December 10, 2018

Menendez Honors Life of Human Rights Champion Lyudmila Alexeyeva in Statement for the Senate Record

WASHINGTON – On International Human Rights Day, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, submitted a statement for the Senate record honoring the life and legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva, renowned human rights champion in Russia and around the world.

“Our world is better because Lyudmila was here. Our world is better due to her vision, courage, and tenacity. And we all have an obligation to carry on her work, not only in support for human rights in Russia, but in all those dark corners of the world where people are repressed by their governments,” stated the Senator.

Below, a copy of Senator Menendez’s full statement.

 

I rise today to pay tribute to Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a true giant for human rights in Russia and around the world. Ms. Alexeyeva passed away over the weekend in Moscow and left behind children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. But that was just her immediate family. Lyudmila’s leadership and fearlessness inspired a generation of human rights and democracy activists in Russia -- she was the grandmother of human rights in the country and her stalwart leadership in the face of repression will truly be missed.  Today is International Human Rights Day, a fitting moment to pay tribute this incredible leader.

In thinking about Lyudmila’s legacy, three words come to mind - vision, tenacity, and courage.

 

Starting from her days drafting a Samizdat journal called the Chronicle of Current Events that scrutinized the Khrushchev regime, Lyudmila had the vision of a Soviet Union in which all of its citizens played a role in ensuring accountable governance and democratic principles. She saw the opportunity to fulfill this vision in the 1975 Helsinki Accords, especially those tenets which enshrined the critical notion that signatory countries’ respect for human rights inside their borders was integral to security in the transatlantic region. The Brezhnev government at the time had no intention of honoring those elements of Helsinki, but Lyudmila worked together with her compatriots to set up the Moscow Helsinki Group to monitor implementation of the Accords. The Moscow Helsinki Group inspired the proliferation of sister organizations in other countries whose governments had committed to Helsinki principles, including here in Congress with the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This platform inside of the Soviet Union and across the transatlantic space was critically important to build those bonds of international solidarity among so many likeminded democrats and human rights defenders.  She was indeed a true visionary for open, democratic societies, and the bonds she built with and among activists who shared that vision stand strong to this day.

Second, tenacity. Lyudmila faced so many obstacles during the Soviet period and the Putin era. After starting Moscow Helsinki, the pressure from the Soviet regime grew so great that she had to seek exile in the United States for 16 years. During that time, she became an American citizen, a proud moment for us here in this country. While in exile, she remained committed to her vision. She advocated for international support for the plight of dissidents and human rights activists suffering repression in the Soviet Bloc. In the tradition of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lyudmila wrote extensively on her country, publishing two important works: The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era and Soviet Dissent.  She also worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty during this period.

Once she was able to return to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lyudmila dove right back into her work, scrutinizing the human rights record of Boris Yeltsin and resisting the sharp turn away from democracy under Vladimir Putin. As the space for civil society voices contracted inside Russia, Lyudmila was a clear and dogged advocate for freedom, a voice for the universal declaration of human rights and a voice for a better Russia. And despite this closing space, she expended enormous energy on mentoring and organizing a new generation of Russian human rights defenders to carry the torch. During this period, she would travel to Washington and was a true force of nature.  She always had a few young activists in tow to make sure they were connected with key policy makers in D.C. And by doing so she made clear to us in Washington that not all was lost inside Russia, that a tenacious new generation of activists was willing to take this baton of freedom and run the next leg of the race, and that they deserved our respect, attention, and support.

Finally, courage. Lyudmila did not have to do this work. This calling subjected her and her family to pressure and repression by different regimes over the years. It subjected her to 16 years in exile from her homeland.  And after so much hard work during the Soviet era, she could have settled into retirement, leaving the toils of civil society development and human rights defense to a new generation. But as repression grew under Putin, Lyudmila would continue the work undaunted. Well into her 70s and 80s, she would continue to organize. She would continue to travel to foreign capitals, only to face increased scrutiny at home. She would attend rallies in Moscow, sometimes in the dead of winter, under great physical threat. She would be arrested. But she faced these challenges with remarkable composure and grace. Those images of Lyudmila during a Moscow street protest one New Years’ Eve—dressed as a Russian holiday character, the Snow Maiden, in a powder blue coat as she stood up to thuggish Russian government security forces—was a sight to behold. Her undaunted courage during this later period of her life was a true inspiration to so many of us around the world.

It is tragic that Lyudmila did not live to see her vision for Russia realized. It is tragic that the Russian people have been robbed of the opportunity to live in a democratic country. It is tragic that the Putin regime continues to impose corruption and repression on a people who deserve so much better. Lyudmila understood what that “better” looks like and had a vision for her country: A governing system with true checks and balances. A country with a responsive government, held accountable to the people. A country where a strong civil society understood that it had a very important role and stake in the country’s wellbeing. In her own way, Lyudmila symbolized that check and balance. She symbolized what a vibrant civil society in Russia could be if only taken to scale. She symbolized a place where Russia lived up to international human rights commitments, not as an answer to a foreign power, but because she saw fulfillment of these commitments as good for the citizenry and the country.

Our world is better because Lyudmila was here. Our world is better due to her vision, courage, and tenacity. And we all have an obligation to carry on her work, not only in support for human rights in Russia, but in all those dark corners of the world where people are repressed by their governments. In the coming days, tributes like this will be heard around the world, extolling Lyudmila’s many efforts and accomplishments in defense of liberty and human rights.

Lyudmila was a shining example to us all. Let us take this charge and be the embodiment of her life’s work. Rest in peace, Lyudmila.

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