Ludmilla Alexeeva: Moscow, May 26

With such a history as ours, we have a pretty good proportion of normal people, brave people. It should be much less. We decided to reach democracy. It's a heroic decision, I would say. And we will be a democratic country but we cannot do it so quickly. We cannot! Be more patient!

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

METTA SPENCER: You emigrated in 1977 and lived in the United States thirteen years?

LUDMILLA ALEXEEVA: Two years in West Virginia because my husband was a mathematician and he had a position in Bethany College in West Virginia. At this time I left Bethany. Almost half of the time I was not with my husband because I was in Washington, New York, or Europe. After that, we lived close to Washington.

SPENCER: Did you have support from the White House when Carter was the president?

ALEXEEVA: Yes. Not only when Carter was president but even when Reagan was president. I was very surprised when Reagan won the election because during the campaign he had criticized Carter for involvement with human rights. But when he came to the presidency, he continued Carter's policy in defence of human rights -- but only toward USSR, because it was very convenient for him to criticize the USSR.

SPENCER: "The evil empire" - a big political stick.

ALEXEEVA: Of course the Democrats are closer to my heart but the Reagan Administration was much more effective than Carter's. They worked brilliantly to support us.

SPENCER: What kind of support did they give you?

ALEXEEVA: First of all, Reagan dealt with the Soviets to exchange a Soviet spy for Yury Orlov, who arrived in the USA in October of 1986. Approximately at that time the Vienna conference of Helsinki countries took place. Usually there were officials there but Yury Orlov and I were included as guests in the USA group. I was a US citizen at that time but Orlov was not, and we were guests and attended the conference and had the possibility to meet members of the Soviet delegation. We attended when Shevardnadze, who was the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, proposed to take the next Helsinki conference, on the human rights dimension, in Moscow. There was laughter about this because there were prisoners at that time and nobody could leave without special permission and so on, but Orlov and I decided it was a good chance to demand changes in human rights problems and we arranged with the American Helsinki Group to support Shevardnadze's proposal under the following conditions: to release all political prisoners; to create an atmosphere in Moscow surrounding this conference as in any free country - everybody may come and observe the situation; and to stop jamming foreign radio stations.

The American Helsinki Group supported us and we spoke in the State Department several times about it and in one month or so of effort in such directions, the American delegation sent their proposal to the Soviet Union. It was absolutely what we said. It was the first time in my life when I saw, as in a free country, ordinary persons may enter such an important meeting.

SPENCER: They accepted your proposals?

ALEXEEVA: Yes. They said the next one will be in Copenhagen and the second conference will be in Moscow because it takes time for us to fulfill all your demands. And they fulfilled them! They fulfilled them! It was so smart because it was good pace, to push them to release the political prisoners.

I received permission to visit Moscow in 1990 because the president of the American Helsinki Group visited Shevardnadze in Moscow and said if you would like to have support of American democratic society to hold a conference in Moscow, you should permit the Moscow Helsinki Group to organize its annual conference in Moscow, and we would like to see the atmosphere around this conference. Then we will decide whether we will support the conference the next year. And Shevardnadze said "Okay, we will do all that you want." And he said "And Alexeeva should be able to attend this conference." Shevardnadze said, "No problem." I thought maybe it was only a one-time permission to attend a conference but after that they crossed my name off their black list and after that I attended things in my country whenever I wanted. I was born in this country, and in 1993 I returned back and restored my citizenship here. And now I am happy because I live in my own country.

SPENCER: Twenty years ago I started writing a book about the transition to democracy and peace in Russia. Now I've come back to finish the research. But there's no democracy here, so I am not sure what to write.

ALEXEEVA: It's our way to democracy. It's a long way, of course, because we were a totalitarian country for three generations. It's not so easy to forget it, you know. For Germany, for example, it was much easier because it was only twelve years. But we were a totalitarian country for more than 70 years. Another reason why it's so difficult for us to reach real democracy is the tragic history of our country. Remember the First World War, revolution, civil war, Stalin's terror, industrialization in Stalin's time, the Second World War. In the Second World War, we lost 26 million people. That's the official figure; I would believe it's much more. If you count how many people we lost during these wars and Stalin's terror, it's impossible to count. And now we are another nation than we were before the First World War. We cannot be compared to nations who had no such tragic histories. No one country in Europe had such an experience. America had no such experience. And we are another country. We have demographic problems because those who were the best people were destroyed during the terror, during the wars, and so on. Those who were a bit defective tried to hide away from the front lines. I remember from my childhood the people before the terror and the Second World War. It's changed --

SPENCER: The quality of the people around you?

ALEXEEVA: Entirely changed. They are more vulnerable to fear now. Of course! Of course! It's an instinct to be afraid of something dangerous. In Soviet times, just before my emigration, I had a talk with a very good psychiatrist and he explained to me why they used psychiatric hospitals against dissidents. It was a private conversation so he was sincere. He said that dissidents are people with wrong psyches because they don't know what to be afraid of. A child knows if he sticks his hands into the stove, he will be burned. But dissidents, when they understand that they are actually in danger, they keep on doing this. It means that they are mentally ill.

I asked him, does this mean that I'm not mentally well? He replied, no, you're mentally well. But you're a very rare case. But such things are not only because he is a psychiatrist. The majority of people around us agreed. They said it's normal for us to be afraid.

And not only that. Many features in our characters were formed by our tragic history. Not all people, of course. With such a history as ours, we have a pretty good proportion of normal people, brave people. It should be much less. We decided to reach democracy. It's a heroic decision, I would say. And we will be a democratic country but we cannot do it so quickly. We cannot! Be more patient!

SPENCER: I should be more patient?

ALEXEEVA: Yes. I believe we need ten, fifteen years. In fifteen years, I believe we will reach democracy. Because, what does democracy mean? When people won't permit their rulers to abuse their power. I would say we've come quite a distance since the end of the eighties to this time. It's the most difficult part of the journey because the first steps are always the most difficult. People now are very different from those in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, people couldn't do anything for themselves. Either the state did something for the people or it wasn't done at all. For example, I would like to have a good apartment. If the state doesn't give it to me, I could not have it. It was impossible. We lived in such a way for three generations. And when the Soviet Union was crushed, we were like kids. We didn't know how to do anything. We had to learn to be grown-up people in a very cruel way because the state had forgotten about us. The state crushed our economy and our social system, and nobody helped people in this country. Those who couldn't learn to do things by themselves, those who couldn't pass the transition, they just died. That is why we have the demographic problem right now.

People who are alive now are mature people. It's a different people from the Soviet Union. In the polls, two years ago, the question was asked, "Do you hope for the state to help you?" Sixty-seven percent replied that they do not hope for the state to help them. And 25 percent actually said that the state sets disabilities for them. It's another people! It's the most difficult step for them to recognize that they should depend on themselves without thinking of help from the state to organize their lives, to help their families. Not to think about state help. Of course, we have now bandit capitalism. We have probably passed that stage, though. Being an historian, I can see that all the stages that took dozens of years, or centuries, in Europe and America, we are passing through in a few years. Now we have turned from bandit capitalism to state capitalism. Of course it's not democracy. But we will pass to other stages too--quickly. Believe me.

Because in parallel with this political development, we have the development of civil society. It's very difficult to observe outside our country. Even in our country, it is difficult to see because no TV, no mass media, shows it or writes about it. But this process is going on. For that reason, I never try to be a deputy or an official - never! - because this is the most important area where we should work to reach democracy: civil society. Even if we had an angel as a president, he could not organize democracy in this society if civil society is not ready for it.

SPENCER: I can see that.

ALEXEEVA: I saw it in America. Elected officials in America are much more polite to ordinary people. Why? Because they know they would lose their position if they spoke in the way our bureaucrats do. That's the only way to reach democracy - through civil society.

SPENCER: It seems to me there's another factor that you're not mentioning: freedom of the press. If you don't have good information -

ALEXEEVA: It's very difficult, yes.

SPENCER: You have portrayed to me a society that's evolving in a good direction. But I see that the press is getting worse off. If information is not going to be available, I don't know how you expect there to be such a pleasant evolution toward a more democratic country.

ALEXEEVA: It's very difficult, of course. But in the Soviet Union we had absolutely no free press. Only samizdat and foreign radio stations who broadcast into the Soviet Union. And when under Gorbachev the censorship was loosened, no one can say where they came from, but a lot of journalists appeared who knew how to use a free press, and who actually did it. They helped very much to push our society from totalitarianism. But now we don't have absolute censorship. We have some magazines, some newspapers -- I read such issues - and we have Internet. We have foreign television. It's more than enough. [We are interrupted here by a phone call.]

That was the Gazeta. They want to interview me. So it's not complete censorship. For the majority, it's enough information. It's especially easy now for our completely free mass media (only a small part of this mass media is completely free) to send information that is needed because this generation had free information during the nineties. So it's another people now! Many more people today want to have free information - especially because now they need to organize their own lives, so they need more information than from the TV. They recognize this too. So for that reason, the process of building up civil society is going at a very quick pace. You can't see it very clearly if you don't participate in the process. But I do participate in the process, so I see that it is going very quickly until the state tries to suppress it. They cannot suppress it. They can do nothing! In Soviet times, you could not come to me and speak as we are doing now. And I could not have interrupted my speech by speaking with a journalist from New Gazeta, who wants to interview me. We will reach democracy, believe me! I will not live to see it, but it doesn't matter. Every man will not live to see something.

SPENCER: May I say how puzzled I am? When you were a dissident you were putting your hand into the fire. In spite of the fact that you knew it would burn, you did it anyway. And now it is easier - much easier - and you don't sound like a dissident to me.

ALEXEEVA: I'm not a dissident now because we have a good constitution and I defend our constitution. I would say that I support our state because I support our constitution. And I would say the dissidents are those who violate our constitution.

SPENCER: Who are they?

ALEXEEVA: Our officials, including our president. I don't know about President Medvedev because he has not had enough time to be evaluated, but I suspect he knew about it.

SPENCER: You sound more like a dissident when you say that the people who are dissidents are the government.

ALEXEEVA: Yeah.

SPENCER: What do you do now about those people? Do we see it the same way? My understanding is that about sixteen years ago there was an opportunity for real democracy. But over time, with Yeltsin, with Putin, the government became authoritarian. And if there was ever a time to be a dissident against the government, I would think this would be a good time now. But that doesn't sound like what you are seeing.

ALEXEEVA: Yes, that's right. But we work under new conditions. We have a new constitution. Now, I can speak louder every time when our president violates the constitution by his decree, by a new law, and so on. I speak loudly. I say, "Mr. President, you are violating the constitution." In Soviet times, I couldn't say that because we had no such constitution. It's an important base for us. He can't answer us sincerely because he knows he is violating the constitution. We want him to fulfill the constitution.

We are working under absolutely another condition. I am a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights. He cannot tell me "Get out of my council." Why? It would be shameful. Everybody knows it is in the constitution. I have a bigger moral weight, according to them. It is recognized even by state officials. It's very interesting. Now I may call anybody. He doesn't do what I want him to do but he cannot refuse to speak with me. Instead, he says [she mocks Putin's simpering voice] "Oh, Ludmilla Mikhailovna, okay, okay. It's so nice you called me," and so on. It doesn't make a real difference because even if they listen to me they don't do what I say, but they cannot ignore me. Because they know! For Soviet officials, it was different, but for these officials, they violate the constitution in their own interests, and they will continue to do so, but they know it is not right! Even their mentality has changed. It means that our civil society has a chance to mature in time. Historically, it's not so long, ten or fifteen years. It's long in terms of my age, but not in history.

[She takes a phone call here.]

Of course, there are political parties too. This phone call was from Yabloko Party. But they have no real mass of people anymore. It's a small party now that represents almost no one.

SPENCER: I spoke with Carl Gershman the other night by phone. He's the head of [the US government-funded organization] National Endowment for Democracy. I was talking to him about the fact that the Russian government has forbidden foreign funds to come to help groups that are doing political work. I don't understand that, How do you feel about it?

ALEXEEVA: Under our law, foreign organizations cannot give money to our political parties.

SPENCER: No, of course not - not to political parties. I think most governments would prohibit that. But there are other kinds of activities that could be funded. What would be your idea of what is appropriate for foreign funders to give money to?

ALEXEEVA: Of course, not to political parties. They do have money from abroad, but only secretly. I know it. But as to my organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, we are the oldest human rights organization in Russia. We are experienced and well known, and for that reason, we work with the whole spectrum of human rights. For me, of course, I am more interested in advancing civil and political rights than in social rights. I support this social movement because I believe that if people organize [NGOs] to defend their interests, they may [gradually become] able to be active politically-.

Here's a good example. The Association of Car Owners was created three years ago to defend the right to drive cars with the steering wheel on the right side because we have a lot of those cars in the Far East. They are easy to import there from Japan. The car owners won that right against the government, which wanted to abolish cars of that sort. Then there were many victories after that. Now, three years later, they are against allowing high officials to close the road to get through traffic easily or to use special lights so they can drive on the opposite side of the street. And this is political! They demand that citizens should be equal under the law. Maybe they don't even recognize that it's political, but they are demanding it. And now our social movements are the same. It's very important to recognize and defend your own interests. You should combine with other people in the same situation. If they recognize it and combine, after that it is going to move ahead very quickly. In our country, [the solutions to all problems encounter] barriers in the government.

SPENCER: You are more optimistic than I expected. If you were young now, would you be more critical of the government and more agitating for change?

ALEXEEVA: I am very critical against this government. During the second presidency of Mr. Putin, they took off almost all our civil rights. The good thing is that in our country, very few people have respect for the law. Okay, they say, they've taken away some of our rights by law, but we still use them!

SPENCER: I don't know whether to agree with you or not. I hear people say there is something slavish in the Russian soul. Your optimism is that somehow you will become democratic. Some of my friends say it will never happen because Russians like to be slaves.

ALEXEEVA: Nobody likes to be slaves. In Russia, there are parallel processes, toward despotism and toward true freedom. If you study Russian history, you will see: Never was there a time when nobody fought for freedom. We had a tragic history but before that, we were a normal European country -- not worse than Germany, for example. We went toward democracy slower than England or France, but in comparison with East European countries, we had no differences. The Soviet period was very different.

The problem was not that we are slaves. The problem is that the Soviet system wasn't brought to our country from outside. This ideology was born in our country. This is the problem; it is much more difficult to overcome it and go to democracy than in any country in Eastern Europe, where it was brought by occupiers. When we organized the October Revolution, we thought we were pursuing freedom, not slavery. But we received quite another thing. It was a good lesson for us -- maybe 100 million people, especially if you count the foreign-born among those who died. It's impossible to count. We paid a heavy price for our mistake and now it's hard to go ahead. But I am optimistic anyway.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here
Search for other articles by Ludmilla Alexeeva here

Peace Magazine homepage