Podcast with Andrei Kovalev [English text]

This text is a translation of a podcast with Andrei Kovalev by Rights in Russia from 11 September 2020. The podcast can be heard here: Podcast No. 37. Simon & Sergei – with Andrei Kovalev.

Andrei Kovalev has had a long and distinguished diplomatic career, working at the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Gorbachev era under Eduard Shevardnadze and subsequently becoming a member of the secretariat of President Mikhail Gorbachev. Under President Yeltsin, he served as a member of the secretariat of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Under President Putin, Andrei Kovlaev continued to work at the Security Council until taking up a post at the Russian embassy in Brussels. He then returned to Russia as an advisor to Federal Human Rights Ombudsman, Vladmir Lukin. He currently lives in Brussels.

Participants: Andrei Kovalev (AK); Simon Cosgrove (SC); Sergei Nikitin (SN)

SC: Hello, and welcome to our podcast. Today our guest is Andrei Anatolyevich Kovalev. In the course of his career he has been a staff member of the Institute of the USA and Canada of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and of the Diplomatic Academy of the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, was a member of the secretariat of USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, worked on the staff of the Security Council of the Russian Federation and has also been an advisor to Russian Federal Human Rights Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin. Hello, Andrei Anatolyevich. We are very glad that you are with us today. 

AK: Good day.

SC: Perhaps I can add that you don’t live in Russia now, you live in Brussels.

AK: Yes, I live in Brussels. For many reasons. And I live here as a political refugee. 

SC: Since when is that?

AK: Since the end of 2007.

SC: Andrei Anatolyevich, you worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Gorbachev years when the Foreign Minister was Eduard Shevardnadze. Those were extraordinary times of reform, of course. Could you give us some idea of what it was like to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time, a time of great reforms?

AK: You know, it was extraordinarily interesting. Extraordinarily interesting and even very hard physically. Because we really did work to the limit. Under Shevardnadze, you see, there were no intellectual taboos. I mean, I have some idea of what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was like before Shevardnadze and I know how everything was strictly organised, ideologised and so on and so forth at that time. I went there after perestroika had begun and there was a complete intellectual freedom there that Shevardnadze himself encouraged, as did the Deputy Minister who was my immediate boss, Anatoly Leonidovich Adamishin. As did other perestroika-oriented, progressive members of the Ministry’s leadership. 

But it was exhausting because…Let me begin with what was very basic. I myself chose the area where I would work. I was very lucky in this and my dossier was called ‘Bringing Soviet legislation and its implementation into compliance with the international obligations of the USSR.’ I began by making an inventory of existing problems. I drew up three columns. On the left hand would be a column, let’s say, with the provisions of one of the international human rights conventions; the next column contained the corresponding Soviet legislation (or more often not corresponding) and this column would be literally overflowing and luckily I was given the help of an experienced lawyer to draw it up; and the third column consisted of proposals as to what should be done. The proposals were fairly standard in nature: repeal this law, adopt that law, and so on. 

But the fact was that this took an enormous amount of time and effort, like other work I was engaged in, because I began the working day no later than 8:30 in the morning and I didn’t finish until 8pm in the evening. And sometimes I had to stay in the office until midnight or until 1am. And, by the way, it was the usual regime for the actively working group of top officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And you understand, having a dossier of this kind, being given an absolute free hand and the support of the Ministry’s leadership, it would have been a sin not to use all of this to improve the situation in the country. In the first place, of course, it must be said that what I did was not done for the sake of our foreign interlocutors, but for ourselves. And that’s why it was necessary to do a lot of intense work.  

SC: Andrei Anatolyevich, when did you take up this work?

AK: This work began in 1986. I joined the Ministry in 1985. I began to work in the commission dealing with UNESCO matters, then I was given a very interesting and responsible role thanks to which I was noticed by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. This was material that I prepared for him, a draft speech for the Forum for a Nuclear Free World and the Survival of Humanity in which, in particular, the idea of common human values was articulated as a priority, and so on and so forth, of which I was very proud, I won’t hide. And when I finished that work, and of course I was working with a group of colleagues, Mikhail Sergeyevich noticed me. And subsequently a section in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was created on humanitarian and cultural cooperation and I managed to bring over to it the dossier that I mentioned earlier and that I had taken over from another colleague. 

SN: It is very interesting to remember these years because you in fact were at the very centre of all these changes. At that point I was still living in Gatchina. Of course, I followed all the news in the newspapers, on the radio and so on. 

Looking back at those years of the late 20th century we remember that Mikhail Sergeyevich was only in power for six years and Yeltsin for ten years. And now we know that Putin has already been in the Kremlin for 20 years. Speaking of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, both of whom are considered reformers, how would you compare the two? Who is more of a reformer, who is less of a reformer? Who was more committed and ambitious in achieving change, who was more interested in merely imitating real change? You probably know this history better than I do. 

AK: You know, I consider Gorbachev a great reformer. Think about this. Gorbachev not only announced perestroika, he used every effort to advance it. He was extremely committed and followed very attentively the adoption of all laws related to human rights. He fought for glasnost. He did fight for glasnost, although here there was a certain inconsistency, and the inconsistency derived from the fact that responsibility for ideology was then divided between Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev and Comrade Egor Kuzmich Ligachev, that is between a liberal reformer and a rabid reactionary. And both Ligachev and [Vladimir Aleksandrovich] Kriuchkov [head of the KGB, 1988–91] and many others tried to exert an extremely negative influence on Gorbachev. And, as a result, there was a certain inconsistency. Sometimes Gorbachev even shouted at the press. In part, he was forced to do that under the influence of [party] plenums, other members of the Politburo and so on. I consider him to be a great reformer. 

As for Yeltsin, what can I say? For me he was a typical party functionary. A demagogue. A populist. As for his alcoholism – it’s silly to even talk about it. Personally, at the start, I had illusions about him. And I had a very positive view of him, especially after he took over the role of [Viktor Vasilyevich] Grishin [First Secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1967-85]. But then suddenly something strange began happening around me. At that time, I was working on the task given me by Gorbachev. And, when I had already finished, I discovered that Yeltsin himself had written a threatening resolution on an anonymous – anonymous, I stress – denunciation against me: ‘Immediately investigate and report.’ I don’t know what else he wrote. Thank God they didn’t tell me about it then because, as they knew, I would have simply resigned straightaway. But what kind of democrat will act on anonymous denunciations and use them to issue threatening resolutions? 

What did Yeltsin do when he became president? In the realm of human rights – nothing. The only thing he did was to stop those KGB people who surrounded him, and other people from the military and law enforcement agencies, putting an end to freedom of speech. But, at the same time, it was under Yeltsin that political murders began, political murders of human rights defenders, of journalists and simply of political opponents. What did he actually do? He gave so-called economic freedom. 

But was it really freedom? I very seriously doubt that. Because in my opinion it was redistribution of state property in favour of the future oligarchs who, according to Yury Shchekochikhin, were people acting on behalf of the CPSU. Shchekochikhin did a brilliant journalistic investigation that I read entitled, ‘Once I met a person who transported the Party’s money’ (see Endnote 1). He described what happened in detail. In my view this was robbery of the public. And, finally, there was…for sure there was the shooting at the parliament without doubt, and with that the liquidation of democracy, the Chechen War, which was simply a crime against peace and humanity. Yeltsin was someone whom it was extremely easy to manipulate. And he took those decisions. In 1997 I was already working on the staff of the Security Council so I know a little of what happened from the inside. Yeltsin always took the decision that suited the last person who talked to him. 

SN: You said that Gorbachev, in comparison with Yeltsin, was someone who supported human rights. But, at the same time, it should be remembered that ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights happened under Yeltsin, if I recall rightly. And it was precisely then, if I think about my time when I worked for Amnesty International, that the death penalty was ended as a matter of fact on Russian territory. 

At the same time, I remember Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, whom I admire a great deal and I agree with you that he was a brilliant reformer … I remember that in about 1987 or 1988 he reacted very nervously to all the various fantasies that people were obviously putting in reports that ended up on his desk about the Democratic Union. I remember he had a favourite phrase, ‘They are “tossing” or “throwing” things at us.’ So Yeltsin, for all his shortcomings, achieved ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights that happened in 1998. What do you think? Was that his personal achievement or was it just the last person who spoke to him who persuaded him to do it? 

AK: Neither one nor the other. Back in the first years of Gorbachev’s rule we had worked towards the USSR adhering to the European Convention on Human Rights. But at that time there was a very cautious attitude to this among the Europeans. They did not trust us yet. And it is very easy to understand why, taking into account all the false demagogy of the Soviet authorities before Gorbachev. I perfectly well understand the caution shown by our Western interlocutors. What I want to say is that we began this work under Gorbachev but, as in many other cases, it was Yeltsin who took the credit. 

It was the same with capital punishment. I was one of those of worked on this – or more accurately I was the main implementer, because I was, as it were, at the bottom of the pyramid. Above me was the head of the department, then the Deputy Minister, and then the Minister. So we were the three people – in fact there were four of us – who were working on this area of human rights. And so I was the person supposed to do the work to get the death penalty abolished. And at that time, if you remember, there were very heated debates in the media over abolition. Of course, we fought as hard as we could – and by ‘we’ I mean the Foreign Ministry’s ‘human rights defenders,’ in inverted commas, because we defended rights, but it would be quite hard to call us human rights defenders. In particular, we explained the need for abolition by the fact that the death penalty is ineffective, that the number of especially serious crimes, including murder, increases wherever the death penalty is kept. But the only thing we succeeded in doing was to sharply reduce the number of crimes for which the death penalty could be used. We simply didn’t have the capacity to achieve more. 

Where exactly the opposition to us was, or at what level, I don’t know. We were putting forward a proposal to abolish the death penalty. If I am not mistaken, in that form the document went to the Politburo having been signed by Shevardnadze. Where and how that changed I simply do not know. 

SC: You were also concerned with the issue of the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. Could you say something about that? 

AK: Simon, you are taking a risk. I can talk about that issue for hours. I’ll try to be brief. If I talk too much, stop me. Again, it all began with a resolution by Shevardnadze. And I largely became involved by chance. There was a certain kind of secret document – the transcriptions of radio interceptions. In other words, the KGB made a transcript of ‘enemy radio stations’ and sent them to the highest leadership of the country with a summary of who said what and where. In particular, one of those radio intercepts concerned the use of psychiatry for political purposes. I didn’t know about it then. The head of my department dropped in on me in the office and said, ‘Oh, it’s really good that you haven’t gone home yet. You are the last person in the office. I’ve just received this instruction,’ and he showed me a document signed by Eduard Ambrosievich [Shevardnadze]. ‘Look into this and report back urgently on the true situation in this area.’ I asked Aleksei Ilyich [Glukhov], ‘“Urgently” means when?’ ‘Well, urgently means urgently,’ he said. ‘It means today before midnight.’ 

I wrote a draft and then he and I worked through it and corrected it together, gave it to be typed up, delaying the poor typist from going home. Then, in a completely empty, dark Ministry building where only a very few people were still working, I took our report to Shevardnadze. That was how I became responsible for the abolition of punitive psychiatry. Something I am very glad about, by the way. 

And after that there began a tragicomedy because all the documents of the Ministry of Health were classified, even for us, even despite the direct instructions of Shevardnadze. In other words, here was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Soviet Union. 

I think it was someone from either the Institute of State and Law or the Ministry of Health, I can no longer be certain which, who came to a meeting to agree the text of a draft proposal on the procedures for providing psychiatric assistance. There were three of us, Glukhov, Adamishin and I. We had prepared a completely devastating critique of this draft because it was simply the legalisation of the arbitrary use of psychiatry. Our proposals were accepted in part, but the Politburo did not ask for our proposal – of course, our proposal signed by Shevardnadze – that a fully-fledged law needed to be developed. At the same time as this was going on, the Human Rights Sector of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU joined in the work on psychiatry. The sector was then headed by Andrei Serafimovich Grachev. You probably know that name, he now lives in emigration in Paris and was then head of that sector which was overseen by Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev. Yakovlev had created that sector and supported it in every way he could. And he directed it. And one of the staff of that sector introduced me to the issue of punitive psychiatry. He actually took me to the Serbsky Institute and introduced me to Georgy Morozov, [director of the Serbsky Institute and] a member of the Academy of Sciences. 

The staff of that sector drew up an ideologically ‘correct,’ in inverted commas, list of the prisoners of Soviet psychiatry, indicating who could be used for purposes of propaganda and who could not. And very soon we received an instruction from Shevardnadze to work completely autonomously. So it turned out that, on the one hand, I was working ‘autonomously,’ but on the other surrounded by punitive psychiatrists with Academician Morozov at their head. And in this circle, it has to be said, in the circle of punitive psychiatrists, it turned out at that time there were people who behaved very worthily and helped us a great deal, although I know that one of them was definitely a KGB officer who evidently belonged to the perestroika wing of the KGB. 

We worked on the lists [of detainees in psychiatric hospitals] that we had been given by our Western interlocutors. There was also a funny story here because these lists had been given to the Western diplomats by Soviet dissidents. No, that’s not right. The Soviet dissidents gave the lists to their Western contacts. The Western contacts then gave the lists to the Western diplomats. In particular, one of these Western contacts was someone you probably know, my good friend Robert van Voren. Robert and the others gave these lists to the diplomats and the diplomats handed them to us in the name of their governments. 

Of course, it would have been simpler and more logical to do it directly. For example, I could have met with Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, Slava [Vyacheslav Ivanovich] Bakhmin or Larisa [Iosifovna] Bogoraz. But such a possibility didn’t exist at that time and we had to develop this complicated system. Moreover, often, once we had received these lists, we ourselves added more names to them at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And it wasn’t just me who did this, but also my colleagues who had the necessary information. 

The draft law did not make any progress, despite the fact that there had been mass releases from psychiatric hospitals, and as a result we thought up the idea of inviting a delegation of American psychiatrists to visit the USSR so that we could use the opinions of American specialists to justify the need to adopt the law – something which, by the way, was also done under Yeltsin, although the work was begun by us. And at the first session of the working group there was someone who I think is our common friend, Loren Roth, who headed the medical section of the American delegation during the visit of American psychiatrists to the USSR. 

SC: When you began to work on the issue of punitive psychiatry to what extent was it a revelation for you?

AK: A complete revelation. A complete revelation. And, moreover, not only for me but also even for some of the most senior Soviet officials. I know this to be absolutely true because my father, who was then First Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I talked a lot about these issues. And I complained to him about how this was possible, why it was we were not able just to dismantle punitive psychiatry, why there seemed to be no way to get the Politburo to take a decision on the need to adopt a law regulating psychiatry. And on one particular trip my father accompanied Prime Minister [Nikolai Ivanovich] Ryzhkov and in the evening after work they simply went out for a walk, probably in the park, certainly not on the streets of the city where they could easily be listened to, and my Dad told him all this. Nikolai Ivanovich was indignant. He asked if there were documents at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this. Naturally, I had all the documents. The next day, after he got back, my Dad sent the documents to Ryzhkov. And, at the next meeting of the Politburo, Ryzhkov very emotionally, vigorously, angrily spoke against punitive psychiatry, against any use of psychiatry for non-medical purposes and for the first time a major decision was adopted by the Politburo on this issue. So no, we began with a clean sheet, and not only did officials at my low level know nothing about it, but neither did at least some of the most senior officials in the Soviet Union. 

SN: You say it was a revelation and something wholly new for Ryzhkov. I would like to clarify one point. Aleksandr Podrabinek, who worked on the issue of punitive psychiatry for quite a long time, towards the end of the 1970s in fact published a great deal of information about it. And it would also seem to me that, via the KGB, the existence of punitive psychiatry should have been known, even if informally and privately. I mean, I think it would not have been a revelation in the 1980s or 1990s. You hadn’t heard anything about it? None of your colleagues and friends had heard anything about the work of Podrabinek? About his writings on the issue of punitive psychiatry? 

AK: I first heard Podrabinek’s name in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My colleagues who worked abroad knew about this and read the relevant Western press. With our Soviet system of access to this literature, I of course had no access to these newspapers or, naturally, journals. I had access to general materials on international affairs but not to those on human rights. And yes, for me and for many others, it was a complete revelation. The KGB of course knew about it. The KGB did know. Who else did, I don’t know. I think very few. 

SN: I would like to ask how nowadays, looking back, you see the changes that have happened since Putin became president. As I understand it, you were still working on the staff of the Security Council when Putin came to power and then, from 2001, if I understand correctly, you worked as a diplomat in Brussels. How do you remember that period when you were still in the diplomatic service and Putin was already working as President in the Kremlin? 

AK: Well, you understand, I had all the information there. Because the Security Council is, after all, a presidential body. We received the most sensitive information. We prepared reports and proposals on many very sensitive issues. Well, on all issues related to the international security of Russia, and international security is everything including human rights – although to be honest we already had had to forget about human rights by then, all the more since one of my highly placed bosses in the apparatus of the Security Council directly recommended, ordered in fact, that I stop my personal contacts with Sergei Adamovich Kovalev. And I must admit, to my shame, that I was forced to do that because I knew otherwise it would end very badly both for myself and for my family. And I could not allow myself to put my family at risk when I had three children. I have to give credit to Sergei Adamovich. When I left the Security Council, and I told him about this, he was completely understanding. 

I look back on that time, the time when Putin came to power, as a total catastrophe. An intellectual catastrophe and a moral catastrophe. But I should begin with the fact that, when Yeltsin announced Putin was to be his successor, I was in hospital to have a serious operation. And that was where I learnt about the explosions in the apartment buildings and I immediately understood what that meant. And there I learned about the hysteria over Chechnya that again took off as part of the beginning of the preparations for the Second Chechen War. For me, this also became absolutely clear. When I went back to work I tried to bring even some small, tiny, influence to bear on what was happening, at least in the area of my professional competence, international security. It was not just that any intervention by me had absolutely no effect whatsoever: it had an absolutely negative impact. To everything that I and my right-thinking colleagues tried to do (and decent people were still working there, there were people who were clever and  decent, the percentage of such people was higher than in many other places), the reaction was often diametrically the opposite to what we proposed. 

One small example: I was a member of a government commission investigating the actions of Minister of Atomic Energy Evgeny Adamov. We discovered monstrous things going on. Simply monstrous. Whom did they sack? Adamov? No, they did not sack Adamov. They fired the person who had initiated the investigation, the head of the [federal] agency for oversight of foreign currency [and exports], [Vladislav Leonidovich] Malkevich.  And how was it possible to work in such conditions? Malkevich initiated the investigation. He rang all the warning bells. And that is how it was in all matters. A couple of times I succeeded in influencing things of little importance, but later on Putin managed to outmanoeuvre everyone and change them back. I understood that I had lost every last bit of influence and I was not prepared to work for this murderer and international criminal no matter what the benefits were. And I can tell you there were benefits enough, working on the staff of the Security Council, as in the Presidential Administration as a whole. 

SN: So the situation in politics was that every kind of initiative was punishable, and that is really what we see today. And it was practically speaking like that from the first day that Putin became president. Is that right?

AK: I would say from earlier, even. I would say even earlier. It began in politics in the late Yeltsin period. Then it became stronger when, you’ll remember, the attack on NTV began in Yeltsin’s time. By the way, I tried to warn my friends about this, in particular Igor Malashenko, with whom I worked as a member of President Gorbachev’s staff, at least we worked there at the same time. But neither he, nor another friend who worked at NTV, treated my warnings really seriously enough. Although to be honest I was risking my neck. 

SC: When you say the name of the person, Putin, do you have in mind a single individual or a kind of team of people who are carrying out a set of policies? 

AK: Of course, I consider that Putin is only the face behind which the oligarchs are hiding, at least some of the oligarchs. I think that this is the group [of oligarchs] that received the money of the CPSU and are often working to earn it as Communists and KGB agents, and, of course, I use the word KGB for convenience, so as not to make things more complicated, all the more since I myself am confused with these abbreviations and names. On the other hand, I have in mind again the KGB and other siloviki [law enforcement and military agencies], including the Ministry of Defence, the GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate – the military’s foreign intelligence agency], the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and that part of the criminal world that has also been infiltrated by these same agents of the security services, including agents of the GRU, agents of the FSB. When we talk of the Russian mafia abroad, to be honest I am afraid of this topic and I am afraid of these people, and not only as mafia. I understand perfectly well that many of them are not only mafia but also agents of the security services. 

SC: Many people consider it was a mistake by Yeltsin to appoint Putin. But so far as I understand from what you say, in some sense you see the Putin era as the continuation of the Yeltsin era and of Yeltsin’s policies and politics. Which is the correct understanding?

AK: Well, first of all, I don’t claim to have the only correct understanding! Rather, I have hypotheses. My hypothesis is that this was a masterful combination by the security services, involving many moves, that was begun with the August 1991 attempted putsch. The putschists have achieved everything they wanted. Including the redistribution of the Party’s money. After all, this is already known. It is a published fact that the CPSU’s Administrative Organs Department, jointly with the KGB, gave the Party’s money to the future oligarchs, and that the KGB went underground, creating groups of patriots of state security, or simply patriots as they called themselves. And it was precisely after the putsch that, in many key areas, power was seized either by people with a background in the security services or by people who were still active officers, including in parliament, including people who were close to Yeltsin, in government ministries and departments, everywhere. Among journalists as well. 

Then of course it was quite natural that Evgeny Maksimovich Primakov should come to power as Prime Minister and further strengthen the power and influence of the security services. And the finishing touch was the appointment of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor. So, in my opinion, everything began in August 1991. And now we have the aftermath of those same events. Although, of course, it is also possible to blame Yeltsin for failing to implement a sufficiently good personnel policy. But that is my impression.

SN: I would like to ask about the next stage of your life when you were working for Vladimir Petrovich Lukin, who was Federal Human Rights Ombudsman. I had experience of talking with the staff of this department, before Lukin, when [Oleg Orestovich] Mironov held the office of Human Rights Ombudsman. I was in touch with the department dealing with human rights education. I had very good working relations with Mironov. To be honest, I did not have a very positive impression of Vladimir Petrovich [Lukin]. Now I tend to think Mironov was probably, in my view, more effective, but the times were different of course. You worked for Vladimir Petrovich. In what area were your responsibilities? And what sense, what understanding did you have of how effective Vladimir Petrovich Lukin was in terms of protecting human rights in the Russian Federation? 

AK: For the protection of human rights, so far as I know, he did absolutely nothing. I went to work for him for several reasons. The first was that I had known him for a long time, from my time at the Institute of the USA and Canada. Then he invited me to work for him in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, when it still existed. And then we met in Brussels [when I worked in the embassy there] when he came for some meetings. And I liked him very much when we met at that time. He visited my home. We had a very good time and talked a lot about everything. And the second reason was that I had a direct role in creating the post of human rights ombudsman. That is why it seemed to me it was absolutely logical to go and work there. Especially because I intended to emigrate. As a diplomat, I had to return to the country and spend three years there so that the secrets I allegedly knew would become old. Although I never knew any terrible secrets in my diplomatic service. Thank God! And while working for Lukin I refused to have access to secrets. 

In my position of advisor I personally saw that, in my opinion, and perhaps I am mistaken but I very much doubt it, Lukin’s main  work consisted of doing all he could to be of service to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. After all, it was on Putin’s initiative that he was appointed to the position. In my presence, he himself told our French interlocutors – I was his interpreter then because at that moment, it turned out, I was the only person accompanying him on his trip to Paris who spoke French – about how after Yabloko lost the parliamentary elections Putin telephoned him at home and offered him a number of positions, but gave such arguments in favour of the post of Human Rights Ombudsman that Vladimir Petrovich did not consider it possible to refuse the post. That is word for word what he said, I remember it so well because unfortunately I had to translate this abomination. I didn’t see that Lukin did anything positive or concrete at all, he never introduced any new initiative, even on a single issue. 

SN: I fully agree with you. That was exactly my impression, both from personal meetings with Vladimir Petrovich and from [knowledge of] his work. So, therefore, it is sad to hear all this. But do tell me, in your opinion how did it happen that at some stage Russia was, as it were, moving towards a closer alignment with human rights, towards some kind of demonstration of respect for the issue of human rights – and one of the indications of this has been [the moratorium on] the death penalty, despite the fact that the Sixth Protocol [of the European Convention on Human Rights] has been signed but not ratified, but nonetheless in Russia there is no death penalty – but it turned out later that Russia was becoming more and more indifferent to human rights and invented for itself such a thing as ‘traditional values’ that are opposed to human rights? What happened? Was everything always moving in this direction or there was an event of some kind that forced a certain person to take this track? 

AK: You know, essentially human rights activity began to become undone while Yeltsin was still president. But, thank God, at that time the human rights commissioner was Sergei Adamovich [Kovalev] who didn’t allow it to sputter out. At that time people were less afraid to talk about these issues, including at the international level. I have in mind also my colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then everything began to come to an end. And when Putin came to power… You see, human rights are a matter of civilisational choice. Of course, you understand this. It’s silly of me to say this to you, please forgive me. 

Who are we? “Scythians, Asiatics with cunning, slanted eyes” [an approximate quotation from the poem Scythians (Skify) by Aleksandr Blok (see Endnote 2)] Or are we Europeans? I believe that we are Europeans, or we should be Europeans. If people come to power with an absolutely different set of values then, of course, they feel a personal hatred for human rights. They despise any [respect for the] human personality. They refuse to discuss all these matters with foreign interlocutors. That was never the case even during the Brezhnev era of stagnation. In the period of stagnation they at least tried to create an appearance that the Soviet Union was observing at least some human rights and had some respect for the human person. Now they don’t even pretend. No one thinks about it. Why? Why? Whatever the Tsar says, that is how things will be. In other words, we have sunk into a complete Asiaticism.

SN: About the latest events … Well, we all know someone by the name of Maria Zakharova, who cannot fail to astonish decent people, and the reaction of the authorities, including Zakharov and her colleagues, to what happened with Navalny and his poisoning – where is all this heading? Is there any limit to what they will do? Or are we witnesses to the fact that our comrades who work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are more and more giving up on civilised behaviour? As someone who many years ago worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, how do you see this now? What is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs like now? And what perspectives are there for future developments in this direction, taking into account the latest events, including the poisoning of Navalny? 

AK: Well, I would begin with the fact that Navalny is only the latest in a chain of scandals and crimes. After all, there was Anna Politkovskaya, there was [Aleksandr] Litvinenko. And by the way, the killing of Litvinenko was indeed an act of international terrorism. Because to use a weapon of mass destruction on the territory of another state is a crime against peace and humanity. There have been other political murders. I don’t think we have reached the nadir. I think it is a process that can certainly develop further. And it may reach a catastrophic scale, although not in terms of the number of victims that there were in 1937. Putin, of course, simply does not need to go that far. Selective, demonstrative punishment is more useful to him. Why Novichok? What? Doesn’t the famous GRU laboratory of poisons – I don’t know what the laboratory is correctly named, Laboratory X, the laboratory that Sudaplatov described in his memoirs – have any other poisons? No, it was done for show. ‘Fear us!’ [is the message]. Anyone who is disobedient will be punished. And Simon here is, to a certain extent, in an advantageous position compared to us, Sergei. You see, now we are talking about these matters and of course it might attract someone’s attention and that someone might not like it. So, no, I don’t see any limits to how low the authorities may go. 

But, at the same time, I see the possibility that those people who are in power and the oligarchs will understand that, because of Putin’s crimes and stupidities, they are losing money and authority and prestige, and they are actually beginning to face the threat of being brought to The Hague. And I say this for the purposes of discussion because there can be no Nuremberg. No independent judges can try these Russian criminals, so no retribution is on the way. But those people in power who have more common sense could organise a coup d’etat and easily change Putin for some other puppet. And there will be plenty of people who want to be candidates for that role. Moreover, I wouldn’t exclude the idea that the new puppet could be some kind of democrat whose merits they choose to promote. They will say: ‘The regime has changed: here is the new face of government in Russia; this is a democrat, someone committed to human rights. Let’s be friends again.’ I would, absolutely, not exclude this eventuality. If I were in power, I would propose a variant of this kind. 

SN: I recently read an interesting book by a young British historian that is called Appeasing Hitler (see Endnote 3). He describes how Chamberlain tried to deliver peace to his generation and one of the points made by the historian caught my attention. He says that one of Chamberlain’s problems was that, as a former mayor of Birmingham, and as a politician, he based his view of the world on the fact that people are what the English call ‘sensible.’ And Chamberlain had this attitude when he spoke with Hitler. That is, he a priori thought Hitler was a ‘reasonable person.’  Do you have a sense that Western politicians have had that approach [to Putin]? At the same time, I for certain, and probably you, would hardly agree that Putin is a reasonable person.

AK: You know, in my opinion the attitude of the West towards Putin has changed a great deal over the years. And I think this evolution will continue. Sad as it may be, but it took the West too long for this to happen. I mean, the starting point was the shooting down of the Boeing MH-17. They could have realised this earlier. Now, if I correctly understand the situation, Putin is in political and diplomatic isolation. He is nowhere to be seen at international events. He doesn’t go abroad. Major Western leaders and heads of government don’t visit him in Moscow. I think there really have been some positive developments. 

On the other hand, I think Western leaders are afraid of what might be called the Russian Bear or, more accurately, the unpredictability and plain stupidity, forgive my language, of those currently in power. Who can say, I certainly cannot, whether Putin was speaking seriously when he said that if things had not gone right in Crimea he would have given the order to use nuclear weapons, or not? I don’t exclude that he might have been serious. You see this person, if we can call him that, is someone who has absolutely lost all sense of values, he is someone totally lacking in morality. He is unpredictable. I would be extremely cautious, but at the same time extremely tough, in dealing with him.

SC: Another question. We often talk about the state of civil society. Recently there have been the events in Khabarovsk, which are continuing, and now of course in Belarus. It seems to me that on the face of it here is a positive development, that people are ready to protest, to insist on their rights, and so on, especially in Belarus. How would you assess these events? Of course, they are different from one another, but both are very important. Probably the events in Belarus are most important and your prognosis for the future would be very interesting to hear.

AK: Prognosis for the future in what sense?

SC: About Belarus. What will happen there? What kind of relations will there be with Russia? What will happen to Lukashenka? What will happen to civil society?  Although it is perhaps not really our theme, our topic is Russia, but…

AK: No, no, that is fine.

SC: It also seems to me that it is important because in some sense it is as if, I can imagine, what is happening in Belarus were a picture of the future of Russia. Or at least one of the variants for that future.

AK: You know, it is difficult for me to talk about Khabarovsk, all the more because it is not right to compare the events in Belarus with those in Khabarovsk. And not only because Khabarovsk is not a capital but an individual city, or even region, but also because I strongly dislike the LDPR [Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia]. I have met Mr [Vladimir Volfovich] Zhirinovsky and, as it happened, I even gave an order for him to be removed from the hall, not the hall, the foyer, of the Moscow OSCE conference on the Human Dimension because Zhirinovsky was simply creating mayhem there and the Secretary General [of the OSCE] for some unknown reason did not react to this. I was representing President Gorbachev and therefore they could not disregard my order. 

I don’t know who Furgal is (see Endnote 4). Except that he represents the LDPR, a party I find deeply repulsive and that was created on the initiative of, not even on the initiative of, but by the direct decision of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the KGB of the USSR. I know absolutely for a fact that it was Kriuchkov who created the LDPR. And I would say he obtained Gorbachev’s agreement by a half-deception. Gorbachev did not even give his agreement. It was during a lunch and Gorbachev was simply eating a spoonful of soup and the faithful Chekists who were working at that moment drafting the text of the agreement of the Central Committee noted it down as the agreement of the General Secretary. So Khabarovsk – no. I am not ready to talk about that. 

As for Belarus, the question of course is critically important because in many respects it will show what will happen in Russia tomorrow. Here there can be the widest range of different opinions. But I don’t exclude the possibility that the Kremlin will realise its dream, that goes way back, of creating a real single Union State of Russia and Belarus. After all, this Union already has staff and an Executive Secretary, it has everything really. It will be even easier than the annexation of Crimea, even from a legal point of view, of course. 

Would the Belarusians accept it? Of course not. Will there be resistance? Of course, there will be. And at that point it will become clear how far the Kremlin is prepared to go. But if we take the view that what I said earlier is correct, and base ourselves on that, which we can crudely formulate as the idea that the Kremlin accepts no limits [on its behaviour], then unfortunately we can expect a blood bath. And the situation is unpredictable. If we are realistic, then I think that it is at least 70% certain that the Kremlin will not allow the opposition movement in Belarus to succeed.

Endnote 1: Щекочихин Ю. Однажды я встретился с человеком, который перевозил “золото партии” // С любовью (рус.). — СПб: ООО “Инапресс”, “Новая Газета”, 2006.

Endnote 2: Skify [Scythians], a poem by Aleksandr Blok in part refers to ‘slanted and greedy eyes’: ‘Мильоны — вас. Нас — тьмы, и тьмы, и тьмы. / Попробуйте, сразитесь с нами! / Да, скифы — мы! Да, азиаты — мы,/ С раскосыми и жадными очами!’ [Source: https://www.culture.ru/poems/278/skify]

Endnote 3: Tim Bouverie, Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, Vintage, London, 2020.

Endnote 4: Sergei Ivanovich Furgal, former, and recently arrested, governor of Khabarovsk.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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