This is the fourth 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 4: Developing a regional human rights network in Russia. Alexeyeva worked tirelessly to help civil society in Russia expand beyond circles of intellectuals in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, rallying activists in Russia’s “regions” to join in a nationwide human rights advocacy network. Panelists: Tanya Lokshina, Paul Goble, Kate Graber (chair)
By Megan Burnham, Master’s Degree student in REEI
Last November, the Russian Studies Workshop, with support from more than ten other co-sponsors, organized the Human Rights Symposium in remembrance of the renown human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva. Kicking off the second day of discussions was a panel on Regional human rights networks. Kate Graber, an Assistant Professor in IU’s Department of Anthropology, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, a human rights activist, translator of Russian, and former editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Tanya Lokshina, the Associate Director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, and Dmitrii Makarov, the Co-Chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, took part in the panel. The panelists highlighted the role of Lyudmila Alexeyeva in creating a deeply knit network of human rights organizations in the post-soviet space, while also providing a sobering reminder of the fact that activists continue to face repression and persecution for attempting to organize in defense of human rights.
The risk of retaliation from repressive regimes means that intergroup solidarity is key for the success of human rights activism and the survival of their organizations, as emphasized by the panelists. Based on her expertise in Buryatia, Kate Graber argued that density of activists makes it more difficult for local authorities single out any one person. Nonetheless, people’s fear of the “long arm of the state” means that in places where human rights organizations aren’t already well-established, it can be difficult to convince people to organize. During her tenure as Chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila recognized the importance of bringing together disparate organizations across the post-Soviet space for the purposes of mutual support and collaboration. As emphasized by Tanya Lokshina, who worked closely with Lyudmila at the Moscow Helsinki Group for many years, Lyudmila thought it was vitally important to expand the circle of human rights activism beyond the intellectual elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Lyudmila saw the importance of international solidarity as well as regional solidarity, according to Dmitrii Makarov, and she frequently travelled to other post-soviet countries to champion the cause of human rights beyond the borders of Russia.
The evolution of organizing among human rights activists is perhaps what struck me the most from this panel. The internet has completely changed the nature of networking. Information on rights violations is more widely accessible, and social media simplifies the process of finding like-minded people and engaging them in protests or activism. This is quite different from the earlier days of Lyudmila Alexeyeva’s activism, where getting disparate organizations to unify and work together as a larger human rights network was a major feat in and of itself. However, the Kremlin’s continued attempts to create a sovereign internet and restrict access to certain websites and applications might threaten the usability of these new tools for organizing and gaining access to information. One panelist expressed doubt that a firewall on par with China’s could be implemented successfully due to the fact that a free internet was able to flourish unabated in Russia for so long. Russia began implementation of a sovereign internet on the first of November, and results remain to be seen for what it’s affect will be on political activism in Russia at large.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva made significant contributions to the cause of human rights in Russia and the post-soviet space that will not be forgotten. As said by the Moscow Helsinki Group, she was the soul of human rights movement in Russia. Her accomplishments will not be forgotten, and her work will live on through the activists who continue in her footsteps to push back against renewed waves of oppression.