Liudmila Alekseeva: ‘We must continue to defend the victims of state tyranny.’

9 December 2018

By Liudmila Alekseeva

Source: Novaya Gazeta

This text is the welcoming address to participants at the congress of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Liudmila Alekseeva managed to finish writing this while in the hospital. Today, on the congress’s opening day, it was read as a farewell speech to human rights activists. Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva passed away on 8 December, at the age of 91. We are publishing this major text—in fact, her final word. To us all.

My dear friends and colleagues!

I am very sorry that my health does not allow me to be with you today, a day so very important to us all, as we mark the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

On this day, we truly do have something to celebrate and contemplate. Seventy years ago, a document of supreme importance was passed, a document that, in resting on the tragic experience of the terrible Second World War, formulated the universal rules for living in common on our planet on the basis of respect for human dignity and human rights.

Throughout the intervening decades, we have been working, insofar as we have had the strength and talent, to fill this important declaration with real content, so that it might become a part of our culture and policy, be defended by laws and institutions, and take root in our daily life. This has been a difficult movement, enjoying intermittent success at various speeds, with victories and disappointments, gains and bitter losses. On the whole, looking back, it is worth noting the indisputable progress in the development of international law, the rejection of the colonial system, the gradual rejection of the death penalty, and the global struggle against discrimination and racial prejudices and for equality between men and women and for more and more people on the planet living in conditions of freedom and democracy, and how, despite everything, we have managed to avoid a new global war and on the whole seen a tendency for the intensity of military conflicts to decline. This progress would have been impossible without the active movement of human rights activists and humanists throughout the world!

At the same time, you and I must admit that as we move further and further from the lessons of the Second World War, new generations have displayed considerable cynicism and unconcern toward the as yet not very stable system of values and institutions that has been built, as they consistently and more and more and more frequently test their stability.

The growth of political populism and nationalism in the context of a migration crisis, the religious conflicts, the renaissance of authoritarian rulers and of slumbering national worldviews in specific parts of the world, and the rejection of international obligations on the part of individual states (including Russia, which we find especially deplorable) threaten all our important but fragile gains of the past and have saddled you with new and difficult tasks.

I had sincerely hoped that we would be able to leave behind a more perfect and just world in which there would be no place for the hardships and sufferings that fell to my and previous generations, and as before I still hope for this, unfortunately, though, it is obvious by now that you, too, will know your fair share of difficulties and trials.

I only want to believe that your generation will not repeat all our past mistakes and will be able to build upon our few achievements and experience.

One of the important problems of the contemporary global movement for human rights is that some of it has been bureaucratized and become an element for maintaining the activities of national governments or intergovernmental organizations (especially in Europe), while some has been actively included in immediate political struggle, thereby limiting the possibility of influencing the worldview of the majority of our fellow citizens, being limited by the fact that we work with a narrow circle of our political allies. This does not mean that I am opposed to working with the authorities or with politicians; this merely speaks to the fact that we need many more people in the movement who are prepared to interact with and spread their values to a wider audience, especially among young people.

It seems to me that this is our most important task: to leave behind our conventional “ghetto” of comfortable interaction with like-minded people and narrowly thematic expert work and go to the masses and engage in education on a new level using new approaches, technologies, and people.

It is broad human rights and, more broadly, humanistic education that must be one of our most important objectives.

We must also do everything in our power to preserve our unity and the good will inside the movement! We may disagree on matters of tactics for achieving stated objectives and in individual opinions, but for the sake of achieving common strategic objectives we must be tolerant toward our disagreements, respect and support one another, and not allow the authorities to goad us into internal wrangling and mutual mistrust.

A particular distinguishing trait of the human rights movement was always international solidarity. With the civil society of Belarus, Central Asia, and other countries. Important for us right now are acts of solidarity with human rights activists in Ukraine and especially Crimea. Support for the Crimean Tatar peace movement has always been a distinct objective of the Moscow Helsinki Group and our entire human rights movement.

It seems to me that complicated times lie ahead for us. Including in Russia.

You and I can see perfectly well just how weak right now are civil society, the rights culture, and democratic institutions in our country.  It is naïve to think that our authorities are exclusively to blame for this. Yes, we have truly not been lucky with authorities, but we are also partly to blame for the fact that these authorities can rely on the support of the majority of our fellow citizens by means of simple propaganda and manipulations.

We have underestimated their degree of influence, their vulnerable imperial chauvinistic consciousness, and the legacy of our totalitarian past, and we have not always been able to choose the arguments or style and form of interaction with people that will change their minds. Without that ability, even in the event of a change of state to one more in solidarity with our views, we will still depend on the will and views of politicians inclined toward populism and cynicism, who will continue to manipulate society.

We must learn how to interact and disseminate our views and values among all our fellow citizens, discounting no one. Not the state, not the opposition, not the victims of tyranny, not the perpetrators of crimes,

after all, they are all our fellow citizens and simply human beings, the bearers of human dignity, for whose sake we work and together with whom we must live and create a better world.

We must stand in the defense of our convictions and our remaining and constantly narrowing rights and freedoms, and we must stand up against isolationism and the militarization and clericalization of public life while pointing out to the state and society the error of their chosen path. We must not allow the accession of total ideological obscurantism and ensure, even in the hardest circumstances, that an alternative opinion has the chance to exist and be disseminated.

Given the mounting political repressions, we must continue to defend the victims of state tyranny and defend without compromise both each other and critics who have been persecuted by the state.

I would ask you to convey my warmest words of support to dear Lev Aleksandrovich Ponomarev, and I call on all my colleagues to unite in urgent actions in his defense! We must remember all the other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and work constantly to achieve their unconditional and immediate release!

Contemporary Russian officials continue to repeat their predecessors’ mistakes, restricting freedoms in the hope of remaining in power through dictatorial methods but thereby merely aggravating their position and increasing the likelihood of the state’s uncontrollable collapse through resistance in society and, god forbid, violence. It seems to me that we must not be complicit in such a scenario but must, no matter what, patiently explain to the state that it is in its own interests and the interests of the country to replace their chosen course, to ensure free political competition, and to guarantee civil freedoms. We cannot and must not conduct a course of “the worse the better” because that would be worse not only for the authorities but for all of us, and ultimately the way out of this spiral would prove even longer and more difficult.

We must appeal to people’s values, historical experience, and common sense. This is very difficult but essential, and if we are convincing, consistent, and firm, success will be on our side without fail.  Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. When we began our difficult journey for the defense of human rights, we had far fewer grounds for optimism than we do today, but we believed in the success of our hopeless cause! Today I wish you, with all my heart, just such faith, as well as strength and success!

With faith in the success of our common cause,

Translation by Marian Schwartz 

Featured photo: Wikipedia

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