This is the third 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 3, Monitoring courts, police, and prisons. Alexeyeva and her MHG colleagues observed trials, took up the cases of victims of human rights abuses, supported political prisoners, and protested conditions and abuses in Russia’s prisons. Panelists: Sergei Davidis, Anastasiia Aseeva, Louise Shelley, Emma Gilligan (chair)
By Alisha Kirchoff, PhD candidate in Sociology
When we consider the legacies of prominent dissidents and human rights activists, one does not often conjure the images of everyday institutional practices of law, courts, and prisons. And yet, it is these very institutions that can impact and inform the work that many are able to accomplish. During the course of our memorial symposium on the life and legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva the conversation turned to this very topic. It was her belief in working by any means available, including within the system to affect change, that came through all of the topics addressed by the panelists. She believed that it was possible to work with people who are part of these institutions at the individual level to improve human rights protections. Lyudmila Alexeyeva understood and believed that the problems among police, for example, was not the result of poor training per se, but rather a result of well-trained individuals entering a corrupt institution and eventually get corrupted by it. She helped to support police officers and others who wanted to do better because she understood the courage that one would have to muster in order to tell their leadership that the problems in the institution was because of the impunity of the organizational culture, not just the individuals who inhabited it.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva’s apartment, which sat above the then headquarters of the Moscow-Helsinki group, was often a transit station or dormitory for those who had recently been released from prison camps. Although the substance of the discussion on police, prisons, and courts emphasized the challenges and opportunities for human rights work in contemporary Russia, the conversation often returned to Lyudmila Alexeyeva’s distinctive approach to human rights work as one that was more holistic than many of her counterparts. Our speakers pointed out that human rights work is often very legalistic in nature, about the observance of law or at least very focused on legal channels and mechanisms for addressing human rights issues. While she was concerned with the law, Lyudmila Alexeyeva brought a more humanistic approach to human rights work and understood the complexities that individuals must navigate when trying to do the just thing. For example, she believed that it was possible to work within existing structures of policing, courts, and the law to improve human rights conditions.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva seemed to have the capacity to both regard the law and the humanistic considerations of working with people in fraught situations. This is a critical dimension of Lyudmila Alexeyeva’s legacy as it is perhaps more salient now than it was in the 1970s. It is not as clear as it once was to define who is a political prisoner and who is not, for example. This is partly why her legacy is so important and why it was the consensus of our speakers that Lyudmila Alexeyeva’s legacy will long survive her. She is the beacon by which those who work with the Helsinki-Moscow group are guided, as indicated by Anastasiia Aseeva. In terms of her legacy of working within the system, Sergei Davidis pointed out that sometimes there is no other possibility to help those in need than by collaborating at different levels with the state. This sentiment goes hand-in-hand with another major theme of the panel, the idea that it is not just the obvious dissidents or protesters in the street who are in need of human rights protections. Indeed, oligarchs come up against this as well. Great power and great wealth are not necessarily a guarantee of protection if one tries to take on state power; anyone has the potential to be abused by the justice system.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking part of this panel was the discussion of human rights issues in Russia as a way to examine what is happening the current American context. Our panelists discussed how we need to be more aware that the human rights problems of Russia do not remain there, but are affecting our justice system and political process here in the United States. There are people on a large scale who have not received and deserve their due process, for example. Human rights violations and practices do not stay contained within political boundaries. Indeed, the transnational dimensions of the violation of human rights are affected here in the United States and thus impact global trends as well.
My personal takeaway from this event was the importance of individual level actions and the need for human rights activists to work within the everyday structures of law, justice, and policing to advance their goals. Because today’s political prisoners in Russia look more like a protester tossing a water bottle and less like Andrei Sakharov, it is critically important not only to work with state institutions to promote justice but to work at the individual level as well. Discussions of human rights are rarely light and optimistic and yet somehow I left this panel discussion inspired by the discussion, the experiences shared, and the stories told. I never had the pleasure of meeting Lyudmila Alexeyeva, but it would seem that her legacy is in able, committed hands.