Lyudmila Alexeyeva has fought for civil and human rights since she was a student in the Soviet era. She is not relenting as she turns 85 - nor does the Kremlin appear to be turning down the pressure on her.
On New Year's Eve 2009 in Moscow, a Christmas tree is lit a festive red and blue in Triumph Square, two subway stops away from the Kremlin. Young men and women dance in a party atmosphere. At the same time, riot police encircle a small group of protesters against then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. They are from the Strategy-31 civil rights group, named after article 31 of the Russian constitution guaranteeing freedom of assembly. Tonight, 30 of them will be arrested - including a petite elderly woman with snow white hair.
She is Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Russia's best known human right activists, who turns 85 on Friday (20.07.2012).
Faith in doing the right thing
Alexeyeva heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, which she co-founded 36 years ago. It is the oldest and most respected human rights organization in Russia. In spite of her advanced years, Alexeyeva is still an active participant in the civil rights movement.
"Faith in doing the right thing gives me the strength to carry on," she told DW in a recent interview.
Alexeyeva has been struggling to do the right thing for half a century. Born July 20, 1927 in Crimea in modern-day Ukraine, Alexeyeva went on to study history and archaeology in Moscow. She started to meet dissidents in the 1960s and began advocating for Soviet writers persecuted by the regime and only able to publish their works in the West. These efforts got Alexeyeva kicked out of the Communist party and cost her her job as an editor at an academic publishing house.
That is when her career as a human rights activist began in earnest.
"We were ordinary Soviet citizens - who categorically rejected lies of every sort," she said.
Alexeyeva helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group in the mid-1970s. That led to Soviet authorities searching her home, while the Soviet press branded her as an "enemy agent."
In 1977, threatened with arrest by the notorious Soviet security agency, the KGB, Alexeyeva left the USSR for the US. She did not return to Russia until 1993. Three years after her return, she was named chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a position she holds up to this day.
Alexeyeva views the period since the fall of the USSR as an exciting time. With President Vladimir Putin maintaining a monopoly on power, human rights activists have much work to do. Alexeyeva has demonstrated on an almost monthly basis for freedom of assembly. She has also called for the release of jailed oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky and protested against new laws.
One such measure passed by the Russian parliament in mid-July calls for politically active Russian NGOs that receive money from abroad to be registered as "foreign agents." The Moscow Helsinki Group has fallen under this category, reminding Alexeyeva of propaganda from the Soviet era.
She considers the measure unconstitutional, and is convinced the Kremlin wants to closely confine the Russian protest movement.
"The rulers want to tighten the screws, but this will not succeed," Alexeyeva said.
She added she does not believe there will be a return to Soviet conditions.
To see the impact of Alexeyeva's work, you just have to turn on Russian TV. State-controlled NTV is yet to grow weary of calling her a "western agent." In a more positive vein, Alexeyeva recently wanted to resign from her post on the Moscow Helsinki Group's board. But as the body was on the point of breaking apart, chairman Mikhail Fedotov persuaded Alexeyeva to keep her old position.
Alexeyeva is a legend in the West. German politicians have called her "a great role model," "an icon" and "the face of a generation."
"She is a courageous fighter for freedom and democracy," German Human Rights Commissioner Markus Löning told DW.
Meanwhile, Green Party politician Marieluise Beck wrote, "Lyudmila Alexeyeva has an admirable indomitability. We need her more than ever."
Best wishes on the occasion of Alexeyeva's birthday came from Andreas Schockenhoff, member of German parliament and coordinator for the federal government's German-Russian civil society organization.
"I wish her the fulfillment of her hopes for a free and democratic Russia," he said.
Alexeyeva herself holds firm in believing the movement for more democracy cannot be stopped.
"Times have changed," she told DW in an interview after mass December 2011 protests over alleged fraud in Russian parliamentary allegations.
She pointed out that three years ago, only a few dozen people turned out for New Year's demonstrations, but now there are tens of thousands at similar events.
"I believe that Russia will be a democratic and constitutional country in five to 10 years," she said.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / srs
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg