Leonid Nikitinsky: Un-Real Politik. How Dr. Lev Ponomarev earned the title “Russia’s Enemy No. 1”

27 February 2021

by Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya Gazeta correspondent, member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society (SPCh), laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MKhG) Prize for Human Rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

Jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, now fashionable once again, understood politics as the dimension where friends and enemies are determined. He considered fierce antagonism ontologically inherent in sinful humanity and politics the extreme expression of this ineradicable hostility. His most famous work, The Concept of the Political, saw the light of day in Germany in 1932 and was very much to the point.

On 28 December 2020, Lev Aleksandrovich Ponomarev (Lev Ponomarev is head of For Human Rights and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. – MKhG), the 80-year-old doctor of physics and mathematics, better known as a defender of the downtrodden, was the first to be added by the Russian Ministry of Justice to the list of “physical persons who are foreign agents,” that is, in Schmitt’s categories, he was named Russia’s enemy no. 1. Before this, the three or four organizations he had created had been deemed “agents.” How had he merited this stigma or, the other way around, this honorable title?

Among his friends and acquaintances, Ponomarev inspires not only respect for his courage and persistence but also a tenderness – for his “bumbling.” At the same time he is terribly, existentially lonely. His figure looks out of place in front of the main entrance to the FSB (Federal Security Service) on Lubyanka among the lively, daring younger generation, and in the special detention centres, where, in recent years, he has spent a total of about a month, lecturing his cellmates on human rights, not wasting time.

Do they understand him? His words – of course. More deeply – hardly. Wrong wavelength, wrong language.

He’s not even a “boomer” but a fossil, and it’s hard for young people to take him seriously. Dozhd quickly put out short sketches of all the “foreign agents” from the first list – except Ponomarev. This is not inattention, they simply couldn’t understand him and didn’t want to offend him, either. He can be quite importunate when it’s necessary to drag someone out of the torture chamber; he might call at any time, day or night; but if he’s cursed out he habitually takes no offence and immediately backs down. And Lev gets cursed out quite often. After all, usually nothing comes of his plans anyway. Although that’s not his fault. 

And maybe something will come of them, but not anytime soon, and we’re impatient. Lev is the embodiment of the Soviet intellectual (a dying breed), the expression of his face, simultaneously apologizing and accusing: “How can you not understand?..” We don’t understand because we’re scuttling by, in a hurry. But in vain.


Like any real “foreign agent,” Ponomarev’s path to the designation was long and largely the result of coincidences. 

Ponomarev’s grandfather tilled the land south of the Urals. He became a dispossessed kulak at the end of the 1920s, and his son, Ponomarev’s father, wore a red scarf and hid his dekulakization because he wanted to become a pilot. But he was found out and instead became a railroad worker. His mother was a nurse. Young Lev, born in September 1941, was looked after by wounded Red Army soldiers in a hospital in Akmolinsk (now Nur-Sultan, the current capital of Kazakhstan) while his father was repairing train tracks in a bombed battle zone. 

In 1953 the family moved to Moscow, to the Perovo District. Lev’s father worked for a government ministry, where he was in charge of Moscow trams. Lev was an active Komsomol member in school, but as he got older, the civic life began to disgust him: after one year working at a factory, he began his studies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. In 1942, he defended his doctoral dissertation in the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics (the Kurchatov Institute). His dissertation examined the scattering of particles in intervals of 1/10 to the minus-tenth power of a second. Lev recalls that time without enthusiasm, saying that as a scientist he would never set the Thames on fire, so to speak, and that his work was nothing compared to what the country was going through. His chief talent would be discovered during perestroika and would concern his “desire and ability to create public organizations.”

In the ’70s, Lev met physicist Yury Orlov, the founder and first leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), and began spending time with him in dissident groups. I remember those gatherings in the ’70s and early ’80s about the same as Lev does: samizdat, Galich, “politics,” fortified wine, and intricately intertwined love affairs, for those who were not part of the ideological backbone, and they made up about half of those taking part. According to Ponomarev, who had two young daughters at the time, the dissidents “annoyed him with their nervousness” (I understand him there); he shared their views but “didn’t join them.”

Knowing what I know about his relationship with Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva (head of the Moscow Helsinki Group who died at the end of 2018), a relationship that was at once very tender and at the same time sometimes almost scandalous, I suspect it wasn’t so much that Lev “didn’t join” MHG, but rather they didn’t let him. For one thing, he always spoke freely about what he thought, and his work on the Chronicle of Current Events (a human-rights periodical that Alekseeva typed on a typewriter) demanded conspiracy, even if that seems rather naive from today’s perspective. And for another thing, he demanded a transition to political activity, while the ideology of the human rights activists was based on “not being concerned with politics, only human rights.” 

Orlov was arrested in 1976, immediately after MHG was founded. In the spring of 1977, Ponomarev was eager to attend the trial in Liublino, which was considered “open”; but the place had been filled in advance with cadets, and he and Sakharov ended up walking around the fence. Ponomarev and Orlov communicated during the latter’s seven years in the Perm camps; they discussed topics of theoretical physics and applied linguistics. When Orlov was sent, after his imprisonment, to the village of Kobyai in Yakutia, he was visited secretly by Lev, a mutual friend, and Orlov’s wife. For all his outward straightforwardness, Ponomarev was able to take pictures and get the film out: pictures of Orlov in Yakutia were published in the New York Times.

Those were all his “exploits,” as he calls them. The “politics” was still to come.


Gorbachev’s perestroika legalised dissent in the Soviet Union. Human rights defenders turned out to be the most popular and organised group: under the conditions of repression, the human rights platform made it possible to unite people of not just different, but very different beliefs. “My time had arrived,” Lev says about this period, modestly describing himself as a “second-level leader.”

The doctor continued to set up experiments, publish scientific papers and conduct seminars. In 1988, he was one of the founders of Memorial (now considered a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice), having managed to organise a collection of signatures in his support – both massive (thousands of letters came first to his home address) and gradual. He convinced practically every one of note, except for Solzhenitsyn, to support Memorial. The next step was the creation of the opposition movement Democratic Russia, which received a significant number of mandates in the elections of people’s deputies of the RSFSR in 1990, took the initiative to establish the post of President of the RSFSR (along with the President of the USSR) and nominated Boris Yeltsin as a de facto alternative to Mikhail Gorbachev.

In March 1990, Ponomarev persuaded Politburo member Anatoly Lukyanov to permit rallies on Manezh Square by convincing him that people would come anyway (and it would be better to avoid confrontations), but hundreds of thousands came. After the August 1991 coup, deputy Ponomarev headed the parliamentary commission to investigate the causes and circumstances of the Emergency Committee. He remained a People’s Deputy until October 1993, when DemRossiya lost its influence in the Supreme Soviet, yielding to Ruslan Khasbulatov’s bloc, which ended with tanks firing at the White House and the dissolution of the parliament.

Ponomarev’s time, however, ended quickly: in the scandalous elections to the State Duma in December 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party won a quarter of the seats, which meant failure for Gaidar’s Russia’s Choice, which collected 15 per cent. Ponomarev returned to the State Duma in October 1994 with Galina Starovoitova and Gleb Yakunin. They created a party under the same brand, Democratic Russia, which had discredited itself in the eyes of voters. Still, it did not play a significant role. After the outbreak of hostilities in Chechnya in the Autumn of 1994, this party “went into opposition,” where it would be ignored by Boris Yeltsin and his entourage.

Soviet dissidents were spread across a wide variety of camps, from radical liberals to hardcore nationalists.

They took credit for the USSR’s downfall, which was not unreasonable, but then, of course, all thinking people, including Gorbachev, were “dissidents” in the late USSR, and the USSR was doomed due to its economic inefficiency. The dissidents’ central idea, a dream of political freedom and human rights, faded against the background of economic impoverishment. Then, with Putin’s rise to power, human rights activities became increasingly stigmatised – as both alien to Russian tradition and feasible only with money from the West.

As Lev laments, “We are not represented in the Yeltsin Museum” (and I would add: not there either).  Historiographers of the Putin era prefer to keep silent about that period, unless it is to label the 1990s as “wild,” though for many they were still a time of hope.  But it may be better that Ponomarev is little associated with the events of those years: you cannot earn political points that way, and he considers himself a politician – something that, I must confess, at first surprised me.

An attempt was made back in 1989 to re-establish the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), but that was a time when the defence of human rights temporarily lost significance as an opponent of a repressive state.  However, that significance soon returned, and at the same time Liudmila Alekseeva, who took on the leadership of the MHG in 1996, returned [to Russia] from forced migration [in the USA].  At that time Ponomarev was “included” in the movement, but he quickly fell out with most of the members, who stopped inviting him to working events – on the ground that otherwise all the work would have been drowned in arguments.

Just as 20, then 30, and now 40 years ago, these disagreements centred on the understanding of human rights activities.  The MHG stubbornly insisted that “we are outside politics, because politics is a struggle for power, and we do not need that.”  Ponomarev, with great obstinacy, insisted on the political nature of the defence of human rights and on the need to rely on “politicians,” including in the regions.  But where does he see these politicians now?  People like Lev seemed stuck in the 1990s, while completely different games became popular in “politics,” and those like him provoked mirth and bewilderment among the other game-players because they were not motivated by greed or a desire for money.

Liudmila Mikhailovna, for all her captivating simplicity, somehow managed also to combine worldly wisdom and even cunning:  she foresaw the hunt for “foreign agents” long before the first law on them was adopted in 2012.  She also anticipated the potential risks involved in “political activity” in an authoritarian system.  I think that here she even outsmarted Putin, who came to visit her in her apartment on the Arbat with a bouquet of roses.  And, in her capacity as a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, she was the last person anyone ever dared to shut up.

The fate of Ponomarev and the NGOs that he created from the mid-1990s, which were financed by Western donors and that were, sooner or later, recognised as “foreign agents,” was completely different.  Ponomarev was first imprisoned for three days for organising a picket in memory of the victims of Beslan in 2006.  In March 2009, he was beaten up in the street, apparently by pro-government titushki (the identity of his attackers was not revealed).[See note below]  He received three more days in prison for participation in an unauthorized event in 2010, and soon he received four more sentences for “insubordination.”  Then his treatment got tougher: in December 2018, Ponomarev was sentenced to 25 days imprisonment for re-posting on Facebook a call to take part in a rally in support of the accused in the Network (Set’) and “New Greatness” cases (groups banned in Russia as terrorist).  The Moscow City Court reduced Ponomarev’s sentence to 16 days but, even so, this meant that Ponomarev, unlike Putin, was unable in December 2018 to attend the funeral of Liudmila Alekseeva, which took place when he was still in prison, although I think that, regardless of all the complexities of his relations with Liudmila Mikhailovna, Lev’s presence at the funeral would have been more important.

Her intercessions over the course of several years meant that Ponomarev’s organisations were awarded presidential grants, and he dutifully attempted to extricate himself from the snares of the Law on Foreign Agents. Yet even this small trickle of income dried up following the death of Alekseeva, and the For Human Rights movement was dissolved by a Supreme Court ruling in 2019. (We shall not waste our time repeating the stories told about “Lev the mercenary” on television and in the newspapers.)

It goes without saying that Ponomarev, like every other individual who earned an honest livelihood, receives a state pension – less than the pensions awarded to his ideological opponents who worked as police officers, investigators and judges, and a lot less than the pensions which the members of the State Duma awarded themselves after Ponomarev stopped being one of their hallowed number. In times gone by, even when working as a doctor of science, he did not shy away from moonlighting, collecting pine nuts in the taiga and working as an unlicensed taxi driver while he still had a car, but nowadays he is long past the age for such things. Lev has four children and 13 grandchildren who are quite rightly proud of him, but that is all.


Lev was delighted when he found out that the Novaya Gazeta newspaper wanted to write about him, but it took us a long time to carve out a few hours for a thorough discussion. He finally found the time precisely on the day when many of his former and future protegees took to the streets to protest against Navalny’s arrest, and it surprised me that he himself was not on Lubyanka Square. “They’ll have to manage without me this time,” he said, eager to get to the crux of the matter. “I’ve already been in a special detention centre five times, and now there are other people to do it on my behalf. It’s more important for me to accompany Zhenya to Tatyana Moskalkova…”

Zhenya is a former inmate of Prison Colony No 15 in Angarsk, and a witness to insurrection, torture and rape. Lev began to talk in a business-like fashion about the torture and about the fact that Zhenya had been persuaded to submit a statement to the Investigative Committee, and was taken to Moscow, in secret and with precautions, to show the statement to Tatyana Moskalkova. And the meeting took place, although the Investigative Committee refused to accept the statement – apparently it was necessary to start by ensuring that the party submitting the statement had not participated in the insurrection – and Zhenya was also refused a state-funded counsel to mount a defence against the very same “law enforcement agents”.

It is unlikely that this undertaking by Lev will be crowned with any kind of overwhelming success, although he will of course act as a thorn in the side of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia. Yet the most interesting thing about this case is that Tatyana Moskalkova is a Major General of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a civil servant at the very highest echelons of power and a member of the elites in the State Duma. And even if it isn’t quite the same thing, we’re talking about the very same Duma that is in the process of adopting the umpteenth version of the Law on Foreign Agents. As Ombudsman for Human Rights Tatyana Nikolaevna is at the head of a whole “apparatus”, but she receives Ponomarev, the “foreign agent”, in person – and not infrequently. 

I believe that Major General Moskalkova understands a very important point; Lev is not interceding on his own behalf, and he is not acting “in the interests of the West”. Yet she also understands that not everything can be proven, particularly if the evidence is gathered by those who have a guilty conscience… 


Does this individual really pose such a threat to the authorities, and why was he of all people singled out when the names were chosen for the first list of “natural persons qualifying as foreign agents”? There are any number of explanations for this, but we will start with the simplest; there is no need to “uncover” this foreign agent – he puts himself on view for everyone to see. On the other hand, it is hard to silence him; locking him up repeatedly at his age gives bad optics, and who knows what he will start agitating for when he’s inside. And monetary fines are pointless since he doesn’t have any money to start with.

He always seems to create something not particularly well organised (unlike the Moscow Helsinki Group and especially Mediazone or OVD-Info that work in the same field) and kind of unrooted, but then it suddenly turns out to be ineradicable. The law enforcement agencies are taking it upon themselves to make sure Lev’s “movement” is constantly replenished. In recent years, he has been sought out by banned Jeovah’s Witnesses, members of the banned party Hizb ut Tahrir, and the mothers of those accused in the Network and New Greatness cases (the former organisation is banned in the Russian Federation). I wonder who the security officials will push his way tomorrow? Lev went to Shiyes, and he got involved in “parental solidarity” and a couple of demonstrations. Unlike the more “rooted” NGOs and registered media outlets, he does not have to prove anything: on the one hand, everyone knows that the truth is largely on his side, and, on the other… Well, the court will fine him another million roubles. So what? 

Ponomarev is an enemy of the security forces, of course. They follow Schmitt’s understanding of politics, where everyone is either friend or enemy. For the last fifteen years or so, they have busied themselves with little else, and although there don’t seem to be many friends, the enemies and spies are breeding like rabbits. If it had been up to them, there’s no way Lev would have gotten away with “days”. But the presidential administration also has a more humane wing, where they have a more Byzantine understanding of politics and Ponomarev is viewed as a simpleton and jester who needs to be neutralised, but there seems to be nothing to shoot him for. 

I mean, he’s “not fighting for power”, is he? Well, he is fighting, but only to limit power, namely the power held by the security forces. 

The position of former Soviet dissidents (and, through them, of the Human Rights Council under Fedotov, too) is that human rights activism remain outside of politics. This may have worked okay in the 1990s, but it is a total ruse in today’s world. Right now in Russia, the fight for human rights and freedoms, for a law-based state and an independent judiciary is a fight against power, because everyone, and not just in the Kremlin and in Moscow, understands to whom it really belongs. 

It turns out that Ponomarev’s claim to be a politician is not actually as ridiculous as it first seems. That is the kind of politicians we need right now – primarily in the State Duma, but in the presidential administration, too. The young people who took to the streets for the first time in their lives in January “for Navalny” do not actually have any claim to power as Schmitt understands it, they are not looking for enemies, and they (we) couldn’t care less about power. That is why it is not just “for Navalny”. But why does politics have to be a zero-sum game? As the British colonists in America used to say in the 1750s: “No taxation without representation”. If we do not have representation, then why the hell are we paying our taxes?

Lev Ponomarev’s ideas are in great demand today, even if he himself goes down in history not as a politician, but as a somewhat eccentric and sympathetic Don Quixote.

[Note: Titushky are mercenaries working on behalf of the authorities who, posing as independent gangsters, help the police to break up anti-government rallies or otherwise intimidate political activists.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titushky]

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Nina dePalma, James Lofthouse, Elizabeth Teague, Joanne Reynolds and Nicky Brown

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