The Moscow Helsinki Group is the oldest human rights organization in Russia

An interview with Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

The state is supposed to defend civil rights. Unfortunately, this truism falls even in advanced democracies, and human rights activists come to their fellow countrymen’s help. The Moscow Helsinki Group is the oldest human rights organization in Russia. It celebrated its 30th anniversary on May 12, 2006. Here is an interview with its Chair Lyudmila Alekseyeva.

Question: How was the Moscow Helsinki Group established?

Lyudmila Alekseyeva: Some individuals turned up in the 1960’s and 1970’s who were determined to establish a dialogue between the powers-that-be and authorities. The former were reluctant to heed their citizens’ opinion, and that necessitated the intermediaries the authorities would listen to. Western democracies helped us there. It was a period when the West feared that the USSR would launch a nuclear war. Something had to be done to lessen the scope of the Cold War and arms race, and after some lengthy negotiations 33 European countries plus the Soviet Union, United States, and Canada met in Helsinki and signed the Final Act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Known as the Helsinki Accords, the documents were signed on August 1, 1975. The documents specified the terms of coexistence of the East and the West including a ban on a revision of state borders. They also dwelt on the matters of mutual scientific, technical, and financial assistance. Principle Ten of the Helsinki Accords was titled “Implementation of international commitments” and concerned problems of promotion of human rights. Signatories of the Helsinki Accords pledged to honor them in full.

And so, Public Group for Facilitation of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR that eventually became known as the Moscow Helsinki Group was established in May 1976.

Question: Did the United States and European countries support you then?

Lyudmila Alekseyeva: They took into consideration everything happening in the Soviet Union but they did not make any loud protests over anything. In the meantime, we found support in republics of the Union, specifically among local national movements concerned with preservation of ethnic languages and cultures. It is in the republics of the USSR that “twins” of the Moscow Helsinki Group appeared. There were organizations of this sort in Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia, and Armenia. With the exception of Lithuania, however, they were national movements rather than human rights organizations. In Ukraine, for example, the movement concentrated on the struggle for the release of arrested and imprisoned activists of national movements but never even responded to harassment of Baptists…

Question: What problems in particular did you handle? From the standpoint of human rights abuses, that is?

Lyudmila Alekseyeva: We handled the traditional civil rights like freedom of expression and religion, freedom of unrestricted departure and return to the country.

Question: A few words on grants. Where do you get them from and how do you spend them?

Lyudmila Alekseyeva: We receive them from the United States, Great Britain, Netherlands… By the way, we are spending practically nothing on ourselves.

The funds are mostly spent on support of regional human rights organizations and on all sorts of monitoring programs. Consider the grant to the tune of 23,000 pounds from Great Britain, the one referred to in the recent spy scandal. We had planned to use the money to study the terms of imprisonment in Russian jails. The study was supposed to take place in 20 Russian regions. Divide 23,000 by 20, and the sum does not really amount to too much, does it?

In the meantime, we were promptly accused of spying for Great Britain. For some reason, however, nobody even brought similar charges against the Russian Defense Ministry that was getting money from the same source for the program of social adaptation of officers of the army. The explanation is simple. Our state earnestly dislikes organizations like ours, and it will therefore do everything in its power to put an end to our existence. The federal law that bans foreign sponsorship of non-government organizations was just the curtain raiser.

Question: But there must be a way of safeguarding the Moscow Helsinki Group from prejudice on the part of the state. It only takes domestic sponsorship. Why not accept money from Russian businessmen?

Lyudmila Alekseyeva: We are forced to operate on money from abroad. We are defending citizens of Russia from the lawlessness and tyranny of the state and officialdom, and domestic businesses in the country depend on the state nowadays. Russian businessmen are frightened of sponsoring the human rights community. Mikhail Khodorkovsky tried it, and we all know where he is now. It is only when businesses in Russia are independent from the state that they will feel free to sponsor us. I do not expect it in the near future. All the same, we will go on doing our job even without funding altogether, even without pay, if need be.