Sergei Kovalev

╘ Open Media Research Institute.
This material was reprinted with permission of the Open Media Research Institute, a nonprofit organization with research offices in Prague, Czech Republic.

In a 31 December survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation, veteran human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalev was named Russian man of the year. Liberal Russian legislator Nikolai Vorontsov nominated Kovalev for the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to the conflict in Chechnya, and many prominent Russian academics supported the proposal.

Once a close ally of Boris Yeltsin, Kovalev broke with the president over the use of force against the rebellious republic of Chechnya. Accompanied by three fellow deputies of the State Duma and an expert from the human rights group Memorial, Kovalev traveled to Grozny on the third day of the invasion and spent the following three weeks monitoring the plight of civilians during air raids and tank attacks. He risked his life to provide detailed accounts of civilian casualties resulting from bombings that Russian officials insisted were not taking place.

Publicly appealing to the president from Grozny, Kovalev refuted the official story that the Russian military in Chechnya was facing armed formations of gangsters that for the most part consist of foreign mercenaries. Chechen fighters were not criminal gangs, Kovalev told Yeltsin, but simply people defending their homes. Kovalev also became, in effect, the voice of the Russian conscripts (many still in their teens) who were killed, wounded, or captured during the course of the war.

Born in March 1930, Kovalev graduated from university with a degree in biology, the discipline that suffered the most from Stalin’s scientific revisionism. He joined the Soviet human rights movement in 1967, while it was still in its infancy. Two years later, Kovalev and 14 others founded the first independent public association set up in the USSR after Stalin’s death, the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR. The members of the Action Group and a few dozen of their supporters worked for human rights by signing petitions, protesting violations and abuses, and compiling the Chronicle of Current Events, a samizdat bulletin of human rights violations in the USSR. Kovalev also assisted friends from a neighboring Baltic state with Western publication of a similar bulletin, the Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church.

Arrested in December 1974, Kovalev was taken to Vilnius, presumably to prevent Western correspondents from attending the trial. The government could not avoid unpleasant publicity, however: Andrei Sakharov spent the day when he was supposed to accept his 1974 Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm protesting on a frigid street outside Kovalev╧s trial in Vilnius. Kovalev was sentenced to seven years in forced labor camps, followed by three years of internal exile under the infamous Article 70 of the Russian Criminal Code, Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda.

In December 1984, after having served his term of exile in the grim Magadan region (home to many Stalin-era labor camps), Kovalev was allowed to return home to Moscow only in 1987, under Gorbachev. In 1990, he was elected to the Russian parliament, where he became chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights that authored the law on rehabilitation of Soviet oppression victims. When former parliament speaker Yeltsin was elected Russian president in 1991, one liberal lawmaker, Evgenii Ambartsumov, suggested that Kovalev (rather than Yeltsin╧s first deputy, Ruslan Khasbulatov) be elected the new speaker. Kovalev rejected the honor, citing a lack of managerial ability. That might indicate that he is unlikely to agree to run in the next presidential election, as some liberal Russian media have suggested he do.

Like most of the liberal intelligentsia, Kovalev sided with Yeltsin during the president╧s dispute with the parliament in 1992-93. Following the president╧s bloody showdown with the parliament, Kovalev, along with many pro-reform legislators, was compensated for the loss of his position in the Russian legislature with one in the president’s administration; he became the head of the human rights commission. Strangely enough, the shaky structure worked for some time. Kovalev and his colleagues succeeded in ending the gravest human rights violations perpetrated during the state of emergency that Yeltsin imposed after his victory over the parliament in October 1993.

Kovalev was considerably less successful in his efforts to prevent the implementation of Yeltsin’s decree, On Combating Organized Crime. The decree effectively annulled many constitutional human rights guarantees and allowed the police to detain people without arraignment for up to 30 days, instead of the previous three days. Last year, administration officials tried to suppress Kovalev╧s report on the state of human rights in Russia, but the media won out and published it anyway.

Like other liberal intellectuals, Kovalev viewed the Chechen war as a sort of litmus test for Russia. He felt that domestic conflict over the war could bring the fledgling Russian democracy to an early, tragic end. Indeed, critics’ warnings of a possible Russian slide toward dictatorship appeared far from unjustified in light of the brutality of Russian air raids against innocent civilians in Grozny, the mendacious propaganda campaign by military news agencies, and the authorities’ complete disregard of public opinion. The widespread recognition of Sergei Kovalev as the obvious choice for man of the year demonstrated Russia’s longing for heroic figures. In the words of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Unhappy is the country that needs heroes.