Lyudmila Alexeyeva: Justice for Dissidents Worse than Soviet Times

alexeyeva011210.jpgThe New York Times has published a great profile article of the 82-year-old human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who was most recently arrested on New Year’s Eve.  She shares one thing in common with the ultra-nationalists and Stalinist cult:  she too misses the days of the Soviet Union, because at least then there were a few rules constraining prosecutors from building false cases.

New fears have replaced the old ones, though. Ms. Alexeyeva has received death threats, and last year she buried two friends who were killed. Legal risks are unpredictable, too. While Soviet dissidents could strategize to protect themselves — knowing, for example, that prosecutors needed at least two witnesses — their tricks are of no use in a post-Soviet justice system, where cases can be wholly fabricated, she said.

“Now they do what they want,” she said. “There were rules then. They were idiotic rules, but there were rules, and if you knew them you could defend yourself.”

Equally troubling, for some of her peers, is the fact that humanrights campaigners still address the same narrow, elite slice ofsociety they did in Soviet times — their argument is simply steamrolledby Mr. Putin’s popularity. Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of theMoscow office of Human Rights Watch, said that activists faced the central challenge of “finding the language that is convincing for Russian society.”

“That language would have to be different from the language used bySoviet dissenters,” she said. “In a sense, it is easier, strategy-wise,to be opposed to a full totalitarian regime than it is to try tocounter a more sophisticated, strongly authoritarian one. There is somefreedom. How do you explain to people what exactly they are lacking?”

Ms. Alexeyeva has heard these arguments, and she rejects them. Shecasts the democratic rollbacks of the Putin period as the recoil thatinevitably follows revolution, not as a catastrophe. As for the notionof outreach to the public, she believes that Russians are passivebecause they are poor, and that that will not change as long as theyremain so.

“They are completely not stupid people; they understand everything,”she said. “They just have no power to act. They have no power to eventhink about these issues, to analyze them, never mind being active.”She pointed to long-stemmed roses sent by a man she had helped freefrom prison.

Image credit: photo belongs to Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters