Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva dies at 91 | News | DW | 09.12.2018
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Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva dies at 91

For more than a half century, Lyudmila Alexeyeva never gave up and remained optimistic Russia would become democratic. "Today's young people give me the feeling of not having lived in vain," she told DW last year.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a leading human rights activist who challenged the Soviet and Russian regimes for decades, has died at the age of 91 in Moscow.

"She remained a human rights activist to the very end," said Mikhail Fedotov, head of Russia's Human Rights Council. "This is a loss for the entire human rights movement in Russia."

Read more: Lyudmila Alexeyeva: Russia's grand dame of human rights turns 90

President Vladimir Putin, of whom Alexeyeva was a critic, sent condolences to her family, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.     

The president "greatly appreciates Lyudmila Alexeyeva's contribution to the development of civil society in Russia and had great respect for her point of view on several issues concerning the life of the country," Russian news agencies quoted Peskov as saying.

Dissident circles

Born in 1927 in Crimea, Alexeyeva is considered to be the doyenne of the Soviet and Russian human rights movement, having defended freedoms since the 1950s up until her death.

Once a supporter of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, like many people she questioned the Soviet system when his crimes were revealed by new leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Alexeyeva was drawn into the dissident movement during the Khrushchev thaw. She was a stark defender of writers and intellectuals targeted by the Soviet regime.

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Alexeyeva's activism would see her expelled from the Communist Party and lose her job at a publishing house in 1968. Worried that human rights abuses were going unreported, Alexeyeva and colleagues set up their own, underground publication in 1968. Produced on a manual typewriter by a handful of activists, the Chronicle of Current Events provided a crucial record of the Soviet state's treatment of dissenting voices.

Although she was never arrested, Alexeyeva experienced numerous searches and interrogations at the hands of the KGB.

In 1976, Alexeyeva co-founded the Moscow Helsinki Group, which sought to hold the Soviet government to its international commitments on human rights under the Helsinki Accords. Facing increasing threats, in 1977 Alexeyeva was forced to leave to the United States, where she continued to be involved in the dissident movement.

Post-Soviet activism

She returned to Russia in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union to rebuild the Moscow Helsinki Group, optimistic that a new liberal order would prevail in her homeland.

But the 1990s economic chaos and human rights abuses committed during Chechen wars, were then followed by a clampdown on civil society after Putin took over in 2000.

"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," she told DW in a 2016 interview.

Even in her 80s, Alexeyeva joined protests on Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square in 2009-10 every 31st day of a month to defend the 31st article of the Russian constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly. One iconic image shows Alexeyeva being taken away by police on the last day of 2009.

Ljudmila Alexejewa russische Historikerin (Getty Images/AFP/A. Sazonov)

Alexeyeva, then 82-years-old, was hauled off by police during December 31, 2009 New Year's Eve anti-Kremlin protests

In 2014, Alexeyeva was forced to cut back on the Moscow Helsinki Group's activities when she refused to register it under a new "foreign agents" law.

She was a critic of Russia's seizure of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, although she questioned international sanctions for hurting average Russians.

She also condemned the "awful political killing" of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015.

An optimist 

Despite tense relations with Putin's regime, Alexeyeva nonetheless had contact with the president and was able to score a number of successes through pressure and persuasion. On her 90th birthday, Putin stopped by Alexeyeva's home for a champagne toast and in the same year honored her with a state award.

Ljudmila Alexejewa und Wladimir Putin (Imago/Russian Look/Kremlin Pool)

Putin wished Alexeyeva a happy 90th birthday last year with a visit to her home

Despite Russia's turbulent history and ever-tightening restrictions on civil society, Alexeyeva was always optimistic that her country would one day become democratic.

"I've understood that if you want to achieve something good, you need to work not for 50 years, but for 100 years," she told DW in 2016. "I'm convinced that Russia will be a democratic state and a part of the European family of nations."

"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," she said.

cw/jm (AFP, AP, dpa)

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