Lyudmila Alexeyeva (1927-2018) 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.
Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva was born on July 20, 1927, in Yevpatoria, a Black Sea port town in the southern Russian region of Crimea. Her father, Mikhail Lvovich Slavinsky, was an economist and her mother, Valentina Afanasyevna Efimenko, was a mathematician. When she was 4 years old, Alexeyeva moved with her parents to Moscow.
After graduating with a history degree from Moscow State University in 1950, she became a member of the Communist Party two years later and received a graduate degree from the Moscow Institute of Economics and Statistics in 1956. In 1968, Alexeyeva was expelled from the Communist Party and lost her job as an editor at the Nauka publishing house because she had signed a letter to defend prominent dissidents (The Moscow Times).
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.
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 (The Guardian).