Natella Boltyanskaya: What does one do in prison? Think. There’s no better place for it. On Sergei Kovalev’s 90th birthday

2 March 2020

Natella Boltyanskaya is a journalist and a winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

Sergei Adamovich Kovalev can be an extremely awkward person for others. He doesn’t react well to the conciliatory, “You of all people will no doubt understand…”. He doesn’t want to try to understand the circumstances preventing anyone from from being a decent, upright person. He never did understand…This article comprises fragments from multiple interviews I did with Sergei Kovalev for a series on the dissident movement

1965 Writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were arrested for publishing literary works abroad. A campaign to support the detainees begаn in which Sergei Kovalev took part. His former colleague, member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Nikolai Semenov, attempted to speak with him. “Sergei, you’re a scholar, you shouldn’t be coming to conclusions based on what is published in the newspapers…You need to know the facts of the case.” His response was the following: “I don’t need anything to be able to understand this case…I can assure you, Nikolai Nikolaevich, that nowhere in legislation is there a provision banning the use of pseudonyms nor is it forbidden for an author to publish their works wherever they see fit.” Then Semenov paused and said something truly astonishing to Kovalev: “You’re right. There is no such law. Your point being? Are you saying you want there to be one? You of all people surely know how laws are passed in this country? Don’t you think it is perhaps better that these two should do their time in prison rather than that a law should be adopted on this?!”

The early 1970s “…Near the American embassy a captain in winter boots grabbed me and hauled me off to the police station. I said to him: ‘Could you at least do me the favour of explaining on what grounds I am being arrested?’ And all of sudden I got the strangest answer: ‘You aren’t being arrested’.

‘What do you mean I’m not being arrested? What’s going on?’

‘You’re being taken to the police station.’”

From the early ’70s and up until his arrest in 1974, Kovalev was one of the editors of the uncensored information bulletin A Chronicle of Current Events. The publication was dubbed “a defamatory anti-Soviet newsletter” by the authorities. The Chronicle (1968-1982) was a periodical which focussed on providing information concerning human rights violations in the USSR. It was reproduced on typewriters in people’s homes. In 1972, following publication of the 27th issue, the bulletin was suspended. The reason was blackmail by the KGB, who openly threatened those involved with arrest after each new issue, irrespective of whether they had in fact worked on a particular issue or not. At the start of May 1975, the latest issues of the Chronicle were ready. At Kovalev’s apartment, a short press conference was held for foreign correspondents: “We have read the statement which claims we are liable for the distribution of the Chronicle, and not its editing. In spite of the repeated assertions of the KGB and USSR legal institutions that the Chronicle of Current Events is an illegal and defamatory publication, we have made it our mission to ensure it is distributed as widely as possible. We are convinced that truthful information on violations of fundamental human rights in the Soviet Union should be available to anyone interested. 7 May 1974. Tatyana Velikanova, Sergei Kovalev and Tatyana Khodorovich.”

From the indictment

[Translation of the above: “The preliminary investigation has established that: Kovalev, acting with the aim of undermining Soviet power, from 1969 until his arrest, has been engaging in anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. In the aforementioned period, he is accused personally, and together with other like-minded individuals, of the systematic publication and distribution of materials across the territory of the USSR and abroad, and possessing such materials with a view to distributing so-called protest letters and appeals, as well as publishing the illegal Chronicle of Current Events periodical, a source of slanderous allegations, defaming the Soviet state and social system.”]

Source: Wikipedia

The second half of the ’70s Labour camp. “…My first six months of single-cell confinement – in a prison within a prison – was the result of an appeal to the parties to the Helsinki Accords who had gathered for their latest congress. This was made expressly clear to me, although in the protocol concerning application of disciplinary measures against me nothing of the sort was mentioned. It was said that I have a bad attitude to work, talk a lot, violate the detention regime, etc.

A Cheka officer comes in and says: “Here’s the statement, Sergei Adamovich. Please read it”. I read it through and said: “Excellent statement. I’d be delighted to sign it.”

“You already have, Sergei Adamovich.”

And what was defamation in the view of those then in power? “…Just another camp incident. The on-duty assisting officer to the head of the prison colony came up to me and asked what I was writing in my notebook, glancing at the thermometer.

“I’m recording the temperature.”


“In order to monitor how detention conditions of inmates are being violated. Take a look, we are currently inside in an enclosed space, yet the thermometer says +9.”

“And what exactly are you going to do with these records? Are you going to send them somewhere?

“Yes, if I can, I’m going to pass them on.”

“And there you have it – that’s defamation.”

From everyday camp life: “…One time our wing was at risk of being flooded. We were taken to a nearby hillock (as good as let loose), they put up tents, erected barbed wire around them and then …for the first time in my life I saw cranes performing their mating dance.”

From personal impressions: “…I’m not bitter about the fact I spent time in prison. Firstly, in a certain way it is an edifying experience…If you want to be sure that you have what it takes, that your self-respect is intact, then do a stint in prison, just like many decent people are made to do. A vital antidote to the whole thing is that there’s time to study. I know people who have learnt a whole new language. I confess I didn’t get quite that far! I made some vague attempts but tended to always get distracted by other things. But they often have you locked up (in solitary confinement or isolation) where you’re given nothing to read or even to write with. What is there to do? All that’s left to do is think. I think I was very successful in developing my worldview in a very fundamental and serious way. There is no better place than prison to do this. And well, finally, there’s a small, practical benefit, so to speak, of doing time. People become aware of your business, they talk and write about it. It’s characteristic of the authorities, not me. What is characteristic of me is that people who have read about what I’m up to know it’s me who’s accused in connection with the “Chronicle”. I urge you to read “Chronicle” – that’ll give you a good understanding of why people are in prison. Are they there lawfully or have the authorities exposed their lawlessness by putting them behind bars?…

In the camp, you work on informing the world about what’s truly going on in this country and what those in power are up to.”

Mysticism. At the end of the ’70s, during Kovalev’s term at the camp, a certain number of Jewish conscientious objectors who had been interned with him in the same wing of Perm-36 labour camp were sent to Moscow in order to then finally be sent into exile. “…It wasn’t a one for one swap, like in the case of Bukovsky but rather an exchange of people in return for less harsh criticism. For better relations. Perhaps there was some sort of other contract in place. Anyway, I had a dream that went like this: a green field, in the middle of which is a plane. There is no runway for some reason but there is an armchair, and in it sits an attractive, sweet-looking, middle-aged woman. Somehow, I recognise her as being Carter’s wife. Queuing up to board the plane are lots of people I don’t know, however, I’m fully aware that they are prisoners. And there you have it, that’s how the dream goes. People show up with suitcases, bags and everyone ascends up the stairs to board this plane. And I know that I can also go up those stairs. There’s such a strange arrow on the plane. It’s painted on but somehow it slowly rises. And I see that the more people that board, the more it rises. I start to feel torn, should I stay in the queue or not. And then, smiling, the lady in the armchair says to me in Russian: ‘Don’t you think you’d best get a move on?’ And I don’t remember what I said to her, but I remember deciding to turn around and leave. In any case, it’s clear what the dream is inspired by. Everyone was talking about Carter, release – they’d only just…Then Lusya arrives (the wife of Sergei Adamovich, Liudmila Yurevna Boitsova) to see me and I recount the dream to her and see that all of a sudden, she becomes totally round-eyed with surprise. And I say to her, ‘what are you so surprised about?’ It turns out that Liudmila Yurevna and Irina Valitova (at the time the wife of Yuri Orlov) were persistently arguing for the release of Kovalev and Orlov and in so doing they had been writing to very powerful people. And who did they write to?  One addressee was a certain Mrs Carter. Kovalev’s reaction: ‘No, there’s no need for that, I’m not a commodity – you can’t just trade me. I’m a human being and the slave trade isn’t something I condone. If they want to release me, then they should apologise and get on with it, for God’s sake. I want to remain a knight, so to speak. As prisoners of conscience tend to be called.’”

And last but not least, a couple of stories, told by his friends and loved ones:

Ivan Kovalev, dissident, political prisoner, 1982-1985, son of Sergei Kovalev:

During the investigation he (Sergei Kovalev) was served with multiple documents featuring “defamatory content” taken from his very own handwritten notes produced for the purposes of inspection, cross-referencing, revision…That notorious detractor…

Victor Shmyrov, former director of the Perm 36 museum:

Once in Perm we went on a trip with Sergei Adamovich. We went out to the road and flagged down a car. Behind the wheel was a guy – one might have described him as of Caucasian descent – who uttered not one word the whole time we were driving. When we arrived, Kovalev gets out and I ask the driver “How much do I owe you?”  His response: “I won’t take Kovalev’s money.”

2014, Poland. Kovalev and I were visiting Auschwitz.  Suddenly I notice his lips are blue. An ambulance is called and he’s taken to hospital. He is examined by a youngish doctor, who doesn’t speak Russian all that well (he left Western Ukraine in the ’90s). He looks at the patient: “Wait a second, aren’t you the Kovalev who was in Chechnya in 1994? Let’s get you seen to right away.”

A little later: “I’m discharging you. I’ve written you a prescription for some medication. Have you got money on you to pay for it?” An affirmative response from Kovalev. The doctor takes me by the hand as we leave the ward: “Pani, do you have any idea who your companion is? Here, I don’t have any more on me, but take it – there’s about one hundred Euros there!” He reaches into his pocket and hands over the money. I didn’t take it, but I’ll never forget Mr Nazar. 

Translated by Nathalie Wilson

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