11:12, December 17 56 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-17 11:12:06
Lyudmila Alexeyeva obituary

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who has died aged 91, was a veteran of Russia’s human rights community who began working for change during the Soviet period, went into exile and then, unlike most other dissident émigrés, returned to Moscow after the Soviet Union collapsed to resume the struggle under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

Small of stature but filled with determination, she risked arrest by taking part in street demonstrations until eight years ago. She remained active even after that, writing a text for last week’s annual conference of the human rights monitoring organisation known as the Moscow Helsinki Group, which she had helped to found in 1976.

It summed up her lifelong philosophy that repression comes not from individual dictators or strongmen but from political systems without checks and balances and from the attitudes of citizens who go along with authoritarianism. In that final text she warned of rising populism, declaring “Our most important task is to exit that ‘ghetto’ of comfortable communication with the like-minded … We should go to the public, engage in educating people at a new level, using new approaches and technologies … We must learn how to communicate and share our points of view and values among our fellow citizens without giving up on anyone.”

In the 1960s Alexeyeva had become involved with a movement of dissidents and intellectuals who called for political freedoms. She became the main typist of its occasional newsletter cataloguing cases of repression, innocuously known as the Chronicle of Current Events. It circulated underground in the USSR and was smuggled to the west.

In 1975, at Helsinki, the Soviet Union, with other European states, signed the final document of a conference pledging to cooperate with each other and protect human rights. Yuri Orlov, a dissident physicist, conceived the idea of a group to monitor Soviet adherence to the pledges. He invited Alexeyeva to join. In February 1977 Orlov was arrested and sentenced to seven years in a labour camp. Alexeyeva was told she could either go abroad or be sentenced too. She and her husband, Nikolai Williams, chose to leave Moscow for northern Virginia in the US, where she became the public voice of the Soviet dissident movement and wrote two books, Soviet Dissent (1987) and The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era (1990). The Moscow Helsinki Group was closed down and ceased working in 1982.

After the Soviet Union collapsed the couple returned to Moscow in 1993. Three years later, when the Moscow Helsinki Group was revived to monitor rights violations in post-communist Russia, Alexeyeva was elected chair. Amid the chaos of Yeltsin’s new capitalism and the undermining of the welfare state, she widened its remit to include social rights. In the new conditions of relative political freedom Alexeyeva had a rare willingness, and the courage, to talk truth to power face-to-face.

Born in Yevpatoria, Crimea, Lyudmila was the daughter of Mikhail Slavinsky, an economist, and Valentina (nee Yefimenko), a mathematician. Both parents were the first in their families to go to university, and because they were busy with their professions Lyudmila was brought up mainly by her widowed grandmother, a loyalist who felt deep gratitude to the Soviet regime for the educational opportunities it had created.

When Stalin launched his mass purges in 1937, Mikhail was working at the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives. Its president was arrested and under torture admitted to having formed “an underground fascist organisation”. Mikhail was interrogated but released after proving he had not attended any of his union’s special dinners and was therefore not an insider. Some 297 less lucky colleagues were executed or sent to labour camps.

In 1941, in the second world war, when the German army approached Moscow, her mother took the young Lyudmila to Kazakhstan along with other families being evacuated from the Institute of Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Her father left for the front and died in June 1942 when his brigade tried to break through the lines of German troops besieging Leningrad.

Valentina moved to Izhevsk in the western Urals where, at school, Lyudmila and other children helped to transfer wounded soldiers from trains to hospital. She decided she wanted to become a nurse but was too young to be accepted.

At war’s end she enrolled in the history department of Moscow State University and was promptly elected as the Young Communist League’s (Komsomol) class organiser. Her election was soon rescinded on the grounds that such posts were reserved for war veterans. Lyudmila came to the view that many Komsomol organisers were careerists. On graduation in 1950, she started work on a PhD before taking up an editing job in the publishing house Nauka (Science).

She had married Valentin Alexeyev, a family friend, in 1948, and had two sons with him. The couple divorced in the 60s and Alexeyeva married Nikolai, a mathematician who taught at one of Moscow’s universities.

In 2002, to the dismay of some colleagues who felt it was no more than a public relations tool, she joined the Presidential Commission on Human Rights set up by Vladimir Putin. In 2003 she denounced the US and British invasion of Iraq.

Although she resigned from the commission (by then renamed a council) in 2012, and frequently attended protests criticising Putin’s policies, including the annexation of Crimea, she maintained good relations with the president. On her 90th birthday last year he visited her at home and gave her an old photograph of Crimea.

Her elder son died in 2014. She is survived by her younger son, Michael, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva, human rights campaigner, born 20 July 1927; died 8 December 2018

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