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In December 1986, Soviet officials suddenly installed a telephone in the apartment to which Andrei Sakharov had been exiled in Gorky for almost seven years. The KGB agents who had kept him under constant surveillance disappeared, and President Mikhail Gorbachev telephoned to inform him that he was free to return to Moscow “to resume your patriotic work.” Sa-kharov was by then known internationally as a brilliant physicist, the father of the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb, as well as an advocate of nuclear disarmament and an outspoken proponent of human rights. He had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, and had been condemned to internal exile in January 1980 for denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and for calling for a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games the following summer.

The telephone call to Sakharov in Gorky signaled to many throughout the world that Gorbachev was serious about changing the Soviet Union. Two years later Sakharov made his first visit to the United States, encouraged by Soviet officials who thought he could be helpful in negotiating a disarmament agreement. Knowing the authorities wanted something from him, Sakharov demanded something in return: that four of his fellow human rights activists accompany him. One of the four was Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, a biologist who had spent years in the Gulag.

In the United States, many events were held in Sakharov’s honor, and scientific organizations and human rights groups arranged meetings with him. At those I attended, I recall that Sakharov responded several times to the first question by saying something like, “Before I comment, I would like to hear Sergei Adamovich’s views on this matter.”

Sakharov was always solicitous about his fellow human rights activists; when Gorbachev telephoned him to say he was released from exile, he argued with him on behalf of the activists still in prison and complained about the case of a colleague who had recently died. Among those activists, Kovalev, a neurophysiologist who, at fifty-six, was nearly a decade younger than Sakharov, was both his closest friend and the one to whom he was most deferential. Sakharov greatly admired Kovalev’s mind and character. In his memoirs, he expressed great pleasure that his son-in-law, Efrem, had become close to Kovalev.1 When Sakharov said he would first want to hear from Kovalev at the meetings in New York, it seemed to me that he also intended to call attention to the greater hardship his friend had endured. Sakharov had spent seven years in internal exile in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod, as it was called before Stalin renamed the city for his favorite writer), cut off from his friends and his scientific work. Kovalev had spent seven years in the harsh conditions of a labor camp, followed by another three years in Siberia. In New York, Kovalev still looked haggard from the experience, though he had been allowed to leave Siberia four years before.

Emma Gilligan, an Australian historian who spent five years in Mos-cow working for the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, has now published a gracefully written and carefully researched biography of Sergei Kovalev. She writes of his participation in the Soviet-era human rights movement, beginning with the December 1965 protest against the impending trial of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. She devotes the most attention to Kovalev’s record as a Russian human rights official after Gorbachev’s fall, when he became the leading critic of the Yeltsin government’s rights abuses, especially in Chechnya.

For nearly four decades, there have been no quiet periods in Kovalev’s life apart from his years in prison, which he characterizes as “ordinary and boring”—though in fact they were marked by a succession of hunger strikes for which he was severely punished. Kovalev has long been the leading advocate for human rights in Russia, ready to defend not only politi-cal dissidents but such marginalized groups as intravenous drug users and people with HIV/AIDS. He is a quiet, skeptical, and thoughtful man, neither a powerful orator nor a charismatic leader. He has achieved his position because of his remarkable integrity, modesty, intelligence, and undemonstrative courage.

Kovalev, whose father worked for the railroad ministry, was born in the Ukraine in 1930 and moved with his family to the Moscow region when he was young. He early showed that he was unwilling to submit to the conformism of the Stalinist period, quarreling with a high school teacher over whether the freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution were in fact available; and he successfully protested the expulsion of a fellow student during the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign against Jews that began in 1948 and culminated in the “Doctors’ Plot” of 1952, the year before Stalin’s death. A few years later, when Kovalev was studying for an advanced degree in biology at Moscow State University, he and some of his fellow students gathered at his apartment to draft their protest against the pseudoscience of T.D. Lysenko’s theories of genetics.

These activities did not interfere with Kovalev’s pursuit of a scientific career. In the Soviet Union, scientists and mathematicians had special privileges and were sometimes given slightly greater freedom to express their views. This is one of the reasons why scientists were so central to the human rights movement—not only Sakharov and Kovalev but also, among many others, Valery Chalidze and Yuri Orlov, both physicists, and Alexander Esenin-Volpin and Tatyana Velikhanova, who were mathematicians. In 1969, when Kovalev was thirty-nine, he was forced to resign from a prestigious research institute because of his activities on behalf of human rights, but by then he had acquired an international scientific reputation.2

That year, Kovalev joined the group associated with the leading samizdat journal of the period, The Chronicle of Current Events. Three years later, he became its editor. The Chronicle was the most comprehensive and reliable source of information about human rights in the Soviet Union, and Kovalev edited the paper with the same care and rigor he devoted to his scientific work. He attached great importance to accurate reporting on specific human rights abuses and took pains to avoid overheated rhetoric. The Chronicle was meticulous in comparing the Soviet Union’s practices with its own constitutional provisions. In this respect it became a model for the human rights movement in other countries. Kovalev “carried his responsibility for The Chronicle to great lengths,” Gilligan writes, “in a manner that was at once determined and pedantic.”

Kovalev was arrested on December 27, 1974, and accused of anti-Soviet agitation and circulating propaganda. He was charged with signing appeals protesting both the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the forced exile of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and with signing an appeal to the UN on behalf of the Crimean Tatars. He was also charged with taking part in a press conference on October 30, 1974, to mark the “Day of the Soviet Political Prisoner,” as well as compiling, editing, and sending abroad The Chronicle. To hinder his defense that these acts were legitimate and to limit international press coverage, the Brezhnev regime insisted that he be tried in Vilnius, in Lithuania, where foreign correspondents were not accredited. (The regime transferred the trial to Vilnius by using a transparently bogus device. Searching Kovalev’s apartment, the police found a list of 135 Lithuanian political prisoners and three copies of a document entitled The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, which they used to falsely allege that he had allied himself with Lithuanian nationalists who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war.)

Kovalev’s trial, held in December 1975, coincided with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Andrei Sakharov. While Sakharov stood outside the courthouse in Vilnius vainly demanding to be admitted to the courtroom, the prize was accepted in Oslo by his wife, Elena Bonner, who in her speech talked about Kovalev’s trial. Along with Yuri Orlov, Tatyana Velikhanova, and others prominent in the Soviet human rights movement, Sakharov was not allowed to testify on his friend’s behalf. At the trial, the prosecution presented twenty-two witnesses, while Kovalev was permitted none. Nor was he allowed to make a final statement before he was convicted of all charges and sentenced. Just four months earlier, Leonid Brezhnev had signed the Helsinki Accords, which committed the Soviet Union to respect the rights of its citizens “to know and act upon their rights.” Kovalev’s conviction underscored the hollowness of that signature.

Kovalev served the first few years of his prison sentence at Perm 36 in the Ural Mountains and ended his prison term in nearby Chistopol Prison in Tartarstan. Before he was released, his son, Ivan, was also imprisoned for continuing his father’s work on The Chronicle; and, not long thereafter, Ivan’s wife, Tanya, was also sent to prison. (To those who campaigned for Soviet political prisoners, they were known as “Tanya and Vanya.”) After prison, Kovalev was sent to a village in eastern Siberia where temperatures in winter reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
Even after the three years of internal exile that followed his seven years in prison, Kovalev was not allowed to return to Moscow. The closest he got was Kalinin, approximately sixty miles away, where he found work as a night watchman. He did not get permission to live in Moscow until December 1987, a year after Gorbachev’s phone call to Sakharov, who had pressed his case, and less than a year before he was allowed to accompany Sakharov on his visit to the United States.

In 1990, not long after Sakharov died, Kovalev was elected a member of the Russian Federation’s Congress of People’s Deputies. The chairman of the Congress, Boris Yeltsin, asked him to become chairman of the Congress’s Human Rights Committee, giving him national prominence as a democratic reformer. Yeltsin then brought Kovalev with him on a June 1992 state visit to Washington and took him to meet George H.W. Bush. In 1993, when Yeltsin was opposed by the Congress of People’s Deputies and dissolved it, he established a Presidential Human Rights Commission and appointed Kovalev as its chairman.

Kovalev was thus caught up in immensely controversial events, starting with the national referendum that elected Yeltsin president, and continuing with the attempt by the Congress of Deputies to strip Yeltsin of his power and replace him with the authoritarian vice-president Alexander Rutzkoy, who barricaded himself and his allies in the Congress building, the “White House,” where they were shelled by army tanks under Yeltsin’s command. About 150 people were killed. This conflict caused a division among human rights advocates. Kovalev sided with Yeltsin, saying he was defending constitutionalism and resisting a coup led by the forces of reaction. Some of his longtime colleagues in the human rights movement, including Andrei Sinyavsky and Valery Chalidze, both in exile, criticized him for supporting Yeltsin’s assault on the White House.

Despite his support for Yeltsin’s actions on October 3–4, 1993, Kovalev used his post as human rights commissioner to investigate abuses that occurred during and after the attack on the White House. He tried to ensure that the International Committee of the Red Cross had access to the many thousands who had been arrested by Yeltsin’s forces for taking part in Rutzkoy’s rebellion. He called on the procurator general to investigate human rights violations by troops of the Ministry of the Interior and other forces mobilized by Yeltsin to put down the rebellion. In addition, he tried to ensure that his new post would be independent of the president and that its powers would include not only the ability to investigate individual abuses but also to publish an annual report on the human rights situation in Russia.

  1. 1

    Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs, translated by Richard Lourie (Knopf, 1990), p. 419.

  2. 2

    Elsewhere as well, members of professions that enjoy particular prestige in their own countries have been at the forefront of human rights protests against repressive regimes. Examples include writers in Czechoslovakia, lawyers (including Nelson Mandela) in South Africa, and priests in a number of Latin American tyrannies.

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