The First Civic Forum was held in Moscow in November 2001. Hundreds of NGOs, journalists, entrepreneurs, and government workers took part. The forum was opened by Vladimir Putin, the new president of the Russian Federation, and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the icon of the dissident movement and leader of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. The new president promised the country a blissful path of development toward democracy and respect for human rights, in the happy family of the international community of democratic countries. The event was covered by national media. Alexeyeva spoke of the dialogue between administration and citizens, without which the country’s development was impossible.
Not many people remember those days now, too much has changed. Alexeyeva was always true to the idea of dialogue. She never lost hope that common sense and human decency would sooner or later win over the temptations of geopolitical ambitions, greed, mistrust, and the power of evil. She believed endlessly in the victory of good in human nature. She never rejected allowing people to make the choice. Her confidence shocked some people and gave rise to misunderstandings. But that confidence was the source of her strength and wisdom, which gave strength to those fortunate enough to know her personally.
Her calm confidence was rooted in her life story, which she told simply and frankly both in interviews and in her book The Thaw Generation. It is the story of finding one’s own dignity as an ordinary Soviet girl, woman, Komsomol member, Communist Party member, and patriot. She was born in Yevpatoria, Crimea, in 1927, her father died in the war, she dreamed of joining the army to fight the Nazis, she went to college, married, had children, and worked, like millions of women. The 20th Party Congress with its exposé of Stalin’s crimes, the truth about the gulag, and other Soviet crimes made her rethink her attitude toward the country and her life. The path to the dissident movement was simple and natural, and typical for many women—she typed banned texts and passed them along to friends (which was called samizdat, self-publishing), she took part in meetings, and she joined the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. She moved to the USA in 1977 after being threatened with arrest.
She returned to Russia in 1993 and became head of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1996. In our first interview for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in 1995, she talked about the women who patiently typed hundreds of pages at night, while their children slept, how they moved their dangerous cargo to other cities, how they put together parcels for prisoners, and traveled to distant camps and settlements on whatever transport they could find. The Soviet dissident movement is not only the story of heroes and martyrs, it is also the story of the unnoticeable daily work of a multitude of ordinary women, of different ages and backgrounds, who wanted to see the country’s life be cleaner and fairer. Her fundamental work Soviet Dissent, written in the USA, had a great impact on the formation of several generations in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia; chapters were broadcast on Voice of America and Radio Liberty.
But her main book (she wrote only two) is still The Thaw Generation. It’s a book about how to be brave and honest, tell the truth, and insist on the observance of one’s rights. The ethics of the movement and its code of unwritten rules are captured in it. Dissidence in the USSR was more than political resistance. It was moral resistance, the affirmation of human dignity, respect, the primacy of the interests of the individual over the interests of the state machine. It was the rejection of violence as a method of solving problems, a rejection of justifying force, a rejection of military solutions to political issues and violence against opponents. That thesis was particularly odious to the totalitarian regime. It united people of rather varying views—socialists and liberals, nationalists and cosmopolites, and others—in the dissident circle.
Essentially, the dissidents elaborated a new ideology and prepared the soil for the democratization of society that took place during perestroika.
Many dissidents paid with their lives and their health; many left the USSR and never went back, even after Gorbachev came to power. Alexeyeva returned. And she continued her life’s work. The Moscow Helsinki Group in post-Soviet Russia became the avant-garde of the human-rights movement, combining the dissident tradition with the nascent practice of the young civil society, imbuing civil initiatives with the most important values of the dissidents—and with the absolute and idealistic faith in the possibility and necessity of dialogue in Russia.
Fall 2001 was the result of such dialogue.
The events of subsequent years showed that things were very far from the ideals the dissidents had dreamed about. The reason was not only in the harshness of the regime but also in the fact that the Soviet mentality, the habit of obeying a “strong arm” and electing one is stronger in Russia than the unfamiliar practice of young democracy and personal choice. The most recent polls show that 65 percent of Russians are nostalgic for the USSR, and only 25 percent consider that experience criminal.
Nostalgia for Stalin (whom the responders do not remember) comes from the same need. Election violations may have elevated the percentage of voters for the current regime, but in fact, the majority of citizens support it. They shut their eyes to the violations of their rights and freedoms, to the corruption in the country. For the situation to change, there has to be a fundamental change in how people think, they have to be freed of the legacy of Homo sovieticus. This cannot happen overnight, or over a single year. It will take work and time, like the work of the diligent typists and book smugglers, which was begun back in the 1950s by Lyudmila Alexeyeva and her peers. She understood that very well, and continued the work on dialogue and enlightenment in our times.
In 2015, 20 years after our first meeting, after the protests on Bolotnaya Square were broken up, after the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in Donbass, the creation of laws on “foreign agents” and much else, we spoke once again about the prospects for the human-rights movement in Russia. She responded calmly and confidently—they were still there. It might be more complicated now, but there are always people who are prepared to continue the work begun long ago. There will be people of conscience to remind the authorities of their obligations.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva remained a remarkably youthful person to the end, taking part in the most daring protest actions, attending all sorts of meetings and discussions. The phone rang every half hour in her apartment in the Arbat, usually a request for help, which she rushed to give. She easily found a common language with people of every stripe. She reached out to the president when someone needed to be saved.
President Putin came to bid farewell to Alexeyeva and then said her memory must be honored, her name given to a street or square. He might have recalled the fall of 2001, when together with her he had promised Russians the triumph of democracy.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva continues to remind us that the future of the country is the result of our personal and joint decisions and our attitude toward our own lives.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis