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Russian human-rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva gestures while speaking to the media in Moscow, on the first anniversary of the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky's death, on Nov. 16, 2010.YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Lyudmila M. Alexeyeva, a leader of the Russian human-rights movement in the Soviet Union and during the era of President Vladimir Putin, has died, a government official said. She was 91.

Ms. Alexeyeva, who though frail took part in street protests until about eight years ago, died Saturday in a Moscow hospital, Mikhail Fedotov, director of the presidential human-rights council, told the Russian media.

Ms. Alexeyeva had been Russia’s most prominent surviving Soviet-era dissident, harking from the same generation as physicist Andrei Sakharov and novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

She spent about 50 years in the Russian opposition, starting as a typist for a samizdat journal in the 1960s and continuing as an observer of politicized court hearings against street protesters under Mr. Putin.

“She was clearly one of the giants,” Tanya Lokshina, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview. “She called herself the grandmother of the Russian human-rights movement, and that is what she was.”

Ms. Alexeyeva was a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a pioneering human-rights organization, for which Soviet authorities exiled her from the country. She then served as the organization’s chairwoman after returning to Russia in the post-Soviet period.

Though she spent a lifetime challenging abusive leaders, her approach was never shrill, acquaintances said. Also, she saved some of her criticism not for the abusive men in power, but for the people who let them get away with it.

What separated the Soviet Union and Russia from the West, she said, were not enlightened leaders but systems of checks and balances. With the Helsinki Group, for example, she tried to monitor authorities in the Soviet Union by holding them to their own stated commitments to human rights.

Her views were also a critique of the vilification of Mr. Putin as personally responsible for rolling back Russian democracy and the idea, sometimes heard among his opponents, that if he were to step down Russia might be ruled differently. Only by building civil society could Russians achieve better results from their leaders, she maintained.

“She kept pushing that point,” Ms. Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said. “There could be different leaders, but if there is a healthy system of checks and balances, it is much more difficult to do serious damage. Unfortunately, in Russia, that is not the case.”

She leaves two sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A memorial is planned for Tuesday at a museum of the Soviet gulag, in Moscow.

Born in Crimea in 1927, Ms. Alexeyeva became a dissident as a member of what she called the “thaw generation” under the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who introduced a period of relaxed censorship.

When the screws tightened again in Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, she and other Moscow intellectuals risked their lives to keep pressing for freedom and human rights. Ms. Alexeyeva typed a samizdat journal, called the Chronicle of Current Events.

She and other dissidents saw an opening when the Soviet Union signed a treaty in Helsinki that required it to uphold certain rights at home, though apparently it had little intention of doing so. In 1976, she co-founded the Helsinki Group to monitor compliance.

Though the treaty’s text was published in Pravda, the newspaper of the Communist Party, Soviet authorities were not amused. They broke up the Helsinki group less than a year after its founding, and offered Ms. Alexeyeva a choice of prison or exile.

Her husband pressed her to take the second option, and she left with her family for the United States, not returning until 16 years later after the Soviet breakup. In the United States, she wrote two books: The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era and a scholarly study called Soviet Dissent.

When Mr. Putin came to power in 1999, Ms. Alexeyeva quickly became critical of his government and in particular rights abuses by Russian soldiers during the second war in Chechnya. Despite this, she engaged with Mr. Putin’s government and is credited with persuading him to shelve a plan to force people who had fled the war in Chechnya to return before the fighting had stopped.

She remained optimistic about Russia’s prospects, telling interviewers that, as bad as conditions were under Mr. Putin, the Soviet Union had been worse: “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.’ ”

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