Sergei Kovalev: ‘It was a time when you said what was true and important for society’

2 March 2020

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Kommersant]

On 2 March Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, one of the most famous Russian human rights defenders and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, turns 90. A biophysicist by profession, he could not continue his profession in science once he became aware of the human rights violations in the USSR. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and three years of internal exile for publishing samizdat. After release he was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, worked on the second chapter of the Russian Constitution and became the first Russian human rights ombudsman. According to the International Memorial Society, Kovalev’s civil society activity is based on three principles: an aversion to lies and injustice, unity of thought and action and fearlessness in defending one’s views. Sergei Kovalev spoke to Anastasiya Kurilova of Kommersant about his life.

“If this is a course of study of scientific atheism then, please, let’s read the Bible.” 

Sergei Kovalev was born into a family of railway workers in Seredina-Buda, Ukraine. In his youth, he lived in the working-class village of Podlipki near Moscow and was boxing champion for the Moscow region. In 1952, he graduated from the faculty of biology at Moscow State University and in 1955 completed his postgraduate studies. He is the author of more than 60 scientific papers, specialising in the electrophysiology of myocardial tissue. From 1965-1969 he was a senior researcher and head of department at the inter-faculty laboratory of mathematical methods in biology at Moscow State University.

In 1948, I graduated from high school and decided to study biology, even though I was somewhat attracted to law and legal theory. But I was smart enough, smarter than I am now, and I decided that you can’t become a lawyer in the USSR, otherwise you’d spend your whole life either prostituting yourself or going to prison. So I decided to go into science.

My first experience of wrestling was connected to Michurin’s biology. Its founder, agro-biologist Trofim Lysenko, held strange views on genetics. He said, for example, that a cuckoo can appear in the nest of any bird if it was feeding on furry caterpillars. It was a monstrous theory, but it was popular. Some tried to criticise him, but in 1948 he spoke at VASKhNIL (the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences) and one of the presiding officers said that his report was approved by Molotov (Vyacheslav Molotov, first Deputy Chair of the Council of Ministers of the USSR). Everyone immediately began to support him. I have read the transcripts of this session, and even simple common sense was enough to understand what nonsense he was spinning. I then graduated from 10th grade, but I, a boy at the time, was affected by it.

In 1956, I was working at the biology department of Moscow State University. Biologists came to us and repeated this. And they had to regurgitate this nonsense in exams, and then they had to teach students. They said: “Why don’t you write an appeal? We will collect signatures.” My friend Levon Chilakhyan, a graduate student, wrote a text addressed to the Dean’s office of the biology faculty. It was a very modest, restrained and logical letter.

The logic was this: we were taught Michurin’s biology and genetics, but this is radically different from what was read around the world. You are training scientists, but scientists must have a comprehensive understanding of the problems they want to tackle.

And what will happen if you inculcate in us one of the theories, while at the same time merely inveighing against the other without explaining it? Our letter got passed around, and people started to sign it – lots of people, around 150. None of them were students, because we didn’t want to get them involved for fear of them getting thrown out of university. And then someone – I’ve forgotten the name of the scumbag, but he was a senior lecturer from the Department of Plant Physiology – saw this letter, decided it was seditious, and took it to the dean’s office (the dean being one of the letter’s addressees, by the way). A scandal erupted; initially talks were held with the signatories – and even their parents – within the individual departments, and soon only 25 of the original 150 signatures remained, including those of myself and Levon. Then whole-faculty meetings were held. Faina Kuperman, a professor from the Department of Darwinism (which had nothing to do with actual Darwinism) took the floor at one of these meetings, and said; “Do you want to be taught the genetics of the bourgeoisie, which has been refuted in our country? You are receiving an education in scientific atheism, and yet you want them to read Bible verses to you?”

Then Noi Feigenson, a senior lecturer within the Department of Genetics, read out a section from an article in a foreign scientific journal, which was couched in terminology we had never heard before, and followed up by saying; “Did anyone understood a single word of what I just read out? Do you want to understand it?” I raised my hand and replied; “If this is a course in scientific atheism, please go ahead and read us verses from the Bible. Real science means examining all the different points of view and putting forward valid arguments, out in the open, to refute the ones that are incorrect. Anything else is not real science.” The room had been quiet up until this point, but people started clapping when I finished speaking. Then I went on; “No, we didn’t understand a single word of the quote from that article, but that’s your fault. If you’d done a better job of teaching us, we would have understood.” And once again the audience applauded.

The battle with Trofim Lysenko continued in 1961, when Sergei Kovalev, Levon Chailakhyan and Mikhail Berkinblit wrote a very long article that was signed by the member of the Academy of Sciences Nikolai Semenov. It was scheduled for publication in the newspaper Pravda, but was pulled at the last moment following a decision by the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. Yet the article was published two months later, in the journal Science and Life, and soon Trofim Lysenko was removed from his position as Director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences. At the same time, member of the Academy Nikolai Semenov involved Sergei Kovalev in the conflict brewing between the scientists working at the Pavlov Institute of Physiology, the director of which was Vladimir Chernigovsky.

The ‘Pavlovian School’ had a stranglehold over the Institute, and they were waging war against the supporters of Chernigovsky. Nikolai Semenov, as Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences, was instructed to sort the matter out. He said to me; “You need to understand that we have a huge problem on our hands. Do we simply give up on science and let this decrepit invalid have his way, even though he is merely besmirching the name of an honoured individual with the three words he is still capable of saying – ‘Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’? We need to sort things out.” He appointed me Academic Secretary of the Committee, and told me to choose the scientists that would sit on it. I tried my best, and recommended biologists to him who were worthy of the name. They then visited laboratories within the Leningrad Division of the Academy of Sciences, talked to the people working there and wrote reports. After that, Semenov said; “You’re an Academic Secretary, so you can give a speech.” So I drafted a speech, and he approved it. But when the time came for me to stand up and talk, I thought to myself; “Who do I think I am? I’ve only reached the rank of Candidate of Science, and I’m far too young to give a speech to these grey-haired professors about what their work is worth – how much of it is true, and how much of it is pseudo-science.” It was then that I understood something; they weren’t interested in listening to my arguments, they were merely interested in my status, and I was speaking on behalf of a Nobel Prize winner – the Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences. It was all about respect for rank. And nothing has changed in that respect; everybody still sucks up to the highest-ranking officials and the President.

 ‘Their ideology is to destroy competitors’

In December 1965, Misha Berkinblit and I were discussing what was going on in Soviet politics. And he says, ‘Well, what to do?’ And I answer ed sharply and confidently, ‘Suppose we had a chance to collect some explosives and plant them in that noxious building where they hold their stinking congresses. Wait for the right moment and blow them all to fricking hell. But if we carried out that plan, we’d be just like them. That’s their ideology – to destroy competitors. And any protests would be a ticket to prison. I see only one way to preserve our self-respect – by not crawling into that political filth, and by honestly engaging in honest science. That much I can do.’

And then in February 1966 the verdict was announced in the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial, and, completely forgetting my stated intention, I immediately signed a petition against the sentence and even composed my own text, but only managed to collect four signatures for it, including my own.

My statement was brief, addressed to the presidium of the USSR Supreme Court, which had the power to intervene in judicial proceedings.

The trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel opened in autumn 1965. The two had published abroad under pseudonyms. When the KGB figured out who the authors were, the writers were arrested and charged with creating publications slanderous of the state and social structure (Article 70 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR): ‘Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda’). Yuli Daniel was sentenced to five years in camps, and Andrei Sinyavsky to seven years. The trial is widely considered to have given rise to the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. Sergei Kovalev organized a petition at the Institute of Biophysics based on his appeal to the Presidium of the Soviet Supreme Court. In 1967 he began taking part in the dissident movement. In May 1969, Kovalev joined the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR created by Pyotr Yakir and Viktor Krasin. In 1969 because of his human rights activity Kovalev was dismissed from his position as department head of mathematical methods in the laboratory of interfaculty biology at Moscow State University.

‘I read these works. They were brought here, then retyped and passed on. There’s a line in one of Aleksandr Galich’s songs: ‘An ‘Erica’ makes four copies, but that’s enough.’ ‘Erica’ was the name of the typewriter. But I must correct Aleksandr Arkadevich here: the ‘Erica’ could actually do ten copies, but it needed thin paper, good quality carbon paper, and a typist who could hit the keys hard. I remember being involved in editing ‘A Chronicle of Current Events’; I was the chief editor. The first editor was Natalya Gorbanevskaya – a great poet, but difficult to get along with, demanding. She did the first three or four issues on her own. The issues were short but powerful, then the style changed. The decision to issue the ‘Chronicle’ was made in 1968; it was the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

‘A Chronicle of Current Events’ was the USSR’s first uncensored human rights information bulletin that talked about political repression – interrogations, searches, arrests and sentences. A total of 63 issues were published over 15 years. Its editors were subjected to repression. In 1974, Sergei Kovalev became the editor for issues 28-30 and 32-40.

‘When you buy a typewriter, you need to understand that its unique imprints are on record somewhere. The letters are soldered to the levers manually, and the impressions they make are unique to the machine. If you’re publishing samizadat and you’re not an idiot, then you make the typewriter unrecognisable. You take a soldering iron and, without removing the letter, you change its angle slightly. Then you won’t get caught; the investigators won’t be able to tell which typewriter it is. And that’s what I did. It was done to the typewriters that made bulk copies of samizdat materials. There were typists who weren’t afraid to type samizdat material. For money. Then came photocopiers. It was all more difficult for us here than it was in Lithuania. There, they wrote off spare parts as broken, then used them to build machines.

In December 1974, Sergei Kovalev was charged with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. In December 1975, a court in Vilnius sentenced him to seven years in prison and three years of exile. The trial was attended by Andrei Sakharov – physicist, creator of the hydrogen bomb, and dissident. Sergei Kovalev served his sentence in the strict-regime prison colony Perm-36. In 1980, he was transferred to Chistopol Prison for taking part in camp protests and ‘violating the regime’. He was sent into exile in Magadan Oblast. After his release, he settled in Kalinin (Tver) – exiles were not allowed to live in Moscow.

‘I was promoted – to guard and fireman’

I was released at the end of 1984 and sent into exile. I went to see my wife in Moscow and realised I could become a parasite, plus it was forbidden to live in Moscow for more than three days without a residence permit. By that time, I was already a quick thinker. I travelled places and kept the tickets, and I paid for hotel rooms and asked for a receipt, although I never spent the night there. Then a police officer came to see me. I got out the documents and showed him I was looking for work and that I hadn’t been at home for more than three days. But the police still warned me that I wasn’t allowed to stay in Moscow. Friends said: ‘There’s nothing you can do. We’ll buy a little house in Kalinin on the bank of the river.’ It was two houses under one roof. One was the owner’s, and the other had been divided in half and handed over. Friends helped me out with money and bought this half, and that’s where I lived.

In Kalinin, Sergei Kovalev worked as a guard at the construction site of the local Ministry of Internal Affairs’ air-raid shelter, then he guarded the Kalinin park of recreation and culture, and then he worked at a theatre.

I was promoted, becoming a guard and fireman at the Kalinin Regional Drama Theatre. Theatre fires were awful. Above the stage was a large funnel-shaped space that created an unbelievable draft. There was a metal curtain – an 8mm-thick steel sheet – that was lowered from above and gave time to get the audience out. It said in the manual that it took one and a half minutes for this sheet to burn through.

At the theatre, I hung around during rehearsals, would sometimes watch a bit of the performance, and got brazen enough to start making comments. The actors were rehearsing a tense exchange between the main characters, and one of them was the writer Hemingway. He threw a bottle, which flew over the head of his interlocutor.

I said to the director: ‘Hemingway loves bullfighting and he enjoys a drink, of course, but he’s a civilised man and he wouldn’t behave like that.’ The director agreed.

In another play about Napoleon, the women’s outfits had plunging necklines and the partisans were bare chested. I remarked that it was last century and everyone should be wearing crosses. The director looked at me: ‘We sorted out Hemingway, but you’re not getting crosses.’

“I spoke awkwardly, but truthfully”

At the end of 1987, Sergei Kovalev was summoned to the KGB and asked to make a request for transfer to Moscow, on the condition that he wouldn’t say what he was convicted of. He refused. The KGB then got his family’s consent for his return. In December 1987, Sergei Kovalev was already in Moscow and was immediately admitted to the organising committee of the International Humanitarian Seminar on Human Rights. In 1989, on the recommendation of Andrei Sakharov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Kovalev was appointed co-chair of the Soviet arm of the Human Rights Project Group at the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity (subsequently the Russian-American Human Rights Group). Kovalev then joined the Moscow Helsinki Group. Since 1992 he has been the chair of the Russian branch of the International Memorial Society.

In the Project Group I became co-author of the draft bill “On the State of Emergency”. This law was required so that it would not be possible to turn a state of emergency into a coup d’etat. Volodya Golitsyn and I wrote the draft law with the help of two or three others. What we wrote came from our own heads, since we didn’t have access to international law. We sent the finished text to the group of deputies in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR which included Sakharov, Yeltsin, and Popov. Then approval came from France, saying the draft law was excellent. We were flattered.

And so the Memorialists proposed to nominate me to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR. I met with Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. This was 10 December 1989. And he unexpectedly said: “You must become a member! There must be some normal people there.” And on the evening of 14 December there was a call: Andrei Dmitrievich had died. And then I said to myself: now we need to win these elections, it’s our duty to Sakharov.

My opponent was Sergei Kurginian. He spoke beautifully in debates, but lied ruthlessly. Whereas I spoke awkwardly, but truthfully.

I talked about what democracy is, how we should change legislation. Trite, as is clear now. In the elections, I won – it was unexpected.

Our draft law on the state of emergency eventually became a law of the RSFSR. But the rest of our bills did not get through, because the majority of the Supreme Soviet ware Communists. And I was not in the party. Our law “On citizenship” and a law “On the rehabilitation of victims of political repression” failed spectacularly, but then after August 1991, they were adopted. After the putsch, the Communists made fiery democratic speeches. Because they felt: we have lost, they’ve won – now they’ll lock us up, just as we would have locked them up. Those who orchestrated the putsch were put in prison, but then released. It was pointless, they needed to be tried the first time. I myself have been in prison and would not wish it on anyone, but there should have been a trial. Notionally, there was a total humanisation, but in reality there was a total lack of principles.

“If Kovalev says so, I won’t shoot.”

In January 1994, Sergei Kovalev became the first Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia, but in March 1995 he was removed from his post by deputies of the Russian State Duma. After that, he was elected to the 2nd State Duma. During the First Chechen War (1994–1996), Sergei Kovalev criticised the actions of the Russian authorities. From the first days of the war, he worked in the war zone, as ombudsman heading the joint monitoring mission of NGOs. In June 1995, he was a mediator in negotiations with the terrorists who seized a hospital in Budennovsk, and he went in as part of a group of voluntary hostages.

During the Chechen war I was enthusiastic in my role as ombudsman, but then they blew it all to pieces, even though they had no right to do so. My position as ombudsman was all wrong: the ombudsman should not be a member or a representative of the government, and the parliament does not have the right to rob him or her of their authority prematurely. This was not the case with me. I then understood this, and believed that we would gradually get everything in order legally.

My position during the Chechen war was this: if I am ombudsman, I must ensure that individual rights are observed, such that there is no terror, torture or illegal executions. What I came across was monstrous. Both sides violated the law, but the Russian army were worse. I did not have an identical attitude to both sides. But there could be no identical attitudes. My first criticism was of the government troops, because they have to strictly follow the law. The other side were also responsible for their actions, but I had different criticism of them. Violence should, nonetheless, be punished in all instances.

Generally speaking, God only knows what was happening there. There were many cases of rape by Russian troops. I had a short list of court cases. One sergeant raped a Chechen woman, then was caught, convicted, and given a year and a half suspended sentence. Another raped and killed a woman. And was given a five-year suspended sentence.

Another case – some soldiers went to the apartment of a Chechen woman, where they used to trade moonshine. But there was nothing to buy, and the woman was shot in the legs. A soldier received a disciplinary punishment: he was banned from applying for promotion for 6 months. 

The case was classified as ‘careless handling of weapons.’ Wow! This was armed robbery at best, and at worst an attempt on the woman’s life. I sent this list to the General Prosecutor’s Office and to the military. And these cases have been recorded as actually taking place.

Then there were the Chechens. Maskhadov’s discipline was strict, but the partisans in the forests — well, who could tell them what to do. There was one Chechen notorious for his cruelty. He was under attack. And he said: if you do not stop shelling, I will start shooting hostages. I appealed to him on the walkie-talkie and said: ‘You can’t fight like that’. And he said: ‘If Kovalev says so, then I won’t shoot.’ The Chechens respected our mission. 

I was there for the whole war, defending the citizens of Chechnya. And yet I believed that it was too early to give it the status of an equal independent state, because human rights were not properly respected in Chechnya. Blood feuds and judicial executions prevailed. There was a case when one couple was shot for adultery. This was recorded on videotape. As long as such things exists, Chechnya cannot be considered an independent and equal state.

In the upshot, the Chechens entered Grozny and took it, and the Russian troops ended up surrounded. And I was there too. At the start of January 1995 Maskhadov called me. He said, tell your fellow tribesmen that we guarantee them a way out even with light weapons; we don’t need more bloodshed. Of course, we couldn’t believe that. We understood that we had to organise a group, including people from both sides to work out the terms of the cessation of bloodshed and the release of our forces. This was obvious to me. And we went to the Russian military with it. The headquarters was located on the top floor of a house where the staircase was full of holes and it was quite a job to get up there. Upstairs, I told the commander that I was not persuading them that they should agree to the proposal that we should leave with our command apparatus. He made a phone call and said they did not agree. At that moment a young soldier ran in from the roof in tears. Serega has been shot, he said, it was a sniper. They refused to let us leave. In my opinion, they were fools. But what can you do.

We saw a lot in Grozny. There were corpses in the gateway to every building. They were dragged out during lulls, taken somewhere and buried. If there was no lull, they just stayed there.

I remember how an American correspondent was killed. There were air raids on the city, but you have to live. And there was some kind of temporary market on the square. Women sold cottage cheese, yogurt and pies. And there was a low-flying aircraft attack on the place. There was machine-gun fire, everyone went running, and someone fell down. After an hour the market started up again. And there was another raid. The American correspondent was concealed by a queue, and her head was just blown off. Then we conducted a very rough count – though we used a good mathematical process – and found that 25,000 civilians had been killed in a month and a half.

When the second war was already underway in Chechnya, I spoke in the Duma, wasting my words: the war should be ended by peaceful negotiations! And their reply to me was: ‘What peace talks? We have to push on to the end.’

In January 1996, Sergei Kovalev resigned from the post of chair of the Commission on Human Rights under the President of the Russian Federation and left public office. For his activities in defence of human rights he has been awarded many foreign and international awards. In the mid-’90s he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Today Sergei Kovalev continues to participate in human rights activities and signs open letters and appeals dedicated to upholding human rights. And he can be found in the Moscow courts at the trials of those who have participated in unauthorised rallies.

“Our pragmatism brought us here”

Andrei Sakharov kept strictly to this rule: do what you should, and what will be will be. This correct rule has now lost its followers and been forgotten.

If we compare the dissident movement from the 1960s through to the 1980s with now, we see a cardinal difference. Then we did not count on public success. We understood that our statements and criticisms would not find public acceptance, and the only result of freedom of thought was a spell in prison. That’s how it was. People adopted the following model: there’s no freedom, but we will behave as if there is. And they ended up in jail. And my seven years in prison plus three years in internal exile were also quite consciously accepted.

At the start of the ’90s we had three remarkable years, but then everything collapsed. Because we became pragmatists, we began to look for a result and not set out our position. The normal position of civil society is this: if we achieve a result, that’s good, but if not, well, fine, we still won’t change our opinion. This is our country, we are its citizens and we are free to stick to our positions and not consider the authorities. Those above us are only temporarily in their positions, and they have to carry out our will, and we shall monitor how they do it. And then we shall elect them or not. But in our country everything is in reverse. […]

Translated by Alice Lee, Anna Bowles, Nicky Brown, Mercedes Malcomson, Mark Nuckols and Joanne Reynolds

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