In 1975, the United States adopted the Helsinki Accords, a wide-ranging agreement designed to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West that 35 nations signed. While some criticized the Accords for appeasing the Soviet Union in the area of national borders and the status of the Baltic states, the respect for human rights and freedoms enshrined in the Accords provided a basis for Soviet dissidents and human rights advocates to criticize their government when it didn’t respect these rights. For the first time, the Soviet government had promised to respect the freedom of thought, religion, conscience, and belief.
As a way to document and monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Accords, advocates founded the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, whose goal was to raise international and national awareness of human rights abuses in the USSR. A major goal of the group was to report these abuses to the West so that Western nations could pressure the Soviets to live up to their own commitments. At the time, academics, journalists, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and ordinary citizens who criticized the Soviet system of government or who sought to live outside the limitations that the government imposed were in significant danger; the state routinely arrested and found them guilty of crimes in unfair trials.
The Moscow Helsinki Group brought a wide range of these human rights issues to the world at great personal cost. Members faced persecution for their work in Moscow and across the Soviet Union, and they were nearly all imprisoned, sent to camps, internally exiled, incarcerated in psychiatric institutions for political reasons, or forced to emigrate.
On November 15 and 16, the Hamilton Lugar School’s Russian and East European Institute joined other organizations and departments to host a symposium celebrating and discussing Lyudmila Alexeyeva—one of the leaders of the Moscow Helsinki Group— in the context of the past and current human rights movement in the USSR and the Russian Federation.
Alexeyeva, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 91 in Moscow, not only helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group, she was also the typist for The Chronicle of Current Events, a “samizdat” or self-published underground periodical that collected and documented violations of civil rights and judicial procedure in the USSR. Contributors published over sixty issues of the chronicle despite constant threats and harassment from the state and the danger of contradicting state censors. The Soviet government forced Alexeyeva to emigrate to the United States in 1977, where she continued to work on behalf of human rights advocates in the USSR.
In 1993, Alexeyeva returned to Russia and became Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1996, a position she held until the end of her life. For her lifelong devotion to human rights in the USSR and Russia, Alexeyeva became known as the matriarch of the Russian human rights movement.
Experts, friends, and those actively involved in human rights issues in Russia spoke at this fascinating symposium, which began with a panel hosted by Alexeyeva’s son, Michael. Now a professor of economics at IU, he emphasized that his mother loved Russia, especially its people and culture, and despite the immense problems she encountered, she was an incorrigible optimist. Though her activities in the USSR were mostly clandestine, she became very skilled at talking to lawmakers in the US and Europe when she emigrated, which, in fact, was a bit of a surprise to her. Once she returned to Russia, she was in consistent communication with President Putin, even though she detested him, and she was willing to make unlikely alliances to support her causes.
Others sharing memories of Alexeyeva include State Department official Lynne A. Davidson, who Alexeyeva took under her wing while doing human rights advocacy. She noted that one of Alexeyeva’s important talents was getting American and European lawmakers to care about human rights abuses and to see that they are a threat to America’s values and national security because they are indicative of a state that does not follow through on its international agreements. On a personal level, Davidson expected to be overwhelmed by Alexeyeva’s presence when they first met, but instead she found Alexeyeva to be warm, witty, and down to earth.
Paul Goldberg, a writer whose collaboration with Alexeyeva from 1986-1991 led to the non-fiction book The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era, drew attention to Alexeyeva’s many roles. Not only did she participate in activism and lobbying, she also chronicled the movement as it progressed and served as an historian of past dissidents and civil rights advocates.
Catherine Cosman, former Senior Policy Analyst with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, highlighted Alexeyeva’s concern for people all across the USSR. Born in Crimea, a multinational city founded by the Greeks, Alexeyeva came from a mixed ethnic heritage and was very cognizant of the USSR’s diversity. The dangers facing Crimean Tatars were an important focus of her work. Cosman also pointed to Alexeyeva’s wide-ranging influence as part of the Moscow Helsinki Group, as similar watch groups were founded in Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia, in addition to Helsinki Watch in the United States, which evolved into Human Rights Watch.
The second panel expanded the day’s scope by discussing the freedom of assembly, which the Russian Constitution provides in Article 31 but is today under threat. In order to advocate for this freedom, Alexeyeva actively participated in Strategy-31, a series of protest rallies in Moscow in defense of assembly, and for her participation police manhandled and arrested her, leading to an international outcry.
Catherine Fitzpatrick, consultant to human rights organizations, translator, and writer, argued that, to Alexeyeva, stability in the state does not mean people stay home and stay quiet; it means people peacefully demonstrate, and the government listens to and acts upon their grievances. She also pointed out that Alexeyeva’s book, Soviet Dissent, published in 1985, was the first book to give a sweeping description and panoramic view of dissent in Russia, and covered not just Moscow intellectuals but also Balts, Armenians, and Ukrainians.
William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian legal history and current Russian constitutional law, described the legal challenges to Article 31 and the ramifications of those challenges. The Constitutional Court specifically has taken steps to weaken or dilute notions of the freedom of assembly. It has ruled that the state can change the time and place of an assembly, which lead to arbitrary decisions that limit the size and effectiveness of assembly. It also ruled that protest organizers can talk about a planned protest only after the state has approved it, which incentivizes the state to delay approval for as long as possible and limits the rights of organizers to publicize a protest. He added that the court has displayed a slight independent streak in separating itself from the will of President Putin, but at the same time, Putin’s limits on freedoms indicate that he is afraid of his own people.
Though he is based in Russia, the Co-Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Dmitri Makarov, attended the conference to give his perspective as a young leader in Russia’s human rights movement. He emphasized that civil rights are linked to advancement in social and economic spheres, which is why they must be protected. Active in defending the rights of protesters, he said that independent third-party observations are in demand regarding assemblies, so that unbiased arbiters can testify how the protesters and police behave. He pointed to important signs of progress, including the fact that there is less fear and less apathy among people as they become more mobilized. The scope and frequency of state lies are becoming appalling to regular people as they witness sham trials and false charges, and he indicated that defiance is coming from different spaces, including rappers who speak out against false imprisonment.
During the question and answer period, the panel discussed how awareness is growing of lawyers facing criminal investigations for their professional work as they defend protesters and dissidents. Even groups not historically aligned with human rights advocacy are protesting, but it is an open question whether or not different groups can work together in a spirit of solidarity on issues besides their more narrow concerns.
The symposium continued with the screening of a documentary about Alexeyeva’s life, followed by a panel on monitoring courts, police, and prisons. Observing trials, supporting political prisoners, and protesting inhumane conditions and abuses in Russia’s prisons were central to the Moscow Helsinki Group’s mission, and the panel discussed how this work is progressing. The symposium’s second day included a panel on developing a regional human rights network in Russia that ranges across the country, and a roundtable discussion on the most pressing human rights issues in Russia today.
Symposium attendees came away from the event with an appreciation of the seriousness and widespread nature of Russia’s past and present human rights abuses, but also an appreciation for the very important work that Alexeyeva, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a new generation of advocates are doing in order to secure the freedoms that many in the West take for granted. The humanity, empathy, and decency of members of the human rights community was greatly apparent during the symposium, and the legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva is alive in those who continue her work in Russia and around the world.