In the Moscow in which Ludmilla Alexeyeva grew up, as the daughter of poor Stalin loyalists in the 1930s, neighbors disappeared during the night without a whisper and children played but didn't talk about what was going on.
Raising questions about the dimmer corners of life was a danger in itself, so a lot remained unsaid. But the questions of an inquisitive child do not so easily go away.
Alexeyeva, 77, never stopped asking questions in her quest for peace and human rights. Since 1996, she has headed the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization, and since 1998 she has been president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. And while she serves on a commission that advises President Vladimir Putin on human rights, she continues to speak her mind and criticize him in the media when he shows inconsistencies in the promises he has made.
Last week, she was one of four Russian activists honored by the National Endowment of Democracy, a nonprofit organization that makes hundreds of grants each year to support democracy groups all over the world. The four were recognized for their efforts in advancing reforms in their country.
Alexeyeva is a veteran in such work, and her activism dates to her days as a college student, when a handful of like-minded Soviets began to challenge the dictates of authority.
"I discovered people who had the same questions. We only knew what state propaganda told us, and of course we did not believe in this official picture," she recalled, sitting in the den of her son's home in Arlington. "Our main source of information was the personal experience of people. Exchanges with them became very important; they informed us about the past and cemented a fragmented reality. It was a very fruitful time, because we saw things through the eyes of others."
When Stalin died in 1953, doubts about society began to surface. Writers started publishing books abroad under pen names, works inspired by actual life stories. When two writers, part of Alexeyeva's social circle, were arrested in 1965, it was a turning point that brought on the birth of the human rights movement in post-Stalinist Russia. Several writers wrote to the court and Soviet authorities demanding the release of the two and calling for demonstrations in Pushkin Square to push for a public trial. Those were some of the early public stirrings to restore individual rights and the rule of law.
In 1977, after being exiled from her native country, Alexeyeva immigrated to the United States as a representative of the Moscow Helsinki group, which was founded in 1976. Her eldest son remained in Russia for three years, helping her stay in touch with other dissidents, until he was given the choice to leave or go to prison.
Once in the United States, one of her sons became a computer analyst and the other earned his doctorate in economics at Duke. Her husband, a mathematician who had spent five years in Stalinist camps as a young man, found a teaching job at Bethany College in West Virginia.
Alexeyeva would have preferred to stay in Russia, where she knew the situation and where she could still be active, but her family's pragmatism prevailed. "It was their decision," she said, and she is still counting her blessings.
Her English was not good enough at first for her to read new books without a dictionary, go to serious theater or recite poetry -- one of her favorite activities to do with friends. She wrote books about Soviet dissidents of her generation who sowed the seeds of perestroika. She was instrumental in helping bring about the release of several members of her group.
"It was meaningful. But what was terrible all those years was that I thought I would never go back" to Russia, she said. She never broke the links with her friends. She remained involved and talked about political prisons on Radio Liberty. "So, I kind of lived there. I was just physically here in this area," she said. "I missed the real purpose of my life, to provide human rights inside Russia. I did it from here, always telling myself it was better than being in jail."
In 1990, she was granted permission to return home.
She became a consultant for American Helsinki Watch and for the AFL-CIO, and in 1993, her citizenship was restored. She returned to Moscow, the city where she had lived and gone to school, rediscovering friends and that though her family was extremely important to her, so was her life as an activist.
"I am not a bureaucrat or businesswoman, I am a public activist. I have had this public life in Russia, and now it is much more positive," she said. "In the past we only demanded human rights, and that was it. Now we can actually do it, and it is so interesting. Now I am not so young, yet this is the happiest period in my life."
"I am tired every evening, but never do I think I should stop. This is the sense, the purpose of my life. If I stop, I stop to live," she said. "I work from morning to evening. I leave so early and return home late. Of course, I come back tired, but the next day I do the same."