Sergei Kovalev, Longtime Kremlin Adversary, Dies at 91
Sergei A. Kovalev, a dogged Kremlin adversary during the Soviet era who went on to campaign against the post-communist leaders Boris A. Yeltsin …
Sergei A. Kovalev, a dogged Kremlin adversary during the Soviet era who went on to campaign against the post-communist leaders Boris A. Yeltsin and Vladimir V. Putin, died on Monday in Moscow. He was 91.
A colleague in the Russian human rights community, Aleksandr Cherkasov, confirmed Mr. Kovalev’s death.
As a founder of a clandestine human rights movement, Mr. Kovalev tilted against abuses throughout a long career as a biologist and activist. He chronicled what he saw as show trials and judicial malfeasance under Soviet rule, during the wars in Chechnya after the collapse of communism in 1991.
In many ways, his life unfolded in lock step with his country’s progression from the repression of Stalinism to the dawning of a troubled democracy and then the resurgent authoritarianism of Mr. Putin.
His abrasive campaign during the Brezhnev era got him a seven-year term in the so-called gulag of remote and harsh penal settlements, followed by three years of remote internal exile. He was allowed to return to Moscow only in the more relaxed period initiated by Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the 1980s.
Dissent became a family tradition. Ivan Kovalev, his son, was arrested as an activist in August 1982 and charged at 28 with “undermining and weakening the Soviet Union.” At the time of Ivan Kovalev’s trial, his father was in exile and his wife, Tatiana Osipova, a fellow dissident, was serving out a sentence in a labor camp.
Critics of the elder Mr. Kovalev branded him a traitor and Russophobe, accusing him of siding with rebellious forces in the first Chechen War in the early 1990s — a period in which he was a parliamentary lawmaker and head of a rights commission set up by Mr. Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-communist leader.
Outside Russia, he was feted with accolades like the French Légion d’Honneur and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his opposition to the Chechen wars. But he told an interviewer in 2009 that he felt increasingly marginalized in his country, denied access to major broadcasters that were generally state-controlled or owned by pro-Kremlin entrepreneurs.
Sergei Adamovich Kovalev was born on March 2, 1930, in Seredina Buda in northeastern Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. When he was 2, the family moved to the Podlipki district near Moscow.
His father, Adam Adamovich Kovalev, had been a midlevel railroad bureaucrat in Belarus, and his mother, Irena Ivanovna Makarenko, had studied medicine in Kyiv before returning home to nurse a sick mother. He had an elder brother, Yuri Adamovich Kovalev.
His parents sought to implant “the practice of silence and acquiescence” instilled in many Soviet citizens by Stalinist purges, according to Emma Gilligan, an Australian scholar and author of “Defending Human Rights in Russia,” a detailed 2009 biographical study.
Yet even in his teenage years, he argued with his teachers about supposed constitutional guarantees of free speech, Ms. Gilligan said, foreshadowing “the fastidious personality and encyclopedic approach to problems” that would later suffuse his work as an editor of the most important clandestine human rights journal of his time.
He studied physiology at Moscow State University from 1951 to 1959, a period that straddled Stalin’s death in 1953 and the thaw in the Kremlin’s harsh regime under Nikita S. Khrushchev.
In 1956, Mr. Kovalev was the co-author with other students of a letter refuting the theory of genetics endorsed by the authorities, a challenge that brought a foretaste of K.G.B. pressure. During his interrogation, Ms. Gilligan wrote, K.G.B. agents issued veiled threats against Ivan Kovalev — who was then 2 — his son with his first wife, Elena Viktorovna Tokareva.
Mr. Kovalev met his second wife, Ludmilla Iur’evna Boitseva, a senior laboratory assistant, in the 1960s. They had one daughter, Varvara.
In 1969, Mr. Kovalev was a founder of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights, the first independent rights group in the Soviet Union. He later became editor of The Chronicle of Current Events, a self-published journal that reported on state repression.
Also that year, Mr. Kovalev resolved with some reluctance to resign as a senior scientist at Moscow State University rather than expose his colleagues to K.G.B. scrutiny, Ms. Gilligan wrote.
A year later, he met the physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, the onetime designer of Soviet nuclear weapons who became a leading dissident and a powerful influence on Mr. Kovalev.
As his battle with the K.G.B. and the Kremlin sharpened, Mr. Kovalev became ever more outspoken. In May 1974, he was one of a small group of dissidents who handed out issues of The Chronicle of Current Events to foreign correspondents, accompanied by a declaration defending “accurate information about violations of elementary human rights in the Soviet Union.”
He expanded The Chronicle to include sections on Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine, all parts of the Soviet empire. He went so far, Ms. Gilligan said, to write personally to the head of the K.G.B., demanding the return of a confiscated copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago.”
In November 1974, Mr. Kovalev and 10 other dissidents succeeded in registering a Moscow branch of Amnesty International, the London-based group that campaigns on behalf of political prisoners.
Almost inevitably, his activities led to the summary knock on his apartment door. On Dec. 23, 1974, agents searched his home for 12 hours, and arrested him four days later.
His three-day trial, which began almost a year later, was held in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, ostensibly because of accusations linking Mr. Kovalev to nationalists there. The venue made it easier for the K.G.B. to prevent friends, foreign correspondents and supporters from attending.
Throughout the trial, Mr. Sakharov protested loudly outside the courtroom, even as his wife, Elena Bonner, traveled to Oslo in his place to read his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Soviet authorities had barred him from attending the Nobel ceremony.
Mr. Kovalev was sentenced to seven years of incarceration in hard labor camps and three years internal exile. He spent part of his sentence at the notorious Perm 36 camp, 700 miles east of Moscow. For his internal exile he was sent to an isolated village in the Magadan region, 3,000 miles further to the east.
He returned to a changed a political landscape in Moscow as Mr. Gorbachev pursued his policies of relaxation that left dissidents pondering uneasily how they should relate to the new order.
In 1988, he found himself giving a speech on human rights at a small private gathering for President Ronald Reagan on a visit with Mr. Gorbachev in Moscow. When Soviet rule collapsed, he initially resisted a political role but was persuaded by Mr. Sakharov to run for Parliament even though, Ms. Gilligan wrote, he “frequently lacked political instinct.”
Russia’s first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, created an enduring rift with President Yeltsin, a onetime ally, as Mr. Kovalev rejected the government’s attempts to explain and justify the conflict.
“Only you are in a position to stop this senseless war,” he wrote to Mr. Yeltsin in December 1994. “Every day, with our own eyes, we see the planes bombing residential buildings. Every day we see the corpses of peaceful civilians, fragments of people, some without heads and others without legs.”
In March 1995, Parliament voted to dismiss him as Russia’s first human rights commissioner.
With the end of the war in 1996, Mr. Kovalev received many rights awards from outside Russia. But inside the country, he concluded, “the fragile bridge of trust between society and the state, created with such difficulty in the face of century-old suspicion, has once against been destroyed.”
In a public letter of resignation from President Yeltsin’s Human Rights Commission, published in 1996 in The New York Review of Books, he accused the Russian leader of making decisions that “have revived the blunt and inhumane might of a state machine that stands above justice, law and the individual.”
His relationship with Mr. Putin was equally fraught, and Mr. Kovalev’s language showed no lessening of his readiness to challenge authority.
“Putin has in effect created a myth of the imperial state,” he wrote in the same New York publication, “a myth derived from elements of pre-revolutionary Russian history and the Soviet past — that serves as a substitute for historical memory.”