Published: June 15, 2004 (Issue # 977)
Igor Tabakov / The St. Petersburg Times
Alexeyeva attending a rally protesting Mayor Yury Luzhkov's attempt to re-erect a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in 2002.
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."