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'Russia needs two free generations'

Nick Connolly Moscow
July 20, 2017

For much of her life, Lyudmila Alexeyeva has been a voice for human rights in Russia. As the activist turns 90, she tells DW about her country's long road to democracy and a new generation of activists.

Frankreich Vaclav-Havel-Preis für Menschenrechtlerin Ljudmila Aleksejewa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

Lyudmila Alexeyeva is an icon of Russian civil society - a survivor of the first generation of Soviet dissidents who emerged in the thaw of 1960s. Her circle cut their teeth on campaigns in support of writers and intellectuals who had fallen foul of Soviet authorities. Alexeyeva's activism would see her expelled from the Communist Party and lose her job.

Anxious that human rights abuses were going unreported, Alexeyeva and her colleagues set up their own, underground publication in 1968. Produced on a manual typewriter by a handful of activists, the Chronicle of Current Events nevertheless provided a crucial record of the Soviet state's treatment of dissenting voices.

Forced out of Russia

Repeated questioning by authorities and raids on her home followed, but Alexeyeva was never jailed. But by the mid-1970s the Soviet authorities' patience was coming to an end. In 1976 Alexeyeva joined the newly-founded Moscow Helsinki Group, which sought to hold the Soviet government to its international commitments on human rights given as part of the Helsinki Accords. Within a year, Alexeyeva was forced to leave the country for the United States, where she would spend the next decade-and-a-half.

Activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva in Moscow in 2009
Alexeyeva became a regular presence at protests in Moscow Image: Imago/Tass

Returning to Russia in 1993, Alexeyeva rebuilt the Moscow Helsinki Group's campaigning activities across the country. But it was her role as one of the figureheads in the fight for the right to protest that brought her to the attention of a new generation in 2009-2010. Already in her 80s, Alexeyeva joined protests on Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square every 31st day of a month in a nod to the 31st article of the Russian constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly. Few could forget the image of the Alexeyeva, dressed in a New Year's costume, being bundled away by police on the last day of 2009.

New generation of protesters

Six years on from those demonstrations and with far harsher limits on protest passed in the meantime; does she never feel dejected? "Today's young people give me the feeling of not having lived in vain," she says.  

Alexeyeva is certain there are no shortcuts on the road to democracy. "The Maidan-style revolution that our government is so afraid of won't happen," she says. "It's not in our national character." Instead, Alexeyeva expects a long period of incremental change.

She admits that she could never have imagined that relations with Ukraine would get so bad. Alexeyeva says Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea was a "crazy endeavor" and one that will cost both Russia and Ukraine dearly in the long run.

But for all the setbacks, Alexeyeva remains an indefatigable optimist. Russia, she says quoting the writer Alexander Herzen, needs two generations to grow up in freedom to realize the dream of building a country rooted in the rule of law. Looking at the first post-Soviet generation making its mark in politics and activism, Alexeyeva is convinced, "we're already half way there."