An Alekseyeva Lesson Russians Haven’t Learned: Far More has to Be Changed than Just the Leader

File Photo of Kremlin Tower, St. Basil's, Red Square at Night

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, December 9, 2018)

Vladimir Putin casts such a dark shadow on Russia that it is perhaps no surprise that many in the opposition believe, as commentator Aleksandr Rusin puts it today, that finding and installing a new leader is “the chief issue of present-day Russia” and that “everything else is secondary” (

Lyudmila Alekseyeva file photo

But as Lyudmila Alekseyeva insisted repeatedly over the course of her decades of human rights activities, “the behavior of the rulers depends on citizens: if [the rulers] conduct themselves badly, then we are guilty in this more than they are. Each of us in their place would begin to conduct themselves not as we should” (

The rulers in short “to a certain extend are themselves victims of the fact that we do not have a strong civil society,” an observation that Ivan Sukhov writes in an appreciation of Alekseyeva on her death that may seem a “banal” passage from a political science textbook. But in fact these are important words many fail to appreciate (

If Russians want better rulers, they must become better citizens. Alekseyeva showed that throughout her life. When she began her career as a defender of human rights in 1965, Sukhov observes, no one could imagine that there could be a world “in which there was no Soviet Union” but thanks in part to her work and others like her that came about.

Yesterday, “all of Russia lost one of its very most important symbols” of what citizens can and must do to change their country. Alekseyeva infuriated many who wanted the status quo, but she showed the power of principle consistently and clearly expressed under all circumstances.

Of course, it seemed to many at various points of her life that Alekseyeva couldn’t “influence either Russian domestic policy [or] Russian relations with the world – and all the same she did just that. She seemed too small and often too alone to do that, but she showed that she could serve as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Lyudmila Alekseyeva will be missed: one can only hope that her lessons will not be.

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