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'There will be change in Russia'

Interview: Oxana Evdokimova / dcMay 30, 2016

During a visit to Berlin, 88-year-old human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva tells DW why she believes in a democratic future for Russia – despite the many problems currently facing the country.

Moscow police holding back a throng of protesters
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Maltseva

DW: German President Joachim Gauck asked to meet with you - and you have met Chancellor Angela Merkel several times. Do you think that Western powers have any influence over the situation with regard to human rights in Russia?

Lyudmila Alexeyeva: It's mainly the Russian people who should be trying to influence human rights in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still lags behind Western states when it comes to human rights. That's why we are happy when these states try to help the Russian people to improve things. In the Helsinki Final Act, the question of human rights in a state is linked to the security situation of neighboring countries. If we were to become a democratic state, we would not pose a threat to our neighbors. The West, but also Russia, has an interest in this, so let's work together.

The number of political prisoners in Russia is growing. People are now being sentenced for sharing content on social networks. But society says nothing. Does that anger you?

It's not that society says nothing, we're just not represented on TV channels and in other mass media. In the modern world, if you're not on TV, you don't exist. Society is not being silent; you simply cannot hear its voice.

Several years ago, the so-called "law on foreign agents" severely affected non-government organizations in Russia. Many NGOs decided to forgo foreign funding in order not to be defamed. As the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, have you and your colleagues recovered from this setback?

The Moscow Helsinki Group has drastically reduced its activities. We used to have 19 full-time employees, but today we only have seven. We have had to close good, popular training programs. If we want to invite people, we have to pay for their tickets. It's not exactly cheap to fly from Khabarovsk to Moscow. We don't have money for that. That's why we had to cancel our training programs. It's a real shame.

Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva
Russian human rights activist Lyudmila AlexeyevaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

How should the West act when it comes to Russia: Continue to insist that it adhere to European democratic principles, or try to find common interests?

Russia has committed to upholding the European Convention on Human Rights. Now, Russian citizens as well as people in the West need to make sure that this really happens. It is very difficult. The Moscow Helsinki Group is 40 years old, and from the very beginning, we have always set ourselves difficult, seemingly impossible tasks.

What is your opinion of the Western sanctions against Russia that were imposed following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Russian leadership is suffering from them because of the lack of new technologies. I don't know a whole lot about that, but the population is suffering greatly. Even in Moscow, which is still fairly well off, the choice of food products has gotten considerably worse, and prices are very high. (Ed.: Reacting to Western sanctions, Russia stopped the import of Western food items.) People have started to save, including on their food bills. I would like to see an end to this, but I understand that it is a political question.

You have been working for 50 years now to ensure that human rights are respected in Russia. How do you maintain your optimism?

As bad as the human rights situation might be currently, it's still better than during the Soviet era, when we had no rights at all. We may be lagging behind European states, but there have also been some positive changes. I've understood that if you want to achieve something good, you need to work not for 50 years, but for 100 years. There will be positive change in Russia, I'm optimistic about that.

Do you really believe that Russia will one day be a democratic state?

I'm convinced that Russia will be a democratic state and a part of the European family of nations. We are a European country - culturally, historically, and in terms of our understanding of ourselves. We are like you. It has to happen, but we have to work for it. I've been working for it for 50 years now, and I don't have much strength left. But I have successors, many wonderful people who can work and who want to work for this goal. With their help, we'll make it happen.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva was born in 1927 in Crimea and is considered to be the doyenne of the Soviet and Russian human rights movement. In 1976, she was a co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She still leads the Group today.

This interview was conducted by Oxana Evdokimova