Celebrating the Lives of Soviet Women: Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva
10th December 2018
I was greatly saddened to wake this morning to the news of the death of Moscow-based human rights activist Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva on 8 December 2018 at the age of 91. I was fortunate to be able to interview Lyudmila Mikhailovna as part of my Life Stories of Soviet Women project. Our meeting took place just a few days after her 84th birthday in her flat near the Arbat. The apartment was full of flowers, birthday cards and gifts from her many friends and supporters, and our interview was interrupted several times by callers offering their good wishes. I visited her again in 2014 to take her a copy of the book in which our interview was published, but by this time failing mobility meant that she was largely confined to her apartment.
Lyudmila Mikhailovna was born in 1927 in Crimea to parents devoted to the Communist Party, which, coming from poor backgrounds, provided them with the opportunity to gain an education. She was raised in the spirit of internationalism, having attended the nursery at Moscow State University (MGU) whilst her mother studied there. After the war, Lyudmila Mikhailovna herself started to study in the history department of MGU, where she eventually specialised in archaeology. After graduation, she began working as a teacher and later became an editor for a publishing house. It was in this post-war period that she first developed a critical attitude to the Soviet regime because of the emergence of anti-Semitism under Stalin.
Her opposition stance meant that she was expelled from the Communist Party and thrown out of her job in the late 1960s. With the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, Lyudmila Mikhailovna was one of the founding members of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and contributed to the work of the Chronicle of Current Events, which monitored human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. She regularly offered financial and practical support to relatives of imprisoned dissidents. Threatened with arrest in the late 1970s, she chose instead to live for more than a decade in emigration in America. In the United States, she continued to research and talk about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union and published a book-length study on Soviet Dissent (1984) as well as a book, with Paul Goldberg, on The Thaw Generation (1990).
Lyudmila Alekseeva returned to Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union and continued her work of highlighting abuses by the Russian government. She worked closely with Memorial, which archives testimonies of victims of the Soviet regime, and with those who protested against abuses of the new Russian Constitution. She was part of a widespread opposition movement against Putin, including as an activist in Strategy-31, and, despite her advanced age, she herself was sometimes assaulted and threatened by Putin’s supporters. Despite her vociferous opposition to him, Putin visited Lyudmila Mikhailovna in her own home when she turned 90, and recognised the extensive contribution she had made to the emergence of Russia’s civil society.