23 December 2022
by Valery Paniushkin, journalist
“I hear you have a thing for artichokes, Valera. Well, I bought some to try, and they were absolutely disgusting. But if you like them, then you eat them! Eat the lot because no one else will!”
She greeted me much this way every time I paid her a visit. Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva: the great Babushka.
Talking to her was an absolute joy. Her train of thought typically went something like this: “Well, you see, this thing happened, and then that thing, and this, and that, but I (fool that I am) still didn’t catch on…” This wonderful tone of hers lives on in her memoir The Thaw Generation. Do read it if you haven’t done so already! Nobody writes memoirs like that. Usually, the author of a memoir will act as if they knew everything from the start, but Babushka wrote and spoke like she was the last person to understand the most obvious things.
Right now, I bet she would say, “They’ve taken Crimea, would you believe it, Valera! They sent a bunch of political pundits and experts to the Donbas to set people against one another, and shot down a Boeing plane, and I (fool that I am) still didn’t catch on that war was coming and that Putin was an ogre. I even let him into my home, would you believe it!
I doubt that she would let that ogre into her home now.
I think it was that capacity of hers to either let people in or turn them away that infuriated Team Putin above all else. That is why they are trying to shut down the Moscow Helsinki Group and to destroy the cause to which Babushka dedicated herself, and why they are working so hard to erase the very memory of her, all remaining traces.
It was because she would not let them in. And that beats not being accepted by the likes of President Biden, Chairman Xi, or Prime Minister Mori. They’re just temporal leaders, you see, but our Babushka… how can I put it?
I would visit her for no particular reason. Every time I was at Babushka’s place, be it in the living room or at the entrance, or on the Arbat outside her building, I would meet someone nice just arriving to see her or heading off. That’s why I would go and see her – just so that she would let me in.
I don’t know about you, but the way my mind works, I always feel like I’m in the wrong. A visit to Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva, however, would relieve me of these nagging doubts for a while. If she let me in, it meant that I (fool that I am) hadn’t made too much of a pig’s ear of things. If she had not let me in, it would have been unbearable. I’m sure Hell is a place where Babushka turns you away, so, in that sense, Putin must now be in Hell.
I’m sure that’s what it’s about. It’s not the human rights activities of the Moscow Helsinki Group, nor the conferences they are involved in or the petitions they write; it’s all about Babushka. She’s been gone from the world for four years now, and yet it’s still unbearable to think that she might turn you away from her door. It’s unbearable even for Putin, which is why they’re trying to destroy MHG in a blind rage.
It’s impossible to destroy the Moscow Helsinki Group. It isn’t some legal entity, but a spiritual phenomenon. It’s a physical embodiment of the notions that people have dignity and inalienable rights. It’s an idea, and you can’t destroy an idea by a decree of the Russian Ministry of Justice.
Anyone who tells their friends – or even just their own children – that there are people dying in the war in Ukraine is already a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Anyone who writes on social media that Navalny is being tortured in prison is already penning a Chronicle of Current Events. Just think what a minor publication the Chronicle was in Soviet times! It didn’t even run to hundreds of copies, just dozens. Yet it sustained free thought, hidden away in a criminal state. And when the government collapsed in on itself under the weight of its own crimes, such thought blossomed. It will blossom once again.
We just have to preserve it, that notion that people have inherent dignity and inalienable rights. We must preserve it in memory of our dear Liudmila Mikhailovna Alsekseeva.
 A reference to a line from a song by Soviet poet Aleksandr Galich about the make of typewriter often used to type, and make copies of, samizdat texts [translator’s note].
Translated by Lindsay Munford