This is the first in a series of five blog entries from the “Symposium on Human Rights in Russia: The Life and Legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva,” which took place on November 15-16, 2019 on the campus of Indiana University—Bloomington. The blog entries were written by graduate students who come from a variety of disciplines at IU—anthropology, sociology, law, and REEI—and all of whom encounter or focus on Russia in their research. Each student wrote about the panel differently, sometimes reviewing the entire panel, sometimes addressing individual panelists’ presentations, other times reflecting on how Lyudmila’s legacy has informed the world in which they currently do research. Put all together, this series intends to not only convey what happened during the panels themselves, but also to give a sense of what these five students in particular took away from this symposium.
Panel 1: Memories of Lyudmila. Panelists’ memories and reminiscences of Lyudmila Alexeyeva the person, their friendships and relationships, and of course her work and influence on their lives. Panelists: Cathy Cosman, Paul Goldberg, Lynne Davidson, Michael Alexeev
By Dafna Rachok, PhD student in Anthropology
Social scientists have voiced criticisms of the discourse of human rights for already a few decades. However, when thinking about the idea of human rights, it is also necessary to remember different hopes and aspirations that are often implicitly encoded in it. Thus, last week, communities of scholars, public intellectuals, and policy-makers came together to honor the life and legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva — a “matriarch” of human rights in the USSR and a co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group that scrupulously monitored Soviet Union’s (non)compliance with the terms of international Helsinki Accords.
The first panel of the two-day symposium was dedicated to the memories of Alexeyeva. The panelists included Lyudmila’s son and a Professor of Economics at IU Michael Alexeev; Lynne Davidson from the Department of State; novelist and translator Paul Goldberg; and policy analyst Cathy Cosman. Needless to say, all panelists knew Lyudmila Alexeyeva very well and were happy to reminisce about their memories of her, sharing funny anecdotes and heart-warming stories.
Michael Alexeev opened the panel with a joke that a dissident mother is not a luxury but a means of transportation—because if it wasn’t for Alexeyeva’s human rights activism, they, most probably, would never have left Moscow and emigrated to the USA. According to him, Alexeyeva was always an optimistic person: she firmly believed that the situation with human rights in Russia would improve if not within her lifetime, then within the lifetime of her children. She was also insistent that her human rights activism was apolitical: human rights for her were about humanity that we all share and not about politics.
When sharing her memories of Alexeyeva, Lynne Davidson fondly referred to her as “Lyuda” and recalled how Lyuda always took care of American diplomats in Russia, calling some women diplomats her “American girls” (Amerikanskie d’evushki). Though Lyuda was first and foremost a human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Davidson also thinks that Lyuda was a clever and canny strategist who knew how to pitch a project: according to her, Lyuda did not just educate a new generation of human rights activists in Soviet Russia, but also taught her “American girls” how to lobby and advocate human rights in the US as well. But ultimately, Davidson insisted, Alexeyeva was an incredibly charming person with a great sense of humor.
Paul Goldberg reminisced about the book The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era that he co-authored with Alexeyeva. He recounted how they worked together on this book and how it was important for Alexeyeva to document the history of the human rights movement and histories of dissidents. However, writing this book also meant a personal dilemma for Alexeyeva: since she was a part of the movement, she had to decide how much personal detail to reveal. According to Goldberg, she saw herself primarily as a historian who needed to meticulously document all the details—thus her lack of interest in telling personal stories. Interestingly enough, Alexeyeva, being incredibly humble and not ambitious, did not see her personal life as being of any interest to the readers—to the extent that Paul Goldberg and the editor resorted to a ruse to convince her to add more personal stories.
Then Cathy Cosman took the microphone. She shared her fond memories of Alexeyeva’s empathy and care: Cosman remembers that Alexeyeva was never focused only on the issues pertaining to Moscow. On the contrary, she was often involved in the many campaigns and relationships spanning huge distances: she took to heart the problems that various religious communities and ethnic minorities in the USSR faced and was always ready to help.
It is, then, unsurprising that Alexeyeva was often recognized on the streets and that accompanying her to some events was like accompanying a rock star (in the words of Louise Shelley). Alexeyeva’s popularity is probably best attested to by the following anecdote that Lynne Davidson and Paul Goldberg told the audience. This story happened when Alexeyeva was already in her 80s. She was slowly walking the streets, going to yet another human rights meeting. Suddenly, a very expensive car slowed nearby. A man sitting in the back lowered the window and invited Alexeyeva to join him in the car, offering to give her a ride. Alexeeva politely refused. The man continued to insist, so Alexeyeva’s curiosity won and she agreed to join him in the car. A bulky chauffer opened the door for Alexeyeva and she sat near the mysterious man. The man, then, turned to Alexeyeva and explained to her that, in his opinion, his and her goals in Russia are virtually the same: they both help people who had been imprisoned. Alexeyeva patiently listened to him, however, after he finished talking, she rebuked his argument by saying that yes, though they both help people who are in prison, she helps those who are innocent. In a nutshell, even contemporary gangsters recognized Aleyexeva’s influence and legacy.
Exchanging memories of Alexeyeva and stories about her life, the panelists were then joined by the audience who waited to chime in and contribute another story, another anecdote, another memory. Alexeyeva was not only remembered as a human rights defender; everyone also fondly remembered her as a profoundly empathetic, caring, and charming person. Lyudmila Alexeyeva was remembered as a person who did not just hope for the better and put an incredible amount of effort to contribute to this change, but also as a person who was always able to inspire others by sharing her infinite enthusiasm.