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'All Its Members Faced Jail': Alekseyeva Recalls Birth Of Russia's Oldest Rights Group

Few activists today can speak firsthand about the creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest operating human rights organization, 40 years ago.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva is one of them.

At 88, she is Russia's best-known human rights activist and among the last Soviet-era dissidents still active in the country.

She is also one of the group's founders and its current head.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service this week, Alekseyeva recalled how fellow dissident Yury Orlov first came up with the idea to establish the Moscow Helsinki Group.

"In early May 1976, he called me and asked, 'Lyuda, the weather is beautiful, would you like to go for a walk in downtown Moscow?'" she said. "We were on friendly terms, but we usually met only for work. I understood that he was inviting me to talk outside, since our homes were tapped."

The pair met and Orlov laid out his plan to establish an organization that would monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Accords.

The accords were signed in August 1975 by the Soviet Union, the United States, Canada, and all European countries except Albania, which became a signatory in 1991 -- 35 states in total.

TIMELINE: Forty Years Of The Moscow Helsinki Group

The goal was to reduce tensions between the communist bloc and the West and uphold respect for fundamental freedoms.

Alekseyeva immediately backed Orlov's proposition.

Days later, on May 12, 1976, the Moscow Helsinki Group was created, with Orlov, Alekseyeva, and a dozen other prominent dissidents as founding members.

Promising Academic Career

At that time, Alekseyeva had already been campaigning for a decade.

An archaeologist by training, she had grown disillusioned with the Soviet Union and abandoned what had started as a promising academic career.

She defended dissidents who had run afoul of Soviet authorities, including writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel, sentenced to prison for criticizing Soviet authorities in the foreign press.

She also clandestinely worked as a typist for the Chronicle of Current Events, the leading "samizdat" underground publication detailing human rights violations in the U.S.S.R.

She says her typing skills proved invaluable to the group, which regularly sent reports to all Helsinki Accord signatories denouncing the Soviet Union's human rights violations.

Soviet authorities immediately retaliated.

Alekseyeva says only three of the group's founders, including herself, evaded arrest.

She eventually fled to the United States with her family in 1977.

WATCH: Lyudmila Alekseyeva On Her Hopes For Russia

The Moscow Helsinki Group quickly ceased its activities.

"Those who had not been imprisoned announced that they were halting their work, because absolutely all its members faced jail," she recalled. "This was the right thing to do. If they had been arrested, there would have been no group left anyway."

In the United States, Alekseyeva continued advocating for human rights and took up freelance work for RFE/RL and Voice of America.

In 1985, she published her first book, Soviet Dissent, devoted to the history of the dissident movement.

In 1990, she issued Thaw Generation, an autobiography co-authored by Paul Goldberg.

Tireless Campaigner

The Soviet Union collapsed the following year, and in 1993, after 16 years in exile, Alekseyeva and her husband were finally able to return home.

She soon grew into a leading figure of the human rights movement, tirelessly denouncing rights abuses under former President Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin.

She has vigorously denounced rampant abuse against civilians in war-ravaged Chechnya and, later, the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova.

Both women had actively worked to uncover atrocities committed against the local population by pro-Moscow law-enforcement officials and separatist rebels.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva has continued to campaign fearlessly since returning to her homeland. Here she is pictured in a traditional Snow Maiden outfit being arrested at an unsanctioned New Year's Eve protest on December 31, 2009.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva has continued to campaign fearlessly since returning to her homeland. Here she is pictured in a traditional Snow Maiden outfit being arrested at an unsanctioned New Year's Eve protest on December 31, 2009.

Alekseyeva has also taken a strong stand against a raft of Kremlin initiatives, including the introduction of harsh new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations in Russia.

Her crusade for human rights elicited international praise and accolades, including the Sakharov Prize, the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It also earned her enemies.

In 2006, Russian authorities accused her of involvement with British intelligence. She was vilified by pro-Kremlin youth groups, who branded her a Nazi and one of the nation's greatest foes.

In March 2010, she was assaulted at a Moscow metro station while paying her respects to the victims of a bombing attack there a few days earlier.

WATCH: Rights Activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva Attacked In Moscow

Alekseyeva, already walking with difficulty, was famously detained on December 31, 2009, for leading an unsanctioned New Year's Eve protest dressed up as Snow Maiden.

But despite her acerbic attacks against the Kremlin, her age and the respect she inspires have shielded her from more serious trouble with authorities.

Last year, she agreed to return to rejoin the presidential human rights council, which she had quit in 2012 citing interference from the Kremlin. She said she would use her seat on the council to fight against the persecution of NGOs under what's been dubbed the "foreign agent" law and to denounce what she described as the rollback on human rights and democratic freedoms in Russia.

Alekseyeva has chaired the Moscow Helsinki Group since 1996.

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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​