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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.

Since 1975 the US State Department has been required to publish an annual report on human rights in other countries; but there is hardly any precedent for a critical annual report on a country’s human rights record by an independent commission of its own government. In mid-1994, Kovalev issued the first such report, entitled The Observance of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in the Russian Federation for 1993, which he compiled in collaboration with a number of independent human rights groups. It reported many abuses, among them the large number of injuries and deaths suffered by members of the armed forces during initiation rituals; the pervasive discriminatory treatment of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus by the Moscow city government; and the dismal conditions in Russia’s overcrowded jails and prisons. Though the report embarrassed the Russian government, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to classify it for “official use only,” Kovalev and Yeltsin still seemed able to resolve their differences and continued to collaborate.

That changed in November 1994 with Yeltsin’s decision to launch an attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny, in an attempt to crush the separatist movement of the Chechen president, Jokhar Dudayev. Two months earlier, Yeltsin’s national security adviser had asked Kovalev to negotiate with Dudayev, but Yeltsin canceled the meeting before it could take place. Horrified by the attack on Grozny, Kovalev attempted to see Yeltsin but was told that the Russian president had been sent to a hospital for eight days and was receiving no visitors. Kovalev then went to Grozny to report publicly on the Russian bombardment and, by exposing himself to it and thus risking his life for the truth, he hoped to rally public opinion against it.

In Kovalev’s long struggle for human rights, nothing seems to me to have been more admirable than his desperate and heroic efforts to halt the war in Chechnya, and his struggle to mitigate the war’s horrors by personally investigating the conduct of Russian forces there and issuing detailed reports on his findings. For this, he was denounced by the Russian defense minister, Pavel Grachev, as “an enemy of Russia.” Fellow members of the Russian Parliament, including both for-mer Communists and nationalists, demanded that he be put on trial for inciting hatred and “Russophobia.” The leader of the Russian National Unity Party said he deserved to have a bullet put through his head.

Undeterred Kovalev went to the brutally run camps set up by the Russian Interior Ministry to “filter” out Chechen fighters from civilians who had been rounded up and detained. He attempted to organize “humanitarian corridors” to evacuate civilians from Grozny; and he conducted an investigation in Samashki, a village where some two hundred houses were destroyed and more than a hundred people were massacred, many of them unarmed civilians killed during house-to-house searches.

In early 1995 Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin asked Kovalev to go to the hospital in Budyonnovsk where Chechen fighters led by the notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev were holding several hundred hostages. (In 2004 Basayev claimed responsibility for the school massacre in Beslan, among other attacks.) After nine hours of negotiations, Kovalev signed an agreement with Basayev allowing two hundred hostages to be released. When the remaining hostages were forced to accompany Basayev and his Chechen fighters back to Chechnya, Kovalev went with them to assure their safety.3 The humiliating events at Budyonnovsk apparently helped to persuade the Russian government to agree to a cease-fire in August 1995 and, a year later, to a peace agreement ending the first Chechen war.
By then, Kovalev, in an eloquent letter published in Izvestia and in these pages, had resigned as Russia’s commissioner of human rights. After putting forward his reasons for supporting Yeltsin, including Yeltsin’s decision to dissolve Congress and attack the White House in 1993, Kovalev criticized Yeltsin’s subsequent failure to make judicial reforms, his tolerance of organized crime and of corruption in the armed forces, the army’s mistreatment of draftees, the secretiveness of his government, and, above all, his decision to go to war in Chechnya. In the letter to Yeltsin Kovalev wrote:

In this conflict we have seen in full measure contempt for the law, flouting of the Constitution, demoralization and disintegration of the army, outrageous incompetence on the part of the security services, inept careerism on the part of the chiefs of the power ministries, and awkward and cynical lies orchestrated by the first persons of the state. But what is particularly horrifying is another aspect of the regime you’ve created which has been revealed by this crisis: utter contempt for human life. Twenty or thirty or forty thousand people have died, and what sort of reaction has there been? We don’t even know who they were, how many of them were civilians, Russian soldiers, or Chechen fighters….

Didn’t you and those fools who pushed you into the Chechen war understand that bloodshed would lead to intolerance, revenge, deceit, and violence? And that this malignant tumor would devour the good things you have done for Russia?

I certainly don’t put all the blame on you. The totalitarian order, which was dealt a serious but possibly not fatal blow, is defending itself by its typical means: manufacturing a crisis, misleading the people, and subverting civic values. Your personal guilt consists in your encouraging these tendencies instead of checking them. Perhaps you believe that you are building a Great Russia for the good of its citizens. Not at all! Your current policies will only rapidly resurrect a state predisposed to illegality and the abuse of rights.4

After the first Chechen war, in an analysis that seems, in some respects, to have anticipated the American situation in Iraq, Kovalev observed that Chechnya had now become, in fact, the nightmarish center of criminality and terrorism that Russian officials had previously alleged were the justification for launching the war. “Most of the ghosts that haunted the imagination of Kremlin politicians did not in fact exist before the war,” Kovalev wrote in these pages in 1997:

The war breathed life into them, and they became a reality. Everything that Moscow was afraid of (or pretended to be afraid of) in 1994 has come to pass: Chechnya’s secession from Russia; an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism; and a wave of criminal violence in the region that has left the remaining Russian-speaking population defenseless. Moscow created this situation all by itself, when it unleashed the war.5

Kovalev’s failure to prevent the first Chechen war and then to curb its brutality was a bitter disappointment. When it ended, he allowed himself to express some hope that the process of democratic reform could resume in Russia. Organizations like the human rights group Memorial, of which he was chairman, and the Association of Soldiers’ Mothers, along with intrepid reporting by Russian journalists, had turned much of the Russian public against the war.6 “The Chechen crisis,” he wrote,

was the first serious battle for democracy in Russia. It would be going too far to say that our newborn, weak, sickly, uncertain civil society won this battle. But at least it didn’t lose. Peace in the North Caucasus is probably all we are capable of today. And this is of course much less than is needed in order to win the future for Russia.

When he wrote those words in 1997, Kovalev probably did not imagine that another Chechen war would begin in less than three years. Writing again in these pages in 2000, he pointed out,

For American readers to fully understand how unthinkable a metamorphosis has taken place, let them imagine for a moment that in, say, 1978, the President of the United States resumed the war in Vietnam. And furthermore that this action was applauded by all Americans—from miners and farmers to university professors and students. Inconceivable? Of course it’s inconceivable. Nonetheless, this is precisely what has happened in Russia today.7

Kovalev did not absolve the Chechens of responsibility. In the same article, he observed that “a huge share of the guilt for what has happened lies with the Chechen people and its leaders.” The Chechens lost the sympathy of the Russian public as a result of kidnappings for ransom, extortion, the introduction of Islamic law including amputations and public executions, and even violence against the journalists who risked their lives to cover the first Chechen war.8 Though Kovalev considered the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, to be personally moderate and decent and a proponent of a secular state, he believed that Maskhadov’s timidity had allowed

the transfer of real power into the hands of…such people as the slave trader Arbi Barayev and Ruslan Khaikhoroyev, the terrorists Salam Raduyev and Shamil Basayev, and the Jordanian Islamic fanatic Khattab, who many assert is an ally of Osama bin Laden.9

While unsparing in his criticism of the Chechen leaders, Kovalev recognized that the war had been resumed for two reasons: Russia’s military leaders saw an opportunity to avenge what was widely seen as their defeat in the previous war; and Vladimir Putin, plucked from obscurity by Yeltsin and designated his heir, saw a new war as a chance to consolidate his power. Kovalev wrote, “The only way Putin could manage a political victory over his Moscow competitors was to achieve a military triumph.”

Kovalev sees Putin’s popularity with the Russian public as “nothing new.” In August 2001 he wrote that Putin’s hold on power reflects

simply the ideology of the Great Power, what we call in Russian derzhavnost, that is, the view of the state as a highly valuable mystical being that every citizen and society as a whole must serve. That ideology was not alien to the Russian political elite under Yeltsin either, but subscribing to it is now obligatory…. In today’s Russia it is bad form not to be a derzhavnik.10

For Kovalev, glorification of the Russian state means

the defeat of all those who naively supposed that the cold war confrontation between 1946 and 1991 was not a geopolitical competition between two superpowers but a historical struggle for freedom, human rights, and democracy. “You wanted freedom? You thought that human rights were a universal concept equally applicable in any corner of the globe? Just look what has become of Russia after communism! They chose Putin themselves”—so anti-liberals of both the left and right will say. And what can those of us who have not lost faith in the constructive power of democracy answer?

At seventy-four Kovalev continues to lead Russia’s struggle for human rights and democracy. In one of the commentaries published in a recent book of photographs of the Soviet Gulag system,11 Kovalev denounced the “slave mentality” that allowed the Gulag to arise and that, in his view, persists to this day. “The Gulag still exists,” he wrote, in Russia’s

slavish manner, in its willingness to accept propaganda and lies, and in its indifference to the fate of its fellow citizens or to crimes and transgressions including those committed by the state.

He calls for trials of those who committed crimes under the Soviet regime as the only way to “settle scores fairly, and to identify evil for what it is.”

As matters now stand, the odds against him seem daunting, but probably not more so than when he confronted the power of the Soviet Union from Perm 36, Chistopol Prison, or from eastern Siberia. If Russia does one day become the country he has tried to create, no one will deserve more credit than Sergei Kovalev, along with Andrei Sakharov, the friend at whose side he struggled for so long.

  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.

  3. 3

    See Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York University Press, 1998), for an account of the Chechen war and Kovalev’s role in it. Gall covered the conflict for The New York Times; de Waal reported on it for The Moscow Times, The Times of London, and The Economist.

  4. 4

    Letter of January 23, 1996, published in Izvestia on January 24, 1996, and in a translation by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick in The New York Review, February 29, 1996.

  5. 5

    Sergei Kovalev, “Russia After Chechnya,” translated by Jamey Gambrell, The New York Review, July 17, 1997.

  6. 6

    Memorial, which is devoted to preserving the memory of victims of Soviet persecution, as well as to the protection of human rights, has just been awarded the Right Living Award from the Swedish parliament. The organization has often had to work under difficult circumstances.

  7. 7

    Sergei Kovalev, “Putin’s War,” translated by Jamey Gambrell, The New York Review, February 10, 2000.

  8. 8

    In 1995, I met in Moscow with an association of Russian journalists to discuss how the Open Society Institute might assist them. Their primary interest was in obtaining bulletproof vests and life insurance in case they were killed while covering the war. One Russian journalist was killed by Russian troops while trying to cover the events at Budyonnovsk. Other Russian journalists have been killed by unknown assailants.

  9. 9

    Note that this was published more than a year and a half before September 11, 2001, made Osama bin Laden a household name worldwide.

  10. 10

    Sergei Kovalev, “The Putin Put-On,” translated by Jamey Gambrell, The New York Review, August 9, 2001.

  11. 11

    Tomasz Kizny, Gulag: Life and Death Inside the Soviet Concentration Camps, 1917–1990 (Firefly Books, 2004).

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