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Ludmila Alekseeva: “The changes will happen quickly. At my age, I hope to live to see them. And you will certainly live to see them”

17 January 2014 

Source: Za prava cheloveka

“For Human Rights” publishes an interview with Ludmila Alekseeva. The head of the Moscow Helsinki group talks with Julia Schastlivtseva, correspondent for the newspaper For Human Rights, about why former political prisoners join the human rights movement. 

Ludmila Alekseeva: I believe that the amnesty would not have happened if society had not persistently talked about it. The government would just not have noticed the 20th anniversary of the Constitution. The idea for the amnesty came from below, not from above. 

Julia Schastlivtseva: Notwithstanding the release of some key figures, we can’t say that the amnesty has had a political character or that the government showed any compassion to its opponents, as happened with the amnesty of 1994, which marked the adoption of the Russian Constitution. The trial of the majority of the Bolotnaya Square prisoners, continues. 

Our task is not to forget about the others. We, human rights defenders, shall not forget. And then just see who has joined up with us: Mikhail Khodorkovsky says he is not interested in business or politics, he sees himself in the civil society and human rights sphere. Both young women from Pussy Riot have expressed their wish to engage in human rights activity. I am convinced that those Bolotnaya prisoners who have been released will also find their way to the human rights movement. It is a pretty common story: when an honest person finds himself, for any reason, even if it is not a political one, in prison, then he will return from there with the understanding that in our times there is nothing more important than the defence of human rights and human dignity. Among us there are many who became human rights defenders after having been through horrible experiences. 

Does the human rights movement have a different face in comparison with, for example, the 1960s? 

In Soviet times we tried not to think that we were so few in number, we just got on with what we had to do. In 2011, it was as though the dam burst. Today, civic activism is growing and over the past year has become quite a remarkable phenomenon in our country. People stopped thinking that the government will run our lives for us. The generation that was born and grew up in the years after the collapse of the USSR has, thankfully, shed its attitude of dependency on the state and relies on its own strength. In the final years of the Soviet Union, when the changes first began, people first of all threw themselves to making money in order to acquire the good things in life, things of which they and their parents had been deprived. They wanted to see the world. There were so many temptations. 

I would say that the first post-Soviet generation was a consumer generation. The ideals of the sixties generation were alien to these people. But now I see how our values have been passed on, over the heads of this generation, from those in their sixties to the twenty-year olds. A realization came that happiness isn’t found in money, but in looking with dignity and living in dignity. The Bolotnaya prisoners are very diverse, but united in their values. And since these 12 people were seized at random from the huge number who were at the rally, then it’s likely that there were a lot of people like them. And the September elections in Moscow showed that the majority of young people, its most visible part, has adpted the ideals of the nineteen-sixties. I sense that they are people who are close to me. It’s a huge reward. It means that we have not lived our lives in vain.

-It is hard to believe that you feel close to the Twitter generation. In contrast to the Soviet dissidents who had a typewriter if they were lucky, the civic activists of the 21st century have a technology of a whole different level at their disposal. 

– Yes, for them a whole different world has opened up. The world is in principle open. The world we live in was closed. As Osip Mandelshtam wrote: “We live, not feeling the country beneath us. Our speech inaudible ten steps away”. That is how it was. Now it is all different. I still have not come to terms with the computer. Each time I have to make an effort to go on the Internet. I use it out of necessity, answering email messages. But I am not able to spend my time on Twitter, that’s something different. Of course, such technologies greatly ease communication between people. They speed up the course of history and the speed with which people come of age. History moves much faster in the 21st century than in the 20th, and even more than in previous centuries. 

You don’t have a sense that this radical change actually creates a very small group of active people – a group of people that is very small and insignificant, when compared to the size of the country? 

No, it’s not only the young people that are starting to see things differently. Recently I read a poll by the Levada center asking whether it should be possible to change the government, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that 62% of the respondents said it should be. In our country where things have been so hard to change and the government has never been subject to regular change, people declare that the government should be changed through elections. You see? It’s another issue that if 62% of people hold that opinion, then it does not mean that at the next elections there will be a miraculous change of government. They will continue to falsify election outcomes and the people will continue their struggle for free and fair elections. But if in the 20th century the Soviet government succeeded in staying in power for more than 70 years, and then collapsed because it was innately unsuitable for human beings, today we won’t need 70 years. People today are much more progressive and democratic than the government. I am convinced that changes will happen quickly. At my age, I hope to live to see them. And you will certainly live to see them. 

Are you satisfied with the work of NGOs in Russia? 

Some complain about NGOs, others praise them. But there is no one who doesn't know about us. After all, there was only such a small a handful of us. And now we are a torment to the government. In December, the president for the first time, called together human rights defenders. Why? Because we are human rights defenders. It only seems as if nothing is happening and there is not result from our work. But looking into the future, the heart rejoices. 

Translated by Eva Cukier