This week, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D–MD) nominated the “grandma” of the Russian human rights movement, Lyudmila Alekseeva, for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
Cardin’s nomination of the veteran of the dissident movement affirms the United States’ support for human rights activists in Russia and gives this “peacemaker” the recognition she deserves.
Alekseeva was born in 1927 in the Crimea and studied history at the prestigious Moscow State University. During her time there, Alekseeva fell in with the dissident crowd. By the 1960s, she protested the Communist Party’s crackdown on dissident writers and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She continued to work for human rights in the Soviet Union and in 1976 was one of the founding members of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
The group, named after its support of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which the Soviet Union signed, was founded in the apartment of dissident physicist and human rights leader Andrei Sakharov.
Only a year after she helped found the group, Alekseeva, like many other dissidents, was exiled from the USSR. She moved to the U.S. and kept up her work promoting human rights. She was frequently published and often appeared on Radio Liberty and Voice of America, U.S. government-funded stations that broadcasted to the Soviet Union.
Two years after the fall of communism, Alekseeva returned to Russia and in 1996 became chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO).
In recent years, Alekseeva has actively defended human rights from the recent government crackdown, which she calls “a serious attack…on all the rights of citizens.” One such repressive law passed in the recent crackdown requires NGOs that receive foreign funds to register as “foreign agents.” Alekseeva says this law will hurt her group’s ability to do work “because the authorities have created a psychological understanding that everything from abroad is hostile and aimed at Russia’s demise.”
“We will return to the way we worked in the Soviet Union,” says Alekseeva, who was beaten up by thugs for her activism. This means a return to the roots of relying on volunteers and samizdat, the dissident practice of underground publishing. With the advent of the Internet, “it is much easier than it was back then” for NGOs to publish information and promulgate material on human rights violations, the kindly and charismatic Alekseeva says.
Alekseeva’s nomination comes at a tense time for U.S.–Russian relations. Anti-Americanism is rampant even compared to the Soviet era. Russia has denounced the U.S. Congress’s Sergei Magnitsky Act as the improper politicization of an internal Russian issue.
To keep the U.S. out of its internal affairs, the Russian government cancelled several prior bilateral agreements, including the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Agreement, and banned U.S. adoption of Russian orphans. The U.S. has responded by cancelling the Joint Presidential Commission on Civil Society, and there is no end in sight to this tit-for-tat diplomacy.
Alekseeva’s nomination is well deserved for a country that has long dealt with human rights abuses by its government, whether czarist, communist, or post-communist. Senator Cardin’s nomination demonstrates the U.S.’s commitment to promoting human rights in Russia and the world over.