Russia's strongman president, Vladimir Putin, has raised eyebrows with an uncharacteristic visit to the Moscow home of one of the country's staunchest and most respected human rights advocates.
In a post on social media on July 20, economist Anders Aslund labeled Putin's visit earlier in the day to Moscow Helsinki Group founder and longtime dissident Lyudmila Alekseyeva "ruthless exploitation."
New York Times Moscow journalist Ivan Nechepurenko echoed the sentiment, writing on Twitter that "hopefully, pro-Kremlin groups will never target [Alekseyeva] again."
Veteran Voice of America Moscow correspondent Danila Galperovich called Putin's gesture "trolling" and said it was "pure vileness" (the Facebook post was later deleted.)
Putin's visit to Alekseyeva's 90th birthday created a double portrait that was suffused with contrasts: the confident former KGB officer who has overseen a significant crackdown on democracy and human rights over the last 17 years (as well as the ongoing rehabilitation of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin) deferentially sipping champagne with a visibly frail Alekseyeva, who was driven out of the Soviet Union in 1977 because of her activism; spent nearly 15 years living in the United States; and who has been repeatedly detained, arrested, and harassed for her uncompromising positions since Putin took power in 2000.
Her famed Moscow Helsinki Group was one of the first organizations to say it would not comply with a Russian law forcing nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding to adopt the loaded, Stalin-era label "foreign agent." In 2010, the Kremlin-organized Nashi youth group labeled Alekseyeva a "Nazi" and an enemy of the Russian people.
From 2002 until 2012, Alekseyeva served on the Russian president's advisory human rights commission. In 2012, she resigned in protest of several developments, including Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term as president. She rejoined the body in 2015 saying that she wanted to do what she could to protect civil society from the "foreign agents" law.
At the July 20 meeting, Putin gave Alekseyeva two gifts. One was an engraving showing the city of Yevpatoria where Alekseyeva was born in 1927. Yevpatoria is in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. In September 2014, Alekseyeva was obliged to issue a statement denouncing false reports in Kremlin-friendly media stating that she supported the annexation of Crimea.
"I have repeatedly said and I will say again -- I am convinced that the seizure of Crimea has shamed my country," she wrote. "I am a citizen of Russia and I do not shirk from responsibility from my country's behavior in regards to its neighbors and its own citizens."
Putin also presented Alekseyeva with a platter decorated with an image of the Stalin-era main building of Moscow State University, from which the activist graduated in 1950. Alekseyeva pointed out to him that she did not actually attend classes in the building, although she and other students were forced to work on its construction.
"I understand," Putin said, according to a transcript of the encounter posted on the presidential website. "But the building isn't important. What is important is the institution."
'If You Can Save One Person, That Is A Great Joy'
Putin also compared Alekseyeva to Nobel Prize winning author and former Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who served 11 years in Soviet labor camps and in internal exile. Solzhenitsyn was later exiled and stripped of his citizenship for his exposes of the Soviet government's horrendous crimes against its own people. In the last years before his death in 2008, Solzhenitsyn met with Putin several times and praised him as a stronger leader than Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev or Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
"Solzhenitsyn had one key idea -- saving the people," Putin told Alekseyeva. "He did this in his own way. And you are doing it in yours."
Alekseyeva retorted: "I do it one person at a time. But if you can save one person, that is a great joy."
She used the meeting to secure from Putin a commitment to grant clemency to Igor Izmestyev, a former lawmaker in the upper house of Russia's parliament who is serving a life term in prison after being convicted in 2010 of funding a criminal gang authorities said killed 14 people between 1992 and 2004.
But if Putin was "trolling" Alekseyeva, then the activist may have had a go at the president as well.
After saying that she sometimes thinks about Izmestyev sitting in prison when she can't sleep at night, she turned the conversation to Putin.
"You know," Alekseyeva said. "I also think about you. Sometimes, when I can't sleep -- which doesn't happen to me very often. Even though I am old, I sleep like a child."
"My conscience is clear," she added.
"That's very good," Putin responded.
Russian journalist Yulia Kalinina wrote on Facebook that she was certain Alekseyeva would use her unexpected access to Putin to ask a favor for someone else.
"I don't care who is trolling whom," Kalinina wrote. "The main thing is that, as a result, someone got their freedom."
Paul Goble, a longtime U.S. specialist in Soviet and Russian affairs, wrote on his blog that Putin's "one-time action" to honor Alekseyeva "should not detract attention from the fact that he continues to be proud to have been an officer in the Soviet KGB, the organization that persecuted and then drove her out of the Soviet Union for 15 years."
"And it should not detract attention either from all the steps Putin has taken against the human rights of Russians since becoming president 17 years ago," Goble added," steps that Alekseyeva has consistently protested and helped others to protest as well. Truly, she has helped preserve the Russian people. At best, Putin has only helped to save the Russian state."