When I worked in Russia in 2003 for the Moscow Helsinki Group the government has already begun limiting press freedoms and buying up independent media outlets, but civil society was becoming broader, more representative, and more active. That was the simple version of my assessment, which left me with a generally positive outlook on the trajectory of Russian democracy.
The developments of the past few years have made me reconsider my optimism. President Putin has tightened his grip over the media, the energy sector, and the civil society groups in whom I had invested so much hope.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Godmother of the human rights movement in Russia, suggests there’s still much to be positive about. I noticed my former colleague’s interview with Novye Izvestia this morning during my daily read of the invaluable Johnson’s Russia List. I have a great deal of respect for Alekseyeva, a true human rights giant, a big picture thinker whose perspective is informed by six decades of activism, and someone who has walked the walk at every stage of her career.
For you Russian speakers, find the full interview here. Since I don’t have rights to reproduce my translation of it, I’ll paste a hopeful and interesting excerpt below and encourage TWN readers to subscribe to Johnson’s Russia List so you don’t miss interesting tidbits like this anymore.
Question: How is present-day Russia different from the country for which you fought the Soviet government?
Lyudmila Alekseyeva: You know, back in those days I often used to say that all I wanted was this: that the kind of rights protection work we were doing should not be grounds for sending people to prison, labor camps, or psychiatric hospitals. And people are not imprisoned for these activities nowadays. When we started the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, it was the one and only independent rights protection organization in the whole USSR – but now we have colleagues and partners in every Russian region.
Question: Do you think the next two years will be like what Solzhenitsyn said about Russia’s tangents – soaring toward freedom, then plunging back into dictatorship?
Lyudmila Alekseyeva: I don’t think it will happen this time. Ten or 15 years from now, our country will be a democracy: not because we elect an angel as president next year, but because civil society will be strong enough by then to prevent any ruler from treating people like cattle.
Question: Where will this civil society come from?
Lyudmila Alekseyeva: It will grow of its own accord. Not like a garden weed, but once there are enough people willing to fight for it.
Question: Are there any such people in Russia now?
Lyudmila Alekseyeva: Yes. That’s why I believe that it will take us 10-15 years. Those who hold power in democracies aren’t angels either, but they don’t dare treat their people like our leaders treat us. And we’ll learn not to let them.
— Scott Paul