MOSCOW -- Lyudmila Alexeyeva gets a bit annoyed when pressed about her support for the Russian government's decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence analyst wanted by the United States for divulging details of secret surveillance programs.
At 86, the doyenne of the Russian human rights movements has more important things to worry about.
"Listen, frankly, I'm sick of Snowden because we have a lot of problems besides Snowden," says the diminutive campaigner, her brown eyes lighting up under her short-cropped white hair. She was speaking in her sun-filled apartment in central Moscow during a break from her latest crusade on behalf of defendants now on trial for their part in a political demonstration in Moscow on May 6, 2012.
On Mr. Snowden, she simply stands by her friends in the human rights movement in the United States. "My American colleagues consider that he is defending the right to information, and I trust my American colleagues," she said. "I am just sorry for him, because if in America he didn't have enough freedom, then how is he going to live here with us? I don't know."
There is probably nobody better able to judge the state of freedom in Russia than Ms. Alexeyeva, who has been doing battle with the rulers in the Kremlin since she was a young woman. She was an early member of a band of dissidents who kept meticulous track of human rights violations in the Soviet era. In 1976, she helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group; a year later, she emigrated to the United States with her husband and son.
In 1993, she and her husband, since deceased, returned to Russia. She stepped right back in her role as a tireless advocate of citizens -- and noncitizens -- whose rights are abused, manipulated or systemically ignored by Russia's leaders.
Since July, while many Muscovites have been at their dachas, or country houses, Ms. Alexeyeva has been going three times a week to a Moscow courthouse to observe the trial of at least 15 protesters who were arrested after the 2012 demonstrations that took place on the eve of Vladimir V. Putin's return to power as the Russian president. Of these, 11 have been held in jail for more than a year, while four are under house arrest.
On a day off, Ms. Alexeyeva sat on a sofa, resting her legs on a coffee table, casually admitting to some difficulty in getting about. But that hasn't stopped her. In the past six months, she has helped conduct an independent inquiry into the May 6 protests, traveled to Brussels and Vienna to raise awareness of the case, organized photo exhibits and hosted a showing of a documentary film.
The crux of the case, she said, is the government's charge that the 2012 demonstration was actually a "mass riot," a legal definition that can bring prison sentences from 8 to 13 years.
After watching 23 hours of videotapes and helping collect testimony from about 600 witnesses, Ms. Alexeyeva is absolutely certain that the events on that day were a "provocation," a trap laid by the government to discredit a six-month-old protest movement that, in her view, Mr. Putin regarded as a personal offense.
"I am convinced that it was planned in advance to give out big sentences so that people would stop coming to the meetings and to justify a ban against them in Moscow," she said. "It was done on purpose. They organized the whole thing."
She described how the police, in full riot gear, blocked off the entrance to the square where the demonstration had been authorized to take place and then, forming a wedge, ploughed through the crowd, beating demonstrators, some of whom naturally tried to defend themselves.
The prosecutor's evidence has often been so self-contradictory as to prompt laughter in the courtroom, she said. So far, the only victims cited are members of the police, with no mention of civilians who were treated for injuries.
This will change, she said, when the defense is able to call its own 600 witnesses, probably not until autumn. In the meantime, she is preparing a complaint to the U.N. Human Rights Council, charging inhumane treatment of the defendants, who on court days are kept in a glass cell all day, returning to jail too late to be fed.
If the government's aim is to mount a show trial to scare off dissent, she believes it has backfired. "It is not working," she said. "They have to reckon with the fact that people are not afraid. This is the 21st century, not the Soviet Union."
Ms. Alexeyeva hopes this will be a show trial in reverse, one that exposes -- for all the world to see -- the crude tactics used by the Putin government to stifle political opposition. For that to work, the world has to start paying attention, she said.
For someone who has been fighting injustice in Russia for so long, Ms. Alexeyeva is oddly, almost serenely, optimistic.
"When I go to court, and I see those kids saying they insist on their rights, I start to cry out of happiness," she said. "It is a new generation."
Her own generation, of which she is one of the last surviving members, knew times that were far worse. "When we began, not one of us thought the Soviet Union could ever break apart," she said. "When people say to me, it is like Soviet times, I say no, it is much, much better. It is moving slowly, slowly, but in the right direction."
"History is long, but lifetimes are short," she said, "and I have already seen a lot, to be honest."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.