To us, she was always “Grandma Lyuda,” which is also what the matriarch of Russia’s human rights movement, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, ironically called herself for the past few decades. It seemed like Grandma Lyuda had been around forever and it seemed that she’d always be here. There was no reason to think otherwise, especially as her mind and wit remained scarily sharp into her late eighties and beyond.
Today, as we lay her to rest at 91, it’s impossible to believe that she is really gone, that there will be no more phone calls and no more heated discussions at the table, laden with delicious food, in her apartment on the Arbat, an old Moscow neighborhood.
Alexeyeva was born in 1927, which meant, as she would say many times, that she was 25 years old when Stalin died. She knew all there was to know about totalitarianism – from Stalin’s great terror to the less bloody but still repressive decades that followed, until the openness of the late eighties, which culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In recent years, as the Kremlin’s crackdown on human rights was gaining unprecedented strength, she would shrug when she heard desperation in the voices of younger colleagues. “We saw the Soviet Union, that severe totalitarian regime, fall,” she would say. “We won, though we [Soviet dissenters] were so weak vis-à-vis the state. But we made our choice to live like free people in that unfree state and we won a battle that seemed hopeless. Are things bad right now? Yes, they are. But not as bad by far. We won back then and we will win again.”