Human rights defenders and diplomats are praising Lyudmila Alekseyeva and her lifetime commitment to the struggle for justice in the Soviet Union and Russia as an inspirational example.
Alekseyeva, a veteran defender of human rights who challenged the Soviet government and President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, died in a Moscow hospital on December 9, Russia's presidential council of human rights said. She was 91.
No cause of death was given, but the council said she had been treated several times for unspecified ailments.
"This is a huge loss for the entire human rights movement in Russia," according to the council's head, Mikhail Fedotov.
“For many, she was and will remain the soul of the human rights movement, an example we should try to be worthy of," said the Moscow Helsinki Group
Alekseyeva became a human rights advocate in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, went into exile, and returned to continue her work in Russia following the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
She co-founded the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976. Within a year, its members were arrested or forced into exile.
Alekseyeva fled to the United States with her family in 1977, where she continued advocating for human rights and took up freelance work for RFE/RL and Voice of America, until her return to Russia in 1993.
There, she returned to being a leading figure of the human rights movement, denouncing rights abuses under former President Boris Yeltsin.
Most recently, her target had been the soft authoritarian regime introduced by Putin and his ruling party, United Russia.
Kenneth Roth, executive director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, tweeted that with Alexeyeva’s death, “We have lost a giant among human rights defenders -- a courageous, principled defender of the rights of all Russians from the dark Soviet days to the increasingly dark Putin days.”
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) praised Alekseyeva as an inspirational figure for human rights advocates worldwide.
“Alekseyeva spent her life fighting for principled and respectful treatment for all people and I hope her legacy will serve as a reminder to all that we need to continue this work,” it said in a statement on December 9.
Bill Browder, a U.S.-born Briton who was once the biggest foreign investor in Russia and has now become a campaigner against Russian human rights abuses, called Alekseyeva “the bravest human rights activist in Russia and the person who most effectively took on Putin and his cronies over the murder of Sergei Magnitsky.”
When Magnitsky, an anticorruption lawyer, died in pretrial detention in 2009, she actively lobbied for an investigation into his death.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said Alekseyeva’s “courageous work on behalf of victims of injustice and repression serves as a model for us all.”
The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Liliane Maury Pasquier, also paid tribute to Alekseyeva, a winner of PACE’s 2015 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, which honors outstanding civil society action in defense of human rights.
"Her commitment to the struggle for justice had guided her throughout her life, despite threats and persecution,” Pasquier said in a statement, adding that the activist’s “lifelong commitment will be remembered.”
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, described Alekseyeva as “a real force of nature” and said her work as a human rights defender in Russia “will remain an inspiration to many.”
Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland called Alekseyeva “my friend and World Matriarch of Human Rights Defenders,” adding that she will be “missed sorely by all of us.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin valued Alekseyeva's contribution to the development of civil society in Russia and respected her positions on many issues.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev praised her “courage, dedication, and unfailing firmness” in defending her views, writing on Facebook that her death was “a great loss" for the human rights movement in Russia.