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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.