Ludmila Alekseeva Turns 85

Source: (info), 20/07/12

· Human rights defenders  · Human rights education  · Moscow city & Moscow region

Ludmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva
was born on 20 July 1927 in Eupatoria, Crimea, in present-day Ukraine. A prominent Russian public figure, Alekseeva has been a leading participant in the human rights movement in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, and was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest functioning human rights organization in Russia (founded in 1976). She has been chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, after its revival in the post-Soviet period, since 1996.

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In the years 2002 to 2012 Ludmila Alekseeva has been a member of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, which later became the Presidential Council on Civil Society & Human Rights. From November to December of 2004 she was among the organizers of the All-Russia Civic Congress, and served as one of its three co-chairs until 2008.

Ludmila Alekseeva (nee Slavinskaya) was born to Mikhail Lvovich Slaivinsky and Valentina Afanasyevna Efimenko on 20 July, 1927 in Evpatoria. In her early childhood, Ludmila’s family relocated to Moscow, first living in a barrack in Ostankino and later moving to a communal apartment in central Moscow.

Ludmila’s parents had both come from poor families, but were able to pursue a higher education thanks to the new opportunities ushered in by the 1917 revolution: her father trained to be an economist, while her mother studied mathematics. Ludmila’s mother went on to work at the Institute of Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences, later becoming an instructor at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University and writing a series of university textbooks on upper-level mathematics. Little “Luda” was mostly raised by her grandmother, who harboured sincere gratitude toward the Soviet regime. In 1913, she had been widowed with two children, with neither a profession nor a hope of sending her children to school. “If not for the regime, who would have educated my children?” her grandmother would often repeat. Ludmila grew up believing she lived in the most free and equal society in the world.

When mass arrests began in 1937, 29 apartments in their building suddenly acquired new inhabitants. The ten-year-old Ludmila did not perceive what was happening as something out of the ordinary—she knew no other life and did not ask any questions. The adults were careful not to discuss current events around the children, who, intuitively, avoided the subject. The spring of 1937 was marked by the arrest of the president of the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives, where Ludmila’s father worked. During his interrogation, the president admitted to having formed an “underground fascist organization,” implicating around 300 of his colleagues. Ludmila’s father was placed under investigation, but escaped arrest due to sheer luck: he had never attended his employer’s corporate banquets, which turned out to be secret meetings of the underground organization. However, 297 of his colleagues were either executed or sent to the labour camps.

When World War Two began, Ludmila was vacationing with her grandmother in the Crimean port city of Feodosiya. On 3 July 1941 they boarded what would turn out to be the last train departing to Moscow.

Mikhail Slavinsky left for the front on 14 July 1941, and Ludmila, along with the other children whose parents worked at the Institute of Mathematics, was evacuated to Kazakhstan. After reading in the newspapers that German troops had entered the Moscow outskirts at Khimki, the 14-year-old Ludmila swore to herself that if Moscow fell to the enemy, she would run away from Kazakhstan to fight the fascists.

In June 1942, Ludmila received her father’s final letter. After the war, the family learned that Mikhail Slavinsky had been killed that month during an attempt by the Russian army’s 2nd Shock Brigade to break through the Leningrad Blockade.

That winter, Ludmila joined her mother in Izhevsk, an industrial city in the Western Urals. At night, she and the other schoolchildren helped to transfer wounded soldiers who were brought in by incoming hospital trains. After school, she would go to back to the hospital to bandage the wounded. At the end of the school year, Ludmila signed up to take a course in nursing in the hope that she would be sent to the front. But she was not yet 18 and was not accepted.

Ludmila and her mother returned to Moscow in the spring of 1943. Instead of enrolling in school, Ludmila went to the local branch of the Young Communist League, the Komsomol, with a request to be sent to the front or to work for the defence effort at home. The Komsomol assigned her a spot at the construction site of the metro station “Stalinskaya” (later renamed “Semenovskaya”), where Ludmila pulled trolleys with debris from the tunnel. The work was exhausting but the young woman accepted it as necessary for the war effort.

On the morning of Victory Day, 9 May 1945 when the streets began to fill with cheering people, it seemed to Ludmila that their struggle had been a just one, and that ahead lay a bright life.

That year, Ludmila enrolled in her first year of studies in the history department at Moscow State University. One week into her studies, she was elected Komsomol organizer for her class, but was soon told that the position was reserved for veterans of the front and had her election rescinded. As Ludmila Alekseeva would later note in her memoirs, the history department attracted a “particular breed” of front-line veterans: those who, during their time in the army, had become party or Komsomol functionaries and had acquired a taste for power. Their interest lay not in historical studies, but in building their future careers in leadership. In an attempt to be noticed by senior comrades, these student-functionaries would stir up “private investigations” against their classmates, accusing them of disloyalty to the Communist Party, loss of vigilance and similar faults. Students could be expelled from university for even such minor infractions as not returning rally banners in a timely manner.

Observing these proceedings, Ludmila developed the conviction that the party had become filled with people who lacked moral principles and were merely striving for power. For a while, she considered the dilemma of whether to join the party and fight for the purity of its ranks, or to keep her distance. At that time, Ludmila chose the latter option.

Within her department, Ludmila decided to pursue archeology — the branch of history least tainted by ideology at the time — but her real interest was in Russian revolutionary history, which she decided to study on her own. She became fascinated with the story of the Decembrists, where she kept finding parallels to present-day reality. In the fight against Napoleon’s army, there was no role for functionaries — the war was won by ordinary citizens. But, upon their return from Europe, Russian citizens found that they were no longer needed by the tsarist regime, which now wanted merely obedient subjects.

Ludmila found another escape from reality in her personal life, when she was received a marriage proposal from a family friend, Valentin Alekseev. Ludmila convinced herself that she was in love and accepted the proposal, discovering soon afterward that she was pregnant. By occupying herself with family life and with raising her child, Ludmila was able to temporarily forget about the surrounding injustices of Stalinist society.

But the stark contrast between the declarations of official ideology and the conditions of real life continued to bother Ludmila. She tried to discuss her doubts with her father’s brother, Uncle Borya. All of her questions were met with the same response: “The principles of socialism are only for scholarly fools like you. There are no principles in socialism — only a gang of crime bosses.” Ludmila could not accept such radical reasoning and considered Uncle Borya to be “a wonderful man, but a primitive thinker.”

In 1950, she graduated from the history department at Moscow State University, and entered graduate school at the Moscow Institute for Economics and Statistics, which she completed in 1956. At first, Ludmila taught history at a vocational school in Moscow, working simultaneously as a visiting lecturer at the regional Komsomol committee. From 1959 to 1968, she served as an editor in the ethnography and archaeology division of the publishing house Nauka (“Science”), and from 1970 to 1977 she worked at the Institute of Information on Social Sciences, affiliated with the USSR Academy of Sciences.

After the death of Stalin in 1953 and the arrest of his chief of secret police, Lavrenty Beria, Ludmila experienced a dramatic change in her worldview. She decided not to defend her Candidate of Sciences (roughly equal to a PhD) thesis on the history of the Communist Party and abandoned her plans to pursue a career as a scholar.

During the 1960s, Alekseeva’s apartment became a meeting place for Moscow dissidents and intelligentsia, as well as a place for the storage and duplication of underground samizdat publications and a secret setting for interviews with Western correspondents. The apartment was constantly under KGB surveillance. Later, Ludmila would describe the special qualities of samizdat literature:

“The weak technical foundation of samizdat publishing contained the very secret to its quality. Who would bother to take great risks for the sake of some nonsense? With this typographical method you can print God-knows-what, especially if you have connections or money. But this way, people print only things that they’re truly interested in, things for which they’re willing to take a risk and give up their time. That’s why samizdat really is the quintessence of literary, political, and social thought about the time during which it was produced, and the times that came before.”

In 1966, Alekseeva took part in dissident protests in defence of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were put on trial for publishing their work abroad. At the end of the 1960s, she joined a petition campaign sparked by the trial of samizdat publishers Alexander Ginsburg, Yury Galanskov and other dissidents. In April 1968, she was expelled from the Communist Party and fired from her job.

Alekseeva continued campaigning for human rights and signed a series of documents produced by the dissident movement. Between 1968 and 1972, she was the head typist of the first human rights bulletin in the Soviet Union, the Chronicle of Current Events. From 1968 onwards, she was repeatedly subjected to searches and interrogations. In 1974, she received an official warning on the orders of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR for her alleged “systematic production and dissemination of anti-Soviet publications.”

In early 1976, Alekseeva accepted an invitation from Yury Orlov, a prominent nuclear physicist and dissident, to become a founding member of a new human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG). She became the editor and secretary of MHG documents, while her apartment served as the group’s makeshift office. She signed the first 19 documents that the group produced and took part in the writing of the group’s document No. 3, “On the conditions of detention of prisoners of conscience.”

On an assignment for MHG, Alekseeva traveled to Lithuania to investigate the persecution of Catholic priests and school-student believers. As a result of her trip, she drafted document No.15, “On the expulsion of seven students from Vilnius High School.” The document was also signed by a prominent member of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, Tomas Venclova.

In January 1977, a search of Alekseeva’s apartment resulted in the confiscation of samizdat and foreign human rights publications. In a special statement by the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, the central agency of official state news, Alekseeva — along with Yury Orlov and Aleksandr Ginzburg — were declared agents of the anti-Soviet National Alliance of Russian Solidarists.

In February 1977, under threat of arrest, Ludmila Alekseeva was forced to leave the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States. While abroad, she served as the foreign representative of the MHG.

From 1977 to 1984, she prepared a comprehensive publication of the group’s documents. Meanwhile, from 1977 to 1980, she worked on a monograph entitled The History of Dissident Thought in the USSR: The Latest Period, the first fundamental historical study on the topic.

This work was originally envisioned as a 200-page briefing on the Soviet dissident movement for the US Congress, requested from Alekseeva by the Carter administration. However, work on the manuscript, which was expected to take a year, stretched out across three years and turned into a large-scale study.

The final product was first published in New York in 1984, making Ludmila Alekseeva the first Russian historian to make an attempt at a systematized study of dissident history in the Soviet Union. On the basis of documents from samizdat archives and other materials available abroad, the book shed light on the main currents of the dissident movement that existed in the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the early 1980s, and introduced the historical periodization of dissident thought. Her study became the seminal work on the topic, laying the foundation for contemporary historiography of the dissident movement, and to this day remains the most complex, comprehensive and document-based study on this theme.

During this period, Ludmila Alekseeva hosted radio programmes about human rights on Radio Liberty and Voice of America, published articles in Russian-language émigré periodicals, as well as in the English and American press, and consulted a number of human rights organizations.

In the latter half of the 1980s, she participated in conferences in Paris and Reykjavik, Iceland, as part of the US delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

In 1982, Alekseeva became a US citizen — five years after she had fled the Soviet Union under threat of imprisonment for her human rights advocacy.

While in the US, Alekseeva published her memoir, The Thaw Generation. From the summer of 1989 until her return to Russia, she was a member – in absentia - of the reestablished Moscow Helsinki Group.

In 1993, she returned to Russia, and in May 1996 she was elected chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. From 1998 to 2004, Alekseeva served as president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.

During the 1990s, Alekseeva became a proponent of the idea that human rights defenders should concern themselves not only with political, but also with social issues. Paraphrasing the poet Anna Akhmatova, she said: “We decided that we must be with our people wherever misfortune may lead them. At that time, people particularly needed the protection of their social rights — you know what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed, what dire conditions befell the majority of our fellow countrymen. And to this day, our human rights organizations work a great deal on these routine social issues.”

In 2002 Alekseeva became a member of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights. When the Commission was reformed to become the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights in November 2004, Alekseeva became a member of the Council.

On 2 April 2003 Alekseeva and Arseny Roginsky, chair of the board of the Memorial Society, sent a letter to the ambassadors of the United States and Great Britain calling for an end to military operations in Iraq and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. In their appeal the human rights defenders issued a categorical protest against the invasion of Iraq, stating that the leaders of the anti-Iraq coalition were “destroying the bases of the contemporary world order.”

In December 2004 Alekseeva became one of the organizers, and thereafter one of the co-chairs of the All-Russian Civic Congress (together with Garry Kasparov and Georgy Satarov). The All-Russian Civic Congress was created as a broad-based alliance under the slogan “For Democracy and Against Dictatorship”. According to the Congress’ founding statute, the Congress would not take part in elections or in the creation of parties, and should not be led by active politicians.

At present, along with Satarov, Alekeeva is organizer of the All-Russian Civic Network, created on the basis of the “human rights part” of the All-Russian Civic Congress.

From 31 August 2009 Ludmila Alekseeva has been an active participant in the regular “Strategy-31” rallies on Triumphal Square in Moscow in support of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly. From 31 October 2009 she has been one of the permanent organizers of these rallies. On 31 December 2009 during an attempt to hold one of these rallies on Triumphal Square Ludmila Alekseeva was detained by riot police among dozens of other detainees and taken to a police station, an event that provoked a strong reaction in Russia and abroad.

The President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek expressed “deep disappointment and shock” at the treatment of Alekseeva and others by the police. The US National Security Council expressed “dismay” at the detentions. The New York Times published a front page article about the protest rally (“Tested by Many Foes, Passion of a Russian Dissident Endures”).

On 20 July 2007, celebrating her 80th birthday, Ludmila Alekseeva expressed the hope that within ten years Russia would become a democratic country, by 2017.

Honours awarded to Ludmila Alekseeva include:

The Order of the French Legion of Honour (2007).
The Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2009).
Order of the Lithuainian Grand Duke Gediminas (2008)

Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (2009)
Olof Palme Prize (2004)
Person of the Year Prize of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia – 5765 (2005)

Based on materials from the Moscow Helsinki Group, the memoirs of Ludmila Alekseeva and Wikipedia.