Ludmilla Alexeeva, Moscow October 26 & 27, 1997 by phone
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
She left Russia in 1977, was able to return here for the first time in 1990, visited several times thereafter, then she and her husband returned to stay in 1994, restoring her Russian citizenship.
There had been many changes. Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) had been founded in 1976, then activities ceased in 1982 because all members were arrested. They were released in 1989, and the group was restored, more in name than in activity. Those who were released had breen mostly political prisoners, and many of them did not want to continue being active. Some emigrated. They had trouble finding people who could do work in the new situation.
The 20th anniversary was May 1996, and they organized a large conference, invited many from Human Rights (HR) groups from the regions. Now there are thousands of such groups and most of them appeared during the last 2-3 years — without a material base, and even without clear understanding of the meaning of human rights. It was important for the oldest grou p in Russia to offer them support.
Ponomarov joined one year ago. He had been active as a democratic person and had been a politician. Now no longer a politician, he works with independent organization.
The thousands of new HR groups are mostly self-formed, though they are helping to form some of them. Why are they forming now in such numbers?
1. Because it’s not dangerous.
2. We have a good constitution and can really defend human rights
3. People aren’t attracted to political activity, prefer this kind of work
4. We have mass violations of human rights.
Why so many violations now? “The government on all levels – from top to bottom- doesn’t want to fulfil constitutional rights. If the public society cannot press the government, any government will violate human rights. We have no civil society — experienced, well-organized civil society. In Russia the main stream in civil society creation will be the HR movement.”
I said, I expected it to have diminished instead of growing. She replied,
“No, it has not diminished. It is growing everywhere in the country, but is not so visible in Moscow because here HR orgs were formed a while ago. There is not such a big difference during these ten years.”
In the regions we try to serve all their needs but we have no possibility to help all groups. We work regularly with 500-700 groups and from time to time with 300 more. We provide HR and juridical literature. We issue a twice-monthly informational bulletin about HR activities, provide a group with information. If a group has experience in a special area such as legal aid, or children’s rights, or the women’s movement, we write their recommendations and spread it to all groups with which we have links. They could ask us to fulfill their requests in Moscow if they need help; we turn to the courts, to the procuracy for them if they need us to do so. They send us cases and our legal aid tries to work with them. Expertise, local legislation on constitutional human rights. We help them find channels to their governmental bodies and scientific institutions.
I asked her about this government, whether they were satisfied.
“We have links with the duma an the government but not with the mall. We work with Yavlinsky but not with Zhirinovsky or the communists, of course. We have three members who are deputies: Kovalev, Starovoitova, and Valery Barshov.”
I asked who Barshov was.
“He has been active since the late 1980s. He is child in the Committee on Public and Religious Organizations and chief of the president’s human rights chamber.”
I asked whther he had replaced Kovalev.
“No, that’s the Human rights Commissions. It is now headed by Kartashkin. We cooperate with him but he’s not our hero.”
I asked about whether MHG supports nationalist movements calling for independence.
“ We have no links to nationalists because we defend individuals from the state, not collective rights. We defended Chechen [individuals] in the war. We defend people if the government violates their rights, but not either national or anti-national [movements]. That’s not our business.”
I asked about whether they had supported the Balts during their claims for independence.
“We suppported people if they were persecuted.”
I was asking about the attitude toward Gorbachev when we were interrupted.
I asked about the MHG’s relationship with other orgs, such as Memorial, Mothers of Soldiers, etc. She said they cooperate.
Do you do lobbying?
Yes, of course. Efforts in the duma and different committees, with deputies who are close to us, such as the Yabloko fraction and even Our House Russia.
Relations with foreign NGOs?
We belong to the International Helsinki Federation, and they help us with links to the European Council, EU, etc. Personal possibilities are open to me because I lived in the US for 16 years and have good contacts there.
I asked about Burlatsky’s committee, and that was the only point on which she sounded snarky.
“It was a monkey group. “ They used the name Helsinki Group to use foreign groups for support to the Gorbachev government. Received money from the central committee. Did nothing useful. I knew it well because I was consultant to the American Helsinki Group in Paris. I advised them to hold a meeting because we hoped to use a channel to speak with the new Soviet government. It was 1986. We mentioned political prisoners to them. (They began to release them in 1987). At that time we had a list of about 3000 political prisoners and we asked to get them released. They said no, told terrible false otries about several of them. We said okay, where there is 1 or 2 or 3 persons among the political prisoners will you fight for their release” They said no to these, even including Sakharov.
When political prisoners were released in 1987 they organized a public club Glasnost. It was the first organization of former political prisoners. The American Helsinki Watch people went to Moscow to see them. Burlatsky said “no; you should meet only our commission. Those people are very suspicious people; we are well known writers and public figures.” The Burlatsky group was created as a barrier between dissidents and foreign NGOs.
1987-89 the political prisoners were released. The main effort to get them released was done through the Vienna Conference of the OSCE. [Her pronunciation of OSCE sounds funny, though, so she may be saying something else.] The head of the American delegation helped. [She can’t remember his name. It’s a Dutch name. It was the person who succeeded Max Kampelman.]
I asked about their relationship to Gorbachev (MSG).
She said he is a great person in destroying this system and creating a new system. They criticized him when he acted slowly or indecisively. Of course, everybody agree that he did great things.
In 1986 MSG was in Paris and someone asked him about Sakharov and he said he’s crazy. We have no political prisoners in the USSR.
It is pressure from the West and the mass media that changed his mind and not because he likes dissidents but the chief of the Soviet delegation to the Vienna Conference, when they announced in Feburary 1987 that they would releae the pol prisoners, he said We’re tired of discussing this topic with our Western partners. It was done just for themselves. MSG made a great evolution since his first months on the position of General Secretary. He absolutely wasn’t a friend of dissidents. He wa sincere, thought we were destructors, enemies of the Soviet state. He was official
But he evolved. In the end of 1986 he released Sakharov. It was under pressure from the West but by then he didn’t think Sakharov was crazy. Maybe he had more information.
In 1990 how did the Moscow Helsinki Group regard Yeltsin?
We are not a political group. Opinions were mixed. It is difficult for me to speak and i’m not sure.
What are the main issues today?
To serve the HR movement in the regions, help the groups which appeared in the region to understand what it means.
I said that Popov had estimated that less than one percent of Russian citizens are members of NGOs.
She said, One percent is 1.5 million people. Not bad. Ten years ago we had zero public activity.
I asked about the Helsinki Citizens Asembly She said she has no contact and doesn’t know what they do.
How many individuals are there in the HR movement?
Don’t know. We evaluate it in terms of organizations, and they are usually small. From 5 to 30 members in a group.
How was the process of returning to Russia for you?
It worked out okay. For most families it is harder or impossible. If you turn back, where will you live?
Why didn’t Yuri Orlov return?
He’s a scientists and couldn’t get good conditions for working. He has good conditions at Cornell and wants to do some real science.
Only a few people from HR movement emigrated at first. Pavel Litvinov helps Memorial. Several political prisoners in New York organized a group. Bonner’s daughter and son help. Orlov helps MHG,.
Her time in the US wasn’t lost time. She had been editor of books here written by others, but in the US she became the author of five books. She works still for Radio Liberty and VOA with a weekly program as a freelance radio journalist.
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