Defending Human Rights in Russia: Sergei Kovalyov, Dissident and Human Rights Commissioner, 1969–2003
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. 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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.