Ludmila Alekseeva: “We are considered the most harmful, that just goes to show our work has had a positive impact”

5 December 2012 

Source: Novaya gazeta

Interview with Ludmila Alekseeva by Elena Masiuk

She is 85 years old and doesn't hide her age. Today, she is wearing a long, bright, flowered dress with high slits at the sides and ballet pumps decorated with cat's whiskers. She is intelligent, witty and flirtatious. She is FREE... 

4 December 2012 

– The Moscow Helsinki Group is refusing to register as a “foreign agent”. Where will you get your money from?

– We've mainly received funding from America, but we also obtained grants from the European Union.

– You mean you were funded by the State Department?

– Not just the State Department, but also private foundations. USAID is the American President's foundation and then there's the MacArthur Foundation.

– Are these your old contacts in America?

– Naturally. I lived in America for 13 years – I know a lot of people, and they know me. I worked as a consultant at the U.S. Helsinki Group, which was set up basically because I pestered for it to be set up. I went over there from the Moscow Helsinki Group and announced that I would be the Group’s foreign representative. That was in 1977. And I didn't know any other languages apart from Russian.

– And what about swearing in Russian?

– Who doesn't? I don't usually, apart from when it's part of a joke and it would ruin it if I didn't. I can use it...

– Are there situations where you just have to?

– I'm not in the habit. I'm very old-fashioned. Women wear trousers these days, but I only wear skirts. I don't even own a pair of trousers. I bought a pair of jeans in America once. Everyone wears them there, so I bought some. I put them on and they were so uncomfortable I took them off and never wore them again.

– But then you have to wear tights...

– Tights are just awful, but trousers are even worse. I prefer bare legs.

– But in our climate you just can't walk about with bare legs!

– Well, ok, tights. I wear tights all winter, with shoes. When it's snowing heavily, I reluctantly put boots on, but that's only several times a year. Otherwise, I wear shoes. It's not because I have to; it's just much nicer when you can be yourself rather than pretend to be someone else.

– You were 50 when you left for America? It must have been very hard to leave at that age.

– It's hard at any age. All I knew about life in America was from the book “Single-Storey America” by Ilf and Petrov. I didn't want to go and I delayed as much as I could. My husband and son wanted to go though. You see, the whole time I'd made them help me with my work, and because of that I had this recurring nightmare that the KGB would lock up not me but my son and husband. One time, for example, we had to transport 100 copies of the first volume of “The GULAG Archipelago”. We had to do it fast to avoid being caught. I couldn't carry them all on my own, so all three of us carried them in bags. We didn't need to go to a fortune-teller to know that if they'd got us then, my husband and son would have got 7 years in a prison camp and 5 years in exile under Article 70. I couldn't even have hanged myself if that had happened, because I would have had to take them food and provisions.

– What would have happened if you hadn't left in 1977?

– They'd have jailed us in November 1979. Just before the Afghan War, they started locking everyone up who they hadn't already.

– Did they try and recruit you?

– No, my husband.

– What arguments did they use? How did they try and persuade him?

– I don't know. He never told me. He just said “They made me an offer and I told them where to stick it.” He did explain where he'd told them to stick it.

– Along a short erotic passage?

– Yes. He also said “They immediately understood and backed off.” They also tried to recruit people close to me, so that they would keep track of me.

– And are your phone calls being tapped nowadays? Are you being followed?

– I'm sure my telephone is tapped. I know that for a fact.

NGOs, the Deputy Speaker and Pensioner Ionov 

– The Deputy Speaker of the State Duma Sergei Zheleznyak * told me in an interview that some NGOs will not register as foreign agents because they do not want to advertise that they rely on foreign funding, and in order to continue to receive this money they have to report back on how funds are used and fulfil criteria set by foreign investors and charities. Have your American or European sponsors set any special conditions for you?

– No, we write grant proposals about projects that we can do. If they like the sound of them, they do some fine-tuning, which is usually to do with the fact that they are fearful of our authorities and want to make sure the projects are kosher in their eyes. We give in here, argue a point there, but the core of the project remains intact. There have never been any special instructions. That's absurd. What kind of instructions do you mean?

– Instructions to undermine national sovereignty, for example, or to undermine Russian statehood.

– We run educational programmes about human rights. Maybe they think that we are teaching people to defend their rights and that they might begin to do that competently and effectively – I don't know if that can be classed as undermining.

(A digression. The telephone rings. The police have arrested a pensioner who was conducting a one-man protest).

Ludmila Alekseeva answers: “They've arrested you again? You were picketing? Put whoever arrested you on the phone...Good afternoon, this is Ludmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva. I am a member of the Public Advisory Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I want to know why you have arrested him. A one-person picket does not require permission....What do you mean a negative reaction from people? Every individual has the right to hold up any placard as long as it doesn't have any fascist or other banned symbols on it. Were there any?.... Well then, he hasn't broken any laws. What offended them? Why are they so hyper-sensitive? What was the complaint? Maybe it was an unsubstantiated complaint? Every citizen has the right to express an opinion about the government in office. Let's not argue about it. You shouldn't be arresting lone protesters. Let him go. It's the best thing for you as well. Otherwise he'll make a complaint, and I'll pass that complaint on. Do you really need that? Thank you so much, yes, please let him go immediately. Goodbye.

– Has someone just been arrested? 

– A pensioner. Vladimir Ionov. He lives out of town. It's his hobby. He takes his placard and protests on his own. The weather's good right now, so he's there all the time. I saw him on the Arbat. When the Pussy Riot case was going on over the summer he held a placard up saying “He was Putin, he became Pussin”. I gave him my phone number and told him to call me if he was arrested, because as a member of the Public Advisory Council I have the right to intervene. They've already let him go three times. I wonder if they'll let him go now or just lie about it. He will call me and tell me when they let him out.

– You really are a force to be reckoned with, Ludmila Mikhailovna! To get someone released with a single phone call...

– Of course two-year term on the Council is almost at an end; I don't know if Kolokoltsev will take me onto the Councill next time round. I'm always hassling him, and I guess he's sick of me...

– Putin recently gave the Moscow Helsinki Group four million roubles. Is that the first contribution you have had from our government?

– The first time they gave us a grant was four years ago via the Public Chamber. However, we realized that we would only get the money if we undertook some kind of approved project that would not upset the authorities at all. We applied to set up a free legal advice service. They gave us the money. We opened the free legal service and hired lawyers. The lawyers did an excellent job. We did everything we were supposed to. The next year, we applied to continue the work. They gave us four times less money. Then, for two whole years they gave us nothing at all. This time we've decided not to ask for funding for free legal aid. Because they've taken away the option of getting foreign funding, we are applying for money for our main activities instead. NTV says “The News is our profession”; we say “Monitoring is our profession”.

(A digression. The phone rings. It's the pensioner – the one-person picketer).
“Ludmila Mikhailovna, they've taken me from the metro to a police station on Tverskaya.” 
“But he promised he would let you go! Give him the phone. Who is this speaking? Now, he won't take the phone. Tell him that a member of the Public Advisory Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs...” 

– They've taken him to the Tverskaya police station anyway.

– Right. And was the four million roubles they gave you enough to keep the Moscow Helsinki Group in operation?

– We’ll get this money in December and start working from January 1. By May, the project will be completed.

– And so, why has the Moscow Helsinki Group already started asking for donations on its website?

– We can't just pop up in May when the money runs out like the dragonfly in Krylov's fable and say 'Hey, everyone, we have no money left'. We have to do it in advance.

The Agent

– In 1977 your house was searched and they confiscated human rights publications from abroad and samizdat. At that time, ITAR-TASS issued a news flash calling you “an agent of the anti-Soviet People's Labour Union”. Were you an agent then, and did it bother you? You could just let them call you an agent again now: the word 'agent' would appear in tiny font on the Moscow Helsinki Group website.

– I objected to that then and I object now, because I am in no way an agent.

– But you would at least be able to continue doing work that is of benefit to people.

– No. My reasons are that, first and foremost, a foreign agent in Russian terms is a spy and a betrayer. Why would you stick that label on one of the longest established and highly respected human rights organizations in Russia? Secondly, let's just imagine that we agreed to that humiliation in order to keep the organization going and registered ourselves as “foreign agents”. After that, would any Russian official ever have any dealings with us? I can tell you now, they wouldn't. Would even one Russian foundation, including the President's, give money to a “foreign agent”? No. Would any foreign foundation give money to a group that was effectively unable to work? No. We'd just become redundant and discredited.

– What about if the four million roubles you have been given by Putin runs out and you haven’t been able to collect enough money to continue all the work that you are doing?

– We definitely won't collect enough money for everything.

– If you could ask those who drafted the law on NGOs a question, what would it be?

– There is no need to try to improve this law, you need to repeal it. What is there to discuss? This law is unacceptable. It is not just unconstitutional, it also runs counter to our international obligations. Not only is it unlawful, it's against all common sense.

– Did those from United Russia working on the law seek to consult with you at all?

– No. It would have been very amusing if they had done. They are saying that there was a public consultation. They invited about 50 of their cronies to the House of Unions, and they called it a discussion. They didn't invite me – I heard about it by chance and I decided just to turn up. I arrived and the girl with the guest list spotted me and didn't even bother looking at it. She said “Oh, Ludmila Mikhailovna, please go on in.” It didn't occur to her that I wouldn't be in the list. I looked around and I said “There is no card with my name on it on the table”. She said “We'll make one now!” Naryshkin walked in, and there I was at the table with my name in front of me. He did let me speak. I said “I am not a lawyer, so won't try and put this into legal language. I think that this is a despicable law.” I then explained why. Yarovaya, one of the authors of the law, was there as well. I said I feared that the six authors of the law, including Sidyakin, Zheleznyak and this Yarovaya, had been added to the Magnitsky List. Next day, I heard on the news that the United Russia party had announced in the Duma that they were all authors of the law. That was a reaction to what I had said – they got scared. Yarovaya said “How can we be on the Magnitsky List? We had nothing to do with Magnitsky”. I replied that this is an open list, and as soon as these laws about rallies, NGOs and slander come into effect, I would definitely ask for the laws' authors to be put on the list, and would complain about them to the US Congress and to the European Parliament. I told them it would be my duty as a human rights defender.

–Memorial’s office has been vandalized several times with the words “Foreign agent. I love America” painted on it, and people have gathered outside Transparency International's office shouting “Panfilova, give yourself up, you witch!” It’s all just like modern-day Chinese Red Guards.

– Yes, it's clear that they are acting on orders. The fact is that this foreign money from USAID that we received, was also given to the Russian Orthodox Church and, in much greater sums than was granted to us, to the Ministry of Defence. 

– So, they should also register as “foreign agents”?

– In the amendments that were made to the law by the President, religious and charitable organizations were exempted from it. Well, thanks, because not only the Orthodox Church, but Jehovah's Witnesses living in Russia receive financial assistance from fellow believers abroad. After all the many amendments to the law, only human rights, ecology and educational groups remain. We are considered the most harmful and we are the ones discriminated against under the label of “foreign agents”. That just goes to show that our work has had a positive impact. 

(A digression. The telephone rings. The pensioner has been taken to the police station). 
“Good afternoon. I am Ludmila Alekseeva, a member of the Public Advisory Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Can I ask whom I am talking to? It's nice to talk to you, Yury Vasilievich. I don't understand why Vladimir Ionov has been sent to your police station on Tverskaya. He was standing at Pushkin Square on his own holding up a placard. As you know, that's not against the law. They couldn't give me a valid reason why they had arrested him and taken him to you. I ask you most urgently to release him, because he has broken no law... I would be very grateful if you could release him right now, because we both know the law, don't we? Thank you. Goodbye.” 

– He says they are letting him go right now. I don't know if they are lying or not. That was the Head of the Tverskaya Police Station.

Raising Hell

– In the context of the repressive laws that have recently been passed, many people are making comparisons with 1937. Do you see similarities?

– Not with 1937, but with the 1970s, when public opinion already existed, conversations in the kitchen...There is a very real difference between the KGB and the FSB. To begin with, they gave longer prison sentences in those days. We are now seeing the first attempt to impose long sentences with the 6th May prisoners. And they will be long if we don't do something. That's actually what I am working on right now. They have a month to go before trial, and we have to raise hell.

– And how are you going to raise hell?

– I've already explained in my LiveJournal blog and it's been reposted on Echo of Moscow's blog. We will conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the legal aspects of these events, showing that there were no mass riots, and we'll collect the signatures of leading legal experts. Because the ‘aggravating circumstances’ cited in the charges are the existence of mass riots. It's the only way they can secure long sentences. Hooliganism, resisting a police officer – these offences do not carry long sentences, and they can't even prove these. The police inquiry has questioned about 1,500 people. They have obviously got hold of some who are ready to testify to mass riots, otherwise they wouldn't have done the questioning. Of course, some people get intimidated, others are tricked and yet others are agents provocateurs. My idea is to use the mass media, the Internet, to call on witnesses to step forward and testify that there were no mass riots. What is the legal definition of a mass riot? Arson, explosions, damage to property, use of firearms – none of this happened. There were some minor scuffles with police, who fell on people holding a peaceful, sanctioned rally without warning.

To witness the trial by special invitation

– The human rights movement in Russia first emerged during the trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel. The authorities wanted to make an example of them; more so, given that there was coverage of the trials in the press. And that's when the public suddenly began to act in a way they never had in Stalin's time. They started writing letters here, there and everywhere: to the Supreme Court, the Central Committee and the newspapers. People talked about them and sympathized. The accused didn't confess and bravely stuck to their guns. So, the authorities changed the script, and decided to hold a closed trial. It was leaked via the lawyers that this was their intention. And yet another wave of sympathy arose. Thus, they decided on a so-called public trial: only people they were sure of were allowed in with tickets they were given at the Writers’ Union.

– What were the tickets? Invitations to the trial?

– Yes. They showed their tickets and went in. We were outside and they went past us, but we knew some of them. We said “Oh, Agniya Barto, just think you've got such a nice fur coat out of your poems for children...” Then Evtushenko went in. He didn't look up, so that no one could see how guilty he felt about being among those who went in.

– It wasn't possible not to go?

– Well, they probably wanted to go. Sinyavsky and Daniel got long sentences, 7 and 5 years respectively. We can't know what had been planned originally, maybe something much worse, maybe execution by firing squad. There was a real feeling that the public had won. The public had influenced things. We have many more opportunities these days. If we can raise a wave of public protest....

– The Pussy Riot trial was clearly intended to make an example of the three women. And what a storm was raised! Even so, they still gave them two years. 

– That’s right, and they should not have been imprisoned even for one day. The authorities did not expect such a huge international scandal. If they had, they wouldn't have started it. They gambled on the church. Now they don't mention the church. Have you noticed? Why? Because of the public reaction.

– Political Russian Orthodoxy did not work.

– No, it didn't. Public opinion does have an influence. We just have to make sure that public opinion can make itself heard.

Razvozzhaev, the Deputy Speaker and Pensioner Ionov

– When asked about Razvozzhaev's return to Russia, the Deputy Speaker of the Duma Sergei Zheleznyak told me that we can't say he was kidnapped when it turned out he was in Russia. When a Russian citizen is already back in Russia, can we still talk about kidnapping? What do you think about this?

– Of course they messed up, they went about it in a foolish way. As far as I understand, it was the Ukrainians who arrested him and then handed him over to the Russian authorities. They thought they could shake him up a bit and it would all be hushed up. It didn't work. It was absolutely unlawful what the Ukrainians did, because he had already asked them for asylum.

– Do you know what Zhelznyak said about it? He said that the organization in question helps Jews to emigrate. Why did Razvozzhaev seek help from them? Because this organization only helps Jews. Is Razvozzhaev a Jew?

– Zheleznyak is an idiot. I don’t know, is it offensive to say that?

– We'll find out.

– The United Nations accepts asylum-seekers of any nationality; they only care what their circumstances are. Is he a refugee or not? He is a political refugee.

Watched Over

– Do you regret leaving the Presidential Human Rights Council?

– No. I will continue to participate as an expert. This might only apply to me, or it might apply to all the other council members as well, but I've realized that I was being watched over by four officials from the presidential administration.

– What do you mean by being “watched over”?

– When we had the working group for selecting the new members of the Council, the four of them turned up and sat there from the beginning to the end. Everything we said they leaked to the media they control.

– Are they from the department for internal politics?

– Probably. I didn't ask who they were. They just sat there in silence. Their boss Zenkovich is very talkative, however (Pavel Zenkovich was Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration's Department for Internal Politics until October 2012). When some candidates were rejected on technical grounds, and only 83 out of 189 remained, one of the Council's members, Krivenko (Sergey Krivenko, member of the Board of Directors of Memorial and Coordinator of the public movement Citizen and Army), came up to me and said “We will review the cases of all those who were rejected on technical grounds.” I said “Why will you review them?” “The Administration insists”, he replied. I said to him: “This council is supposed to be headed by the President and not Zenkovich. Do you think I want to be subordinate to these stooges on the Council?” I don't want to be. We all serve on the Council voluntarily, and I can find other work to do. Even if Brod (Aleksandr Brod went on hunger strike for 6 and a half days in protest at the procedures for selecting candidates and at the absence of his name from the final list) can't see a life for himself outside of this Council, I can easily manage without it. I sat on the Council for 10 years, so I think I can spend the final years of my life outside of it just for a change.

– Did they often invite council members for talks with the Presidential Administration? 

– No, when Medvedev was head of Putin's administration, he never invited me to his office to talk. He himself attended council meetings fairly often. He said “I promise that I will read all statements written by Council members myself, and not delegate this to my subordinates.” And it has to be said that he kept his word. And when he became President, he continued to read all of our statements. We know this because resolutions on the documents were written in his hand-writing. He also gave us his phone number and told us we could call him on any issue.

The prophecies of Granny Luda

– On your 80th birthday, five years ago, you said “In 10-15 years, Russia will be a democratic country with the rule of law. It doesn't matter who will be in the Kremlin, people won't let them be treated like garbage. The governments of countries with developed democracies are not angels either; but they can't allow themselves to behave like ours do, they are not permitted. By 2017, we shall already be a democratic state with the rule of law. I don't know if I'll live to see it, but remember the prophecies of Granny Luda!” Five years on, do you still agree with what you said then?

– Yes, I agree with that... 

– Even if Putin is still in power?

– Who told you he would be? Who said that?

– Well he has six more years...

– Russia is a country of wonders. We have no idea what will happen. In the first place, it doesn't all depend on Putin.

Putin is no fool. If there is enough pressure from below, he will learn to govern differently. He will learn what Merkel did – you have to consider the public. This is a fact. The same thing has happened with his friend Berlusconi.

He can do it. Personally, I don't care, let him stay as President. The issue is how the country will be governed. You have to take public opinion into account. If we don't let them, as the Germans, the Americans, the English don't....

– How can we stop them? By going out on the streets?

– We already started a year ago, in December. We started taking to the streets. It's turned out that in our situation large rallies are not enough to have an effect on our authorities. We've thought up new ways in response. Just recall “Occupy Abai” right after the protests. That was very interesting, but it didn't take off. It couldn't work in our country, because even if they hadn't broken up the protests, the winter would have done so. You can't sleep under palm trees in this climate! I don't know what people will think up in the future. The mood of protest has not diminished. Sociologists can confirm this, and I've seen it myself. This will influence the authorities. The authorities do not exist in a vacuum. I don't know what form it will take. For Putin's closest friends from the “Ozero” cooperative it was important that Putin was popular. Now he's losing that popularity in catastrophic fashion.

(A digression. The phone rings. It is the detained pensioner again).
Alekseeva: “Thank you for calling. Have a safe journey home. Goodbye”. 

– They have let him go. 

– You have saved him!

– The most important thing is to keep on saying, “I am a member of the Public Advisory Council”. So, to continue, they might just say to him “Vladimir, that's enough, you’re free now.” It could happen. I think that if he wants to step down, they should just let him go with his billions and take whatever he wants. We'll make more for ourselves.

– Where could he go?

– To his friend Berlusconi, I don’t know, or wherever he wants to go.

– Berlusconi could face jail.

– That's the harsh world we live in nowadays. And there is the Magnitsky List as well. Perhaps, and it would be a tragedy, one of his circle could get sick of him and...I'm completely against reprisals, but it could happen, and when we least expect it. I don't know how it will happen. But I do know, however, that what the authorities are doing is unsustainable, and more importantly, people no longer like it. This is the deciding factor now.


* An interview by Elena Masiuk with Sergei Zheleznyak will be published shortly in Novaya gazeta.