Russia's President Vladimir Putin congratulates the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekeyeva, on her 90th birthday during a meeting in Moscow, July 20, 2017.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin congratulates the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekeyeva, on her 90th birthday during a meeting in Moscow, July 20, 2017.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a renowned human rights activist who has challenged the Soviet regime and Russian authorities since the 1950s, tells VOA that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent surprise visit to her flat left her with an improved perception of the man.

Putin visited Alekseyeva on Thursday, her 90th birthday, reaching out to the prominent and respected critic months before a March 2018 election in which he is expected to run for a fourth Kremlin term.

According to the Kremlin website, Alekseyeva offered him a glass of champagne and a bite to eat shortly after a presidential security official quickly inspected her Moscow apartment for explosives.

“I got a call from Sergey V. Kiriyenko,” the head of Putin’s cabinet, she said. “He at first said that Putin would congratulate me by phone. Then they called back and said the president would make a personal visit. Well, is it even possible to organize for the unexpected arrival of the first person? They cordoned off the whole quarter, then a man came to see me — whether I have any bombs in the room, and so on.”

Soviet-era dissident

Alekseyeva, a Soviet-era dissident who was among the founders of the human rights movement in the 1960s, has been a vocal opponent of what she has described as a dramatic backsliding on human rights and democracy since Putin came to power in 2000.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin congratulates he
Russia's President Vladimir Putin congratulates the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, on her 90th birthday during a meeting in Moscow, July 20, 2017.

Putin was full of praise for Alekseyeva, who helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group in the 1970s to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with international rights conventions and has headed it since 1996.

“I am grateful to you for everything that you’ve done over many, many years for a huge number of people in our country who love you very much and are thankful to you for the life you have lived for the sake of people,” the Kremlin quoted him as saying.

But his birthday gift may have been chosen to make a geopolitical point: In addition to a bouquet, Putin gave Alekseyeva an engraving of her native town of Yevpatoria in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia occupied and seized from Ukraine in 2014.

In Russia today, stating that Crimea is not part of Russia can lead to prosecution on charges of separatism. ?In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Russian Service, Alekseyeva said her latest visit with Putin left her with a positive impression.

“I always have good impressions from talking with him,” she told VOA. “I do not know how to explain this, but he treats me with respect and sympathy. Therefore, I try not to violate this. The fates of so many people are in his hands. If I’m impolite, I can’t help them.

FILE - Lyudmila Alekeyeva, Russia's veteran human
FILE - Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Russia's veteran human rights activist and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, attends a news conference in Moscow, July 5, 2012.

“My grandmother, who raised me from childhood, always taught that if you are treated politely, then you must respond in kind,” she added. “What you got into your head as a child, that’s forever. Even if I was questioned by nasty investigators, if they spoke politely, I could not be rude or silent. But I’m always polite with everyone — with cleaners who clean our porch. With the president, I’m equally polite,” she said.

Upcoming election

Putin, 64, has not announced his candidacy, but he is widely expected to seek and secure a new six-year term in the election whose date is likely to be shifted by a week to March 18, the fourth anniversary of Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

Alekseyeva said that she asked Putin to pardon Igor Izmestyev, a former lawmaker in the upper parliament house who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 after being convicted of funding a criminal gang authorities say killed 14 people from 1992-2004.

“I told the president: This is not a gift, this is a request — do this good deed,” Alekseyeva, who is frail, told a meeting of the presidential human rights council by video-link after the meeting Thursday.

The Kremlin transcript of Alekseyeva's meeting with Putin indicates she told him she believes that Izmestyev is not guilty.

But she said that his guilt or innocence was not the point because “a pardon is not an act of justice but an act of mercy.”

Alekseyeva said that Putin promised to pardon Izmestyev, but his remarks in the Kremlin transcript do not include a clear promise to do so.

Alekseyeva and her husband fled the Soviet Union under government pressure in 1977, but she continued her rights campaigning from abroad and returned in 1990 following Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.

She has participated in numerous protests during Putin’s long period in power, including a series of monthly demonstrations accusing the Kremlin of systematically violating the right to free assembly.

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes han
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, before meeting with Russian human rights activists in Novo-Ogaryovo, a presidential residence outside Moscow, Jan. 23, 2014.

In an interview in 2012, shortly after Putin returned to the presidency following a four-year stint as prime minister, Alekseyeva told Reuters that when she first met Putin in 2002, she was impressed by his humility and willingness to listen to activists like herself.

But when they met again in 2006, Putin was “a different man” who had come “to believe that everyone wants him to stay in power,” she said. “He doesn’t understand. It’s a terrible thing to have power. ... Very few people can handle it properly.”

With reporting by Current Time TV, RBK and Reuters.