23 May 2020
By Andrei Babushkin, head of the Committee for Civil Rights, member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, and a laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights work
Lev Ponomarev (chair of the nationwide NGO For Human Rights and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) said that he was a scientist – a theoretical physicist – in Soviet times, but he was friends with Iury Orlov (another physicist who was a human rights activist). He used to go to his seminars but wasn’t a human rights activist himself. Ponomarev realised that the rights activists were right, but he wasn’t ready to get involved in the campaign for rights in the way that people in the human rights movement did. When Orlov was arrested, Ponomarev visited him in exile. He began to feel a need inside himself to get involved with human rights work.
The Gorbachev era pushed Ponomarev to do more human rights work. When political prisoners were freed and Sakharov returned from exile, Ponomarev trusted Gorbachev. He came to the conclusion that the memory of those who died during the repressions needed to be commemorated.
In September 1986 Ponomarev took part in setting up an initiative called Memorial. The working group spent a month arguing about the first page. It took them a long time to decide whether it was possible to write about the millions of people who had died.
The first time they were arrested was in November 1986, while they were collecting signatures for erecting a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s repressions. They had managed to reach an agreement with leading theatre directors so that they could collect signatures during the intervals. One of the people who added their signature said, “You’re collecting signatures for the KGB”. But by that time the KGB couldn’t do anything anymore.
In Soviet times, human rights activists tended to work on their own, until Memorial became the first mass movement for human rights in recent history.
Among the first people to sign the letter about the memorial were Evgeny Evtushenko and Bulat Okudzhava, but there were also people who said, “I support you, but first you go off and collect signatures, and then I’ll put my signature somewhere in the middle”.
In 1988 Memorial managed to get registered. It had collective leadership, and a Public Council was set up to increase trust in the new organisation.
People came to Pushkinskaya Square to read the copies of the Moskovskiye novosti newspaper that were put on public display there, and a regular group – to all intents and purposes a “democratic assembly” – began to gather there.
The people meeting on Pushkinskaya Square began to hand out surveys asking who should become a member of Memorial’s Public Council, and those who were willing to join this Council were sent a letter of invitation. Of the 12 people invited, only one refused – A. I. Solzhenitsyn, who wrote back to those responsible for setting up the new organisation saying that he had no idea who they were. Yeltsin, Sakharov, Adamovich and Yevtushenko agreed, and Andrei Sakharov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, became the chair of the Public Council.
In Ponomarev’s opinion, Yeltsin was acquainted with Sakharov, and Ponomarev himself invited Sakharov to join the Moscow Helsinki Group. When Sakharov left Nizhny Novgorod, he promised Gorbachev that he would not get involved in politics, and that was why he trod carefully to start with. But later he got involved in Memorial’s work.
Ponomarev was a trusted confidante of A. D. Sakharov. Unlike many other eminent people, Sakharov took an interest in his interlocutors. He was not the sort of person to indulge in flamboyant displays, and his appearance was that of an ordinary man. Sakharov and Yelena Bonner always consulted each other on matters and were an extremely close-knit couple.
Ponomarev said that Yeltsin had always been polite to a fault. He always carried a small notebook around with him so that he could jot down notes about everything. Ponomarev never saw Yeltsin suffering from the influence of alcohol, and he lost contact with him after 1993. Yeltsin would never have won the elections without the backing of Democratic Russia.
After his victory in the presidential elections in 1991, Yeltsin disappeared for a month. Democratic Russia sent Ponomarev and Gleb Yakunin to visit Yeltsin and ask him to resume active duties. Before the trip, A. V. Rutskoi called Ponomarev in for a meeting, and tried to gain the latter’s support for his campaign to become head of the country’s government. Other candidates for this role included the member of the Academy of Sciences Yury Ryzhkov, and also Svyatoslav Fedorov. During talks with Gorbachev, Yavlinsky was also considered as a potential prime minister, but back then he was close to Gorbachev and dealt with economic policy on his behalf, and Yeltsin said that Gorbachev was welcome to him.
The debate on whether Memorial should become active on the political stage dragged on for a long time, until finally a decision was adopted confirming that it would not turn its back on politics.
Lev Ponomarev served as a deputy twice, first in the Soviet parliament, then in the Russian.
When Lev Ponomarev ceased being a deputy of the Russian State Duma, he was faced with a choice of what to do. As a Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, he could have had a brilliant career in science, but it didn’t appeal to him.
What appealed to Lev Ponomarev was human rights activism. Ponomarev’s introduction to Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva, who had returned from the US, led to the revival of the Moscow Helsinki Group. In 1996, there was a major international conference dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group. The Moscow Helsinki Group was updated, with Liudmila Alekseeva serving as its chair and Lev Ponomarev as her deputy.
The war in Chechnya led to the Democratic Russia movement going into opposition to Boris Yeltsin, then disintegrating. In 1997, Lev Ponomarev got together with the people who had been part of Democratic Russia and created a national human rights movement.
Liudmila thought that it was a mistake to involve former political activists in the human rights movement, since human rights defenders are a particular breed of people, while political activists are partisan. Despite this, the human rights movement was set up and registered, and Ponomarev and Alekseeva soon found a common language again.
Human rights defenders are not opposed to the state, but they are opposed to a state’s totalitarian practices. Every country develops at its own speed. Democracy compensates for certain shortcomings in individuals and in humankind as a species. In a democracy, the economy develops more harmoniously. Ponomarev has noted that he does everything he can to ensure that protests are peaceful.
In answer to a question on how his work in physics and mathematics has helped him in his human rights activities, Ponomarev said that he had not been an outstanding physicist, although he had always been interested in science, but mathematical thinking had probably helped him establish large sustainable movements that had largely been able to achieve their goals.
When asked who could be considered a human rights defender, Lev Ponomarev said it is someone who doesn’t feel resentful about anything, someone who gets satisfaction from the work they do, but who doesn’t feel like a hero to whom everyone should be indebted.