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Rights Activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva: 'You Can’t Win A War Alone'

  • Claire Bigg

Lyudmila Alekseyeva has campaigned tirelessly for human rights since the 1960s. (file photo)

Lyudmila Alekseyeva has campaigned tirelessly for human rights since the 1960s. (file photo)

STRASBOURG, France -- Russia’s best-known human rights campaigner, 88-year-old Lyudmila Alekseyeva, has been awarded the prestigious Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In an interview with RFE/RL's Claire Bigg, she reflects on the future of Russia’s embattled human rights movement and on the democratic prospects for her country.

RFE/RL: You have received numerous awards and accolades throughout your lifetime defending human rights in Russia. What does the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize mean to you?

Lyudmila Alekseyeva: Regardless of the many awards, there are now two prizes which I'm most proud of: the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize and PACE's Vaclav Havel Prize. We are a fortunate generation to have been the contemporaries of two great figures the likes of whom are not born in every generation, let alone in every country: Sakharov and Havel.

I knew both of them, I had the honor of talking to both of them, and I have been awarded prizes named after them. This is, of course, thanks to the efforts of our entire Russian human rights movement. I haven’t personally achieved much myself, as an individual. You can't win a war alone.

RFE/RL: Your victory today is both a recognition of your advocacy work and a show of support for civil society in Russia. Do you think that PACE, by awarding you this prize, is also sending a message to Moscow?

Alekseyeva: Europe is already explaining quite clearly to Russia what Russia doesn't want to do: respect international agreements, respect human rights, respect the dignity of its citizens, respect its own constitution, and be a state worthy of belonging to the European family.

RFE/RL: You returned to President Vladimir Putin's council on human rights and civil society in May, three years after quitting it, saying you intended to use your membership to defend Russian nongovernmental organizations against the so-called "foreign agent" law. In your opinion, should NGOs accept compromises under this controversial law if it can allow them to continue operating, or should they continue battling it at the risk of being shut down?

Alekseyeva: The Moscow-Helsinki Group was founded in 1976 in the Soviet Union. We didn’t have any registration. Authorities not only did not support us, we were subjected to all kinds of repressions. Didn't we work? We did. Today's NGOs are in the same situation; they might be repressed, but they will still continue working.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​