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The Week In Russia: The Rights Activist, The Writer, And The President

Pallbearers carry the late activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva's coffin after a mourning ceremony in Moscow on December 11.

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President Vladimir Putin paid tribute to two prominent Soviet dissidents who took different paths after 1991, unveiling a monument to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and attending a farewell ceremony for Lyudmila Alekseyeva following her death at the age of 91. But Putin's gestures were seen by critics as empty, and his words seemed to speak volumes about his attitude to human rights and his view of those who put human rights ahead of what he says are the interests of Russia.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

End Of An Era

When she first met Putin, in 2002, Alekseyeva was struck by his willingness to listen to rights defenders dedicated to efforts to keep the state in line. Four years later, in the middle of his second term, she found that was no longer the case.

"He was a different man, a caricature of himself," Alekeseyeva recalled in an interview with the Reuters news agency in August 2012, shortly after Putin had disappointed Russians hoping for change by returning to the Kremlin after stepping aside for a time to avoid violating constitutional term limits. "I took one look and wanted to leave the room."

"Putin came to believe that everyone wants him to stay in power," Alekseyeva said at the time --- and that's where he remains today.

Alekseyeva's five-plus decades campaigning for human rights began in the Soviet era and ended in the Putin era, which brought her back onto the streets at protests as the Kremlin sought to rein in opposition by restricting rights. She fought, in particular, for the freedom of assembly, which activists say the Kremlin routinely violates despite a constitutional guarantee.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his last respects to Lyudmila Alekseyeva at her farewell ceremony in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his last respects to Lyudmila Alekseyeva at her farewell ceremony in Moscow.

After their initial meetings during his first two terms, her ties to Putin continued to have their ups and downs. Alekseyeva quit the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in June 2012, citing Kremlin interference shortly after Putin returned to the presidency, but rejoined the advisory body -- whose criticism and counsel is often ignored -- three years later.

'Just Words And Gestures'

The two were in the same room one last time on December 11, three days after Alekseyeva's death, when Putin came to the Central House of Journalists in Moscow to pay his respects at her open casket and exchange a few words with her relatives and colleagues.

At a meeting of the rights council later the same day, Putin lauded Alekseyeva as a "luminous, courageous, and strong person" who "stood up for justice."

But opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who said mourners waited behind metal barriers for 40 minutes so that Putin could stop by, dismissed the visit as "just words and gestures."

"If he were sincere, the president would amnesty all political prisoners -- Sentsov and the others," Yavlinsky wrote on Facebook. "That would be a genuine tribute."

A day after the ceremony for Alekseyeva, Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov was awarded the 2018 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- but his chair stood empty at the ceremony in Strasbourg because he's serving a 20-year prison term in far northern Russia.

The annual prize is named after the late Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, whose apartment was the site of the 1976 announcement of the creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group -- the human rights organization that Alekseyeva helped found and headed from 1996 until her death.

Imprisoned Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov (file photo)
Imprisoned Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov (file photo)

Sentsov was convicted of plotting terrorism, but the Crimean native and supporters say his trial was politically motivated Kremlin revenge for his position on Russia's takeover of the peninsula in 2014.

This year, he went on hunger strike for 145 days, an ordeal endured to demand the release of dozens of Ukrainians he said were political prisoners in Russia. At the ceremony, Sentsov's cousin said that while not a single one was released during his protest action, he has "already won" by attracting attention to their plight.

Russia drew additional attention by detaining 24 Ukrainian crewmen after ramming and firing on their naval vessels off Crimea in late November. They are jailed in Moscow and awaiting trial.

We'll Never Have Paris

Also jailed in Moscow is Lev Ponomaryov, a 77-year-old human rights activist and a fellow former Soviet dissident who is serving a 16-day term in detention -- in part for a Facebook post about a protest. Ponomaryov asked a court to let him out for a few hours to pay his respects to Alekseyeva, a close friend and colleague, but the request was rejected.

Human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov attends a court hearing in Moscow earlier this month.
Human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov attends a court hearing in Moscow earlier this month.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, called that "a tragic injustice," adding a single word in Russian to his tweet: "Shame."

Putin, asked about Ponomaryov at the rights council meeting in a gilded Kremlin hall, promised to ask Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika to look into the matter -- but said that he couldn't question a court decision and that calls for unsanctioned protests -- which is what the activist was accused of making -- were a serious matter.

"We don't want to have events like in Paris, where they're tearing up cobblestones and setting everything in sight on fire," Putin said, hours after paying his respects for an activist who championed the constitutionally protected right to free assembly and was arrested at a demonstration in its defense in 2009.

Not so fast, Kremlin critics said, pointing out that the right to demonstrate is exactly what Alekseyeva was fighting for, among other things.

"Actually, I do want it to be like in Paris, I want it to be like in France," Yevgenia Albats, editor of media outlet The New Times, said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "I want people to have the right to go out into the street and stand up for their rights."

Pyotr Verzilov was more sarcastic, tweeting: "We don't want like in Paris, we want like in Venezuela."

And there was this warning from activist Sergei Udaltsov, who was imprisoned for 4 ½ years for his role in anti-Kremlin protests in May 2012, the month Putin returned to the Kremlin for his third presidential term.

"Putin and his circle, of course, do not want and fear such events [as the Paris unrest], but through their policies they are inevitably setting up these events," he wrote on Twitter.

The "yellow vest" protests in France have been featured heavily on Russian state TV, with a similar message. So Putin's remarks -- at a meeting on human rights -- seemed to dovetail with the Kremlin-controlled media's message suggesting that those rights must be restricted in the name of stability.

Clear Conscience

Putin had used Alekseyeva to make a point in the past -- or to score points against her, critics said. When he came calling at her Moscow apartment on her 90th birthday, in 2017, he brought a provocative present: an engraving showing the Crimean city of Yevpatoria, where Alekseyeva was born in 1927.

It was a not-so-subtle dig at Alekseyeva's public opposition to Russia's seizure of Crimea, which she said in September 2014 had "shamed my country."

Vladimir Putin presents Lyudmila Alekseyeva with an engraving on her 90th birthday (file photo)
Vladimir Putin presents Lyudmila Alekseyeva with an engraving on her 90th birthday (file photo)

Alekseyeva could not speak at the farewell ceremony, of course, but she may have had the last word at the birthday meeting: She told Putin that she sometimes thought about him when she couldn't sleep, but added that this didn't happen very often.

"Even though I am old, I sleep like a child," she said. "My conscience is clear."

On the same day that Putin paid his last respects to Alekseyeva and held the rights council meeting, he unveiled a monument to another Soviet dissident -- Solzhenitsyn, who would have turned 100 on December 11 if he were still alive.

Putin also seemed to tailor his remarks there to deliver a message, focusing mainly on the writer's love of Russia rather than what he is better known for: his stark accounts of the Soviet gulag prison-camp system, which helped expose the crimes of the Soviet state and contributed to its demise.

Putin called Solzhenitsyn "a true, real patriot of Russia" who "stood up against any manifestations of Russophobia" -- a term the Kremlin uses to blame U.S. and European officials for the badly strained state of ties between Moscow and the West today. "Even in exile, Aleksandr Isayevich [Solzhenitsyn] never let anyone speak ill or dismissively of his homeland."

Solzhenitsyn "clearly separated the authentic, real…Russia from the particularities of the totalitarian system that brought suffering and severe ordeals upon millions of people," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony to unveil a monument to Soviet-era dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony to unveil a monument to Soviet-era dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Moscow.

Putin himself certainly does that. When it comes to Stalin's Terror and other dark chapters of the Soviet era, he seems to compartmentalize, trying to keep the taint of such events from bleeding over into the portrait of a great country that defeated Hitler, produced pioneering science and admirable art, and held its own for decades in the Cold War with the West: part of a proud Russian history.

'Excessive Demonization'

Though he steered clear of commemorations this October, Putin has clearly condemned the crimes of the Soviet state several times in recent years.

In 2017, he said that this "This horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory -- let alone justified in any way -- by any so-called higher good of the people."

But critics say authorities have made significant efforts to rehabilitate Stalin's image since Putin came to power, and he has suggested that foes are using the Soviet dictator's crimes to undermine patriotism, weaken Russia, and besmirch its image.

The "excessive demonization" of Stalin "is one means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia," Putin said in 2017.

He made a similar suggestion at the rights council meeting on December 11. Told of a poll showing that 47 percent of Russian do know about the repressions of the Stalin era, Putin said that was bad -- but suggested it was at least as bad or worse that many might not know about the prouder moments in the country's past.

"Look, if you were to ask our young people...many of them would not be able to name the first cosmonaut," Putin said, referring to Yury Gagarin, the first man in space. "And it's absolutely clear that many of them would be sure it was some American astronaut. 100 percent."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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