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On the New Russia

Editors’ Note: Sergei Kovalev is Russia’s leading human rights activist. A biologist and former dissident, he was imprisoned and then condemned to internal exile between 1974 and 1984. In 1990 he was elected to the Supreme Soviet and, later, to the Russian Duma. He was appointed chairman of President Yeltsin’s Commission on Human Rights in 1993, and he resigned that post in January in opposition to the Yeltsin government’s policies.*

The following article is based on Kovalev’s remarks at a meeting at Human Rights Watch in New York on March 8 and on a subsequent interview with Jeri Laber, the senior adviser of Helsinki Watch. It was edited for publication by Ms. Laber.

Soviet ideology is being reestablished in Russia today. It is not the ideology of early, classical communism but a new form of ideology best described by the untranslatable Russian word “derzhavnost,” which means, roughly, “power-ness” or “state-ness.” Politicians on all sides say they are “democrats,” but in fact the state is deified, placed above society, outside society, over society. Once again the human being becomes a cog in the mechanism, an insignificant little cog. It is very familiar to us because of our recent past and the actions of our present Russian leaders.

A wave of soft, emotional, tasteless, ceremonial patriotism can be seen everywhere—in published articles and books, in speeches by politicians. It links those in power with the Communist opposition. Yeltsin’s rhetoric does not correspond to that of the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in every detail, but it overlaps in important ways. The dirty war in Chechnya is an example of this new tendency.

Our leaders are eager to adopt this new nationalist, patriotic tone for two reasons. The first is political calculation: because they sense that their authority and prestige are falling, they are adopting populist slogans and the rhetoric of the opposition. The second is that the rhetoric itself is familiar to our leaders and fits in nicely with their convictions and their personal histories.

After all, who are the current leaders of Russia? The person who occupies the number one position in the government had a career as a Party functionary. The others are also Party careerists, not only in the path that they took but in their essential character. Now they have returned to an ideology that is familiar to them, and they are repeating words that have been repeated for decades.

Russia lacks a critical mass of democrats who understand that democracy hangs on the thin thread of procedure—due process of law; who understand that democracy is not so much a matter of the will of the majority as of the rights of the minority, and that without procedure, all sorts of wonderful words about equality and brotherhood are simply slogans. There are not enough people like this in Russia; there’s no place for them to come from.

It is true that in earlier times the Soviet scientific community was the main source of democratic activity. I can count on my fingers all the lawyers in the former Soviet Union who had the courage to speak out for the rule of law, but I don’t have enough fingers and toes by a long shot to count all the chemists, biologists, physicists, and mathematicians who were active in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. This is because natural scientists, to a greater extent than most, were able to preserve their academic independence.

Now it’s more complex. You would expect the scientific community to be a source of people working for democracy and the rule of law. But recently, to my surprise, I met a physicist who told me: “I’m going to vote for the Communists.” He said: “Under Brezhnev things were very bad but I worked as a physicist. And now, the economic situation is so bad for teachers and researchers that I can’t do the scientific work I love so much. It is better to have communism and physics than abject poverty without physics.” People like this would usually say they are social democrats; but they are very naive democrats, and naive pragmatists as well. If the Communists come back, there won’t be any physics, because much of the money for physics was spent long ago by the upper echelons of the scientific community, who greeted reform with sharp disapproval and were bent on preserving their own status. They blame the democrats for the fact that there is hardly any money for research and salaries, but in fact there are no democrats in power in Russia.

My own relations with Yeltsin were never simple. I was in America in 1988 at the time of the first parliamentary elections in Russia. American correspondents asked me to comment on Yeltsin’s triumphant victory. I said at the time that it was not a victory for Yeltsin but a devastating defeat for the Communists and for Gorbachev.

Then, as now, the issue for the electorate was black and white: for the Communists or against the Communists. Yeltsin was seen then as a victim of the Communists. But people in the United States didn’t see Gorbachev as a Communist: they were very infatuated with him at that time. I remember once on the streets of New York I looked up and saw “Gorbachev” written on the sky. Someone told me it cost about one million dollars to do that, and I thought: “This certainly is a rich country.”

In 1990 when I was asked if I would support Yeltsin, I answered honestly that I didn’t know. I was still undecided and full of doubts. But naturally I voted for Yeltsin in those long and difficult elections. There was no one else.

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov told me in Boston in the spring of 1988 that he cried the night before he decided to run for parliament. The decision was so difficult for him partly because he would have to get involved with Yeltsin. Sakharov told me: “I don’t want to be involved with that man.” It’s not only that Yeltsin was a former candidate for membership in the Politburo, or that he appealed to the Party to reinstate him after he was expelled from the Politburo following his dispute with Gorbachev. It was that we saw even then his populist leanings on the one hand and his authoritarian leanings on the other. I wavered back and forth about Yeltsin. I always had my doubts. But nonetheless I hoped that Yeltsin was capable not only of adapting but of learning.

This hope in many ways was justified. Yeltsin has done a great deal for Russia. One of his main achievements in my view was his unwavering support for the economic reformer Yegor Gaidar in the face of very strong criticism. Gaidar also remembers that well. Yeltsin held off Gaidar’s critics for eleven months during a very critical time when reforms were being introduced.

What happened to Yeltsin during these past five years is a deep personal tragedy involving a person with unusual gifts. In the end Yeltsin could not overcome his tendency to act as if he were the first secretary of a provincial Party committee; he was not able to overcome his careerist Party past. Nor could he overcome his own excessive ambition.

Our disagreement did not start with Chechnya. It began with his decree of September 21, 1993, dissolving the parliament, which led to bloodshed when the parliament building [which had been taken over by his radical opponents] was stormed by Russian troops. I learned about this a half-hour before it was announced on television. I ran to his office but he wasn’t there. I tried to reach him by phone but the only one I could reach was Andrei Kozyrev, who was then foreign minister. I literally begged Kozyrev to get the president to put off any final decision on attacking the parliament, to postpone his address on television and to reconsider this tragic step. Kozyrev made it clear that the decision was irrevocable, although he promised to convey my fears to Yeltsin. But it was too late. A few minutes later we heard the announcement on television.

Perhaps there was no other solution except to use violence. You would not judge someone for shooting a madman who had his finger on the nuclear button. But I am not convinced that every measure was taken to prevent violence before the decision was made. Many believed that Yeltsin had to use unconstitutional means in 1993 in order to avoid a civil war. But in December 1994 it was Yeltsin himself who launched a civil war in Chechnya.

We had one of our strongest disagreements in October 1993, when, with Yeltsin’s acquiescence, several newspapers were closed down and some ten thousand people from the Caucasus were deported from Moscow over a two-week period. Kozyrev and I spoke to the president about that, and he answered in his usual positive but vague manner. In fact, his successful suppression of opposition forces in October 1993 convinced Yeltsin that he was a genius at resolving crises and that knots should be cut rather than untied. In that sense the crackdown in Moscow in October 1993 and the military action in Chechnya in December 1994 are genetically very closely related.

Some people have said they see me as Sakharov’s successor, but there are many times when I just don’t know what Sakharov would have done. In the case of Chechnya, however, I know exactly what he would have done: he would have gone to Grozny, as I did. I have never taken sides in the Chechnya conflict. I don’t support any regime there at all. I have only spoken out on the side of law and human rights. Many months of bloody conflict have now passed, and no one knows the precise number of casualties, but deaths among the civilian population are now approaching forty thousand. Who killed those forty thousand people, Yeltsin or the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev? I don’t like Dudayev at all, but he didn’t kill those forty thousand people.

Yeltsin and I came into serious conflict in the summer of 1994 in connection with his notorious anti-crime decree No. 1226. The decree was clearly unconstitutional: it allowed for people suspected of crimes to be detained without charges for thirty days; and it included other unconstitutional measures as well.

I spoke out strongly against this decree and received what sounded like a well-meaning response from the president. Both of our statements were published. The president, as is his way, said he understood and shared my fears and told me to watch carefully how the decree was carried out to see that the rights of citizens were not violated. As if that were possible! After all, the constitution says that no one can be detained for more than two days without appearing in court. We tried to get information from official bodies about people who were arrested, and sometimes we did. More often we got nothing. We also tried through unofficial channels. In a few cases our involvement may have made someone’s fate a little easier. But to tell Yeltsin would have been senseless. What would we say? “Boris Nikolaevich, in carrying out your decree, twenty-eight people around Russia have been detained for more than twenty days.” He would have said: “Fine, my decree is being implemented.”

He established the presidential Commission on Human Rights in the typical way he does things. I learned from the newspapers that the commission had been established, that I was its chairman, and that I should select the commission’s members. He appoints people and he removes them without notifying them in advance. When I resigned from the commission, he responded in a dignified way. He wrote me a short letter in which he said that he understood my position, that he thanked me for the work we had done together, and that he wished me success in my work for the motherland. I think he was relieved.

Most of the other members left the commission after I resigned. It doesn’t exist now. A new commission will probably be set up, but who knows how it will work? The staff has been cut from thirty-seven to fifteen, and the commission has lost its independent status and been brought under presidential control.

As for the June presidential elections in Russia, Zyuganov will definitely be in the second round, the runoffs. The question is: who will the other candidate be? Most likely it will be Yeltsin, not Vladimir Zhirinovsky. I think Yeltsin has a slightly better chance than Zyuganov because people in Russia don’t want the Communists to return. If Zhirinovsky makes it to the second round, he will lose, no matter who his opponent is. But if someone else opposes Zyuganov in the runoffs—not Yeltsin and not Zhirinovsky—that would be more interesting to me.

I am absolutely certain that if the democratic politicians—who separated into several parties—had combined forces in the December parliamentary elections, they would have received more than 15 percent of the vote. It doesn’t always happen that way, but in this case I am sure that it would have. According to various polls, about 40 percent of the voters in Russia don’t want communism, don’t want aggressive patriots, and are extremely dubious about and dissatisfied with the current people in power. They would, I think, be inclined to support the democratic politicians. Of course, the democrats would not have gotten all of these votes in the December elections, but they might have gotten 20 percent, that is to say, about as much as the Communists got.

In the forthcoming presidential elections, there is only one possible candidate from the democratic group. That candidate is Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko Party. I don’t like Yavlinsky. He’s weak, he wavers, he’s vain. But nonetheless, he is a convinced democrat. He would, of course, split the vote with Yeltsin, but he could still get between 15 and 20 percent, let’s say 17 percent, and that would be enough for him to make it into the runoffs. And in the second round he might very well beat Zyuganov because a great many people don’t want the Communists.

If the democrats can agree among themselves on Yavlinsky as their candidate, and if Yavlinsky makes very firm commitments, public commitments, and if the democrats find the wisdom and the strength to work for him without hiding their differences and convince the electorate that, in the words of the ballad singer Galich, “the nation is in danger,” then, even if he were to lose, it would unite the democratic opposition. Then it wouldn’t be important who they were united against—Yeltsin or Zyuganov—they would be united. But if the democratic electorate is forced to vote for Yeltsin, the people will feel degraded.

Allow me to speak in prison camp terms. There was a concept in the camps of “being lowered”: a person was disgraced in the prison zone and banished by the camp community; he became a pariah. Often this was made official by a ritual sexual act, making him a passive homosexual. That person was at the very bottom of the ladder. Democrats who feel that they are forced to support Yeltsin will be in that position, and organized opposition will then be impossible. People will say: “You supported him. How can you now talk about democratic principles? Where were your principles then?”

For that reason I will not vote for Zyuganov or for Yeltsin. But this is a personal decision. I can’t say that to my constituents. I very much fear that at the end of the day the democrats will feel they have no alternative except to support Yeltsin. What Russia needs is another Havel. But the train has already left the station and I just don’t think that the people of Russia are ready to vote for a democrat like Havel.

You ask if I would run for president. Well, no one has made me an offer, and I’m not about to nominate myself.

Translated by Laura Wolfson

  1. *

    See Kovalev’s “A Letter of Resignation,” in The New York Review of Books, February 29, 1996.

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