A version of this was published in Estonian in Postimees.
When philosopher Hannah Arendt talked about heroes, she meant not so much warriors or statesmen as brave ordinary people who resisted the Eichmannian temptation to “do their duty” as the wheels of an evil bureaucratic machinery: train drivers who refused to take people to death camps, or clerks who defied the orders of the totalitarian madmen. Under not quite as dramatic but nevertheless comparable circumstances, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the fragile 82-year old veteran human rights activist, personifies such grassroots heroism in our times in one of the remaining authoritarian regimes in Europe.
Even though Russia today is not totalitarian in the sense of last century’s most deathly regimes, it is still far from being democratic. Several democratic Russians have criticized the conciliatory or naive attitude of the West toward Russian authoritarianism and the failure of their Western colleagues to support liberal Russians. Lilia Shevtsova offers in a recent issue of Foreign Policy a quote from an European intellectual that summarizes a prevailing attitude of some Europeans toward Russian liberals’ struggle for democracy: “… with time Russia will become a democracy. You shouldn’t try to hurry things.”
While many Western politicians have a pragmatic attitude towards Russian authoritarianism, it now appears to be hard for Russian liberal intellectuals to even gain moral support from their Western counterparts. Apart from the argument that democracy in Russia is just around the corner (thus no need to worry or fight), there is another popular argument in favor of “sovereign democracy” as “Russia’s own way”, that it is culturally more suitable for the Russian society than the supposedly alien “Western values”.
Alexeyeva claims that such an argument directly serves the interests of the authoritarian machinery – unless it reflects just plain stupidity. She describes today’s Russia as a “soft authoritarianism” that offers a certain degree of liberties including freedom of speech, while real political decision-making and large media are controlled by what she repeatedly and somewhat elusively refers to as “power”, “those in power”, “leaders”, “bureaucracy” or just “they”. One wonders if that “power” today feels strong and confident enough not to be paranoid about any minor oppositional voices, the way the Soviet Union was.
Alexeyeva, however, shares the Western optimists’ belief that in 10-15 years Russia eventually will become a democracy. But it would be futile to convince a 82-year old lady that she should just patiently wait around until that time comes. She fights for the freedom of assembly here and now – the Russian constitution grants that right to citizens in theory but in practice she claims it does not exist. So on the 31th day of every second month the activists of the “Article 31” movement gather in Moscow to claim that right. And the movement is growing: on March 31st this year, there will be demonstrations already in 25 Russian cities. Alexeyeva firmly believes that once the right to demonstrate is granted, there is no stopping of the power of street democracy as people demand a real change.
This does not sound as if democracy is culturally unsuitable to Russians. On the contrary, for Alexeyeva the pressure from the people is the only force that promotes a change in Russia, as no change is to be expected through either elections, legislation or judicial reform. Also, the apparent popularity of the authoritarian leaders evaporates as questions are posed about real policies instead of the leaders’ personalities.
Even though some Europeans may have their reservations about human rights activism in Russia, at least in Estonia this particular activist received the welcome and support she deserves: Alexeyeva was greeted in Tallinn as a superstar, she was met by the president, the Parliament and a full audience of eager listeners, she got a lot of media attention. Her visit was the first in the series “Russian Voices” arranged by Open Estonia Foundation that will bring more of democratic Russian voices to the Estonian capital in the months and years to come. With the help of local Russian-speaking liberals, Estonia could probably create a democratic public forum for those voices that Russia lacks this far.
Despite her optimism, Alexeyeva is painfully aware of the risks of human rights activism in her homeland. Ironically, she gains courage from her honorable age. Her dryish recognition that one must die one day anyway and that it is even better to be shot dead than lie in a hospital for months indicates that her general optimism has a darker realist side. At the same time there is a humorous mood to her actions, as her very physical frailty makes any militiaman arresting her look like an insensitive monster. But even as her confrontations with the authorities may look comically pathetic, she is indeed a hero who fights for what she believes in against all the odds and in spite of the risks involved.
What happens in Russia to Russian citizens is definitely something that we in Europe should care about – for the sake of Russians, but also for ourselves: as Andrei Sahkarov emphasized decades ago, a state that does not respect the rights of its own citizens tends to be potentially agressive also in its foreign policy. Looking at the issue from the coasts of the Gulf of Finland, we see different approaches: Finland takes a strongly pragmatic view while Estonia has been anything but “naive” with regard to their Eastern neighbour. At the same time Schröderism is making its way to Estonia too, as representatives of business circles as well as some politicians dismiss any criticism of Russia as either paranoid or imprudent – in stark contrast to Alexeyeva’s recommendation that the best help Westerners can offer Russians is to talk openly about Russia’s problems.
Alexeyeva remains a voice that reminds us why the lack of democracy and rule of law in Russia can and should be criticized. It is first of all Russians themselves who suffer from the authoritarianism of their state, so by ignoring that authoritarianism in the hope of short-term material benefits we would ignore of the plight of the people who would like to, but still cannot, enjoy the civil and political rights that we ourselves take for granted.