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Russia has just bid farewell to the country’s most respected human rights campaigner and a veteran Soviet dissident, Lyudmila Alexeyeva. And Russia has just celebrated twenty-five years of its 1993 constitution, a document many consider pure decoration for a political system that creates its own rules. That the memorial events for Alexeyeva and a discussion of the state of the Russian constitution have coincided was a mere accident, but an ominous one.

What Lyudmila Mikhailovna was and will be remembered for was her work as a pravozashchitnik, a notion that needs some explanation in the English-language universe. Normally translated as “human rights advocate” or rights campaigner, the word actually means an activist who makes every effort, often futile, to make sure a person’s rights are observed by Russia’s—and earlier the Soviet Union’s—law enforcement agencies and courts.

What a cumbersome way to describe a lawyer! Except that a pravozashchitnik is most often not a lawyer. Pravozashchita is a (dangerous) mission to protect people from their own government and law enforcement agents. A mission like this could only arise in a place where a gap existed between the written law and actual practice on the ground. The Soviet Union was of course such a place.

Born in 1927, Alexeyeva belonged to the generation that started the human rights movement in the USSR. The idea was simple: “Observe your own constitution!” That was the demand directed at the authorities, coined by the pioneer of the movement, the late Alexander Yesenin-Volpin.

“How can you possibly urge anyone to observe the Soviet constitution? The Soviet state is a gang of criminals,” a fellow dissident once challenged Volpin. “There is a Soviet power that is founded on laws and the Soviet constitution. And there is a Soviet gang that violates those laws and the constitution. I am ready to fight the Soviet gang with the methods of Soviet power,” Volpin retorted.

Pavel Litvinov, another veteran activist, who described this conversation from the 1960s, went on to explain that although Volpin’s response might have sounded like a joke, its implication was serious. “Imagine that the Soviet state observes its own laws, it then becomes something different and we can then think of actually supporting it. But it didn’t observe its laws,” Litvinov said. “And that was our point of departure.”

Fifty years on, the Russian state has arguably made great strides toward observing its own constitution, but pravozashchitniki are still in demand in Russia. Numerous norms, from the ban on torture to freedom to assemble to the protection of private property, are enshrined in the constitution but are partly or entirely ignored by Russia’s wider legislation, the country’s law enforcement agencies, and its courts.

But what Soviet citizens did not have, Russian citizens do: a chance to file a complaint against their own government with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Since 1996 Russia has been a member of the Council of Europe, an organization distinct from the European Union and focused primarily on upholding the rule of law in the council’s member states. The Council of Europe’s own court, the ECHR, has the power to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights, a document similar in spirit to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that has just reached its seventieth anniversary.

Russia, along with Turkey and Ukraine, is a leading country of origin of complaints to the Strasbourg-based ECHR. Most of the judgments pronounced by the court concern Russia and Russian citizens.

The Strasbourg court makes a huge difference for Russia’s activists, journalists, community workers, and people from all walks of life. But after Russia’s recent spat with the West Moscow has been threatening to leave the Council of Europe and, therefore, the ECHR. “I hope this does not happen,” Lyudmila Alexeyeva said in an interview earlier this year. “With our courts system...this would be a nightmare.”

Just a few days ago the ECHR denied a Russian appeal against an earlier ruling and ordered Moscow to pay members of the punk group Pussy Riot $43,500 in damages for an “exceptionally severe” sentencing in 2012 and a breach of the group members’ rights, including the right to free expression. On Wednesday the Russian Justice Ministry said the government would comply with the ECHR ruling and compensate Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Alexey Navalny, an anticorruption crusader, has won a number of cases in Strasbourg, as have thousands of other Russian citizens over the years. The rights that are violated are those basic norms, such as the right to a fair trial, to free expression or free assembly, that the Russian constitution endorses but the Russian legal system does not enforce.

In contrast to the Soviet Union, which angrily denied any violations of human rights on its territory, contemporary Russia’s official position is clever. Russia keeps grumbling at the court’s rulings but mostly complies with them and pays the required compensations (the ECHR does not overrule national courts’ judgments; it only awards damages to those whose rights it finds have been violated).

As Russia provides the ECHR with a large part of its workload, Moscow’s tactic has been simply to sit by as the Strasbourg court is flooded with cases. Beginning last summer Moscow stopped paying dues to the Council of Europe, partly depriving the organization of its funding. “But the European Court is still largely busy serving the interests of Russian citizens,” Pavel Chikov, a prominent Russian human rights advocate, said recently. “Are the Russian authorities happy? Yes, in fact, they are! This is how they might paralyze the work of the court.”

Lately, Alexeyeva would often get back to the theme of passing the torch. In a piece she titled “The Generations’ Relay,” she reflected on her generation receiving the baton from its European predecessors and said she looked forward to younger Russians following her on the next leg of the tournament.

If Moscow leaves the Council of Europe, Russia will likely need a lot of human rights activists to fight for the country’s constitution. But even if Moscow stays in the council, Lyudmila Alexeyeva’s successors will be busy.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Vedomosti Daily

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more