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'Everything is in Place for Arbitrary Rule' - an Interview with Sergei Kovalev

2 November 2012 

Elena Masyuk interviews Sergei Kovalev, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, in Novaya gazeta

Source: Novaya gazeta

Sergei Adamovich Kovalev: Soviet dissident and human rights activist, served 7 years in the Perm 36 labour camp for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” under Article 70 of the RSFSR Criminal Code and spent a further 3 years in exile in the Magadan Region. He was a deputy of the State Duma of the first, second and third convocations, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the first Human Rights Commissioner in Russia. In March 1995 State Duma deputies removed Kovalev from his post for his outspoken opposition to the war in Chechnya. 

“How long do you think Chechnya will remain a part of Russia?”

“I wish I knew. I think it depends on the type of course, the type of political model that will eventually take shape in Russia. Whether Putinesque stability remains in place or not. We live in a country of imitations, and stability is one of those imitations.”

“And what about the real picture?”

“Well let’s take a look at the recent legislative steps that have been taken. What does it all mean? It’s all preparation for full-scale and uncontrollable arbitrariness on the part of the state for those cases where the authorities deem it necessary and sufficient. Everything is now in place. During the Brezhnev era legislation existed which made it easy to persecute anyone who thought differently, who held different views. In some ways the current legislative innovations are much more comprehensive because they give the authorities the ability to make completely arbitrary decisions. Look at the facts. Until recently censorship had no legal backing, but now it does. By this I mean two things. Firstly there are the impending innovations on controlling the Internet. And then there is the draft law being prepared by Mitrofanov on banning criticism of political parties. This is ushering in arbitrary rule as we had in the days of Stalin.” 

“When you signed the letter in defence of Sinyavsky and Daniel, did many of your colleagues at the Institute of Biophysics sign it?”

“That was the first of my letters on that subject; four people signed it, including me, me and three others. That was in January 1966.”

“Did nobody blow the whistle on you?”

“No, but I did have a very interesting conversation with Nikolai Nikolaevich Semenov, Vice President of the Academy of Sciences, together with whom I had participated in many things - against Lysenko, against the Leningrad Regional Committee - even though he was a candidate member of the Communist Party. Nikolai invited me and two of my friends (we had all been involved in his article against Lysenko) for a walk and said: “Sergei, why are you crawling all over this story?” I replied: “Nikolai Nikolaevich, simply because there is no law preventing an author from publishing under a pseudonym, and there is no law that says an author cannot have his work published abroad. There are no such laws.” He thought for a moment and his reply took me aback: “You are absolutely right, there are no such laws. But do you really want such laws to exist? You do know how laws are made in this country (this from a candidate member of the Communist Party, the Vice President of the Academy of Sciences, a Nobel Prize winner). Maybe it’s better these two men serve their time without there being a law in place (Yuli Daniel was sentenced to five years under Article 70 of the RSFSR Criminal Code and Andrei Sinyavsky to seven years, E.M.), so long as such a law does not exist?” I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

“And now laws are adopted on absolutely everything.”

“Yes, now we have such a legislative body that everything will be covered by one law or another.” 

Agents “wearing yellow stars”

“Let’s take a look at the law we are calling the “yellow star” law. Agents. If you’re a Jew you have to wear the yellow star. If you receive funding from the West you have to register as a foreign agent. What is the point of this new law? In my opinion, it is perfectly clear why the authorities need this law. Firstly, it’s needed so that people who are not very knowledgeable, not very much given to thinking about things, and sufficiently cowardly, not to mention the traditionalist mob, can single out these troublemakers, these so-called highbrows who are holding forth on why we need freedom of speech, etc. and demonstrate that these are our internal enemies. The authorities need enemies, both internal and external. The external enemies are obvious – as ever the United States and for that matter the entire West…”

“So just like in Soviet times.”

“Yes, of course. It is also important to sow divisions within the human rights movement itself. The possibility is there for this law to be used to separate the sheep from the goats among these activists.

“Who will get state money, and who won’t?”

“Yes, for example. Lots of people have been talking about Ludmila Alekseeva’s initiative. She said: “I’m selling my Gzhel ceramics and I’m having a little get-together for my birthday, but please don’t bring any presents, bring money instead, because we have to save the Helsinki Group.” And what does save the Helsinki Group mean? It means that under these circumstances, if it is obliged to register as a foreign agent the Helsinki Group will be forced to refrain from accepting funding from abroad. So now we are surviving by selling off the Gzhel ceramics. It is very tricky for the authorities to touch the Helsinki Group, because it would create too much attention around the world. Incidentally, not that long ago the Helsinki Group received a state grant of 4 million roubles. And then there is GOLOS – “such a nasty organisation, it wants to monitor elections all the time. And how would this work? It would allow them to monitor everything, we will forever be branded fraudsters, Churov will forever be a criminal.” Falsifying election results is after all a serious crime against the state. So far GOLOS hasn’t received a penny. 

Our 1937 

“Is today’s political repression reminiscent of the start of the Stalinist repression?” 

“If we look at the very beginning of the 1930s then it does indeed look very similar. It is not similar in terms of scale. At that time everything developed at a much quicker pace and more harshly. I’ll say again – we are living in a country of imitations, and this art of imitation is gradually developing and becoming increasingly sophisticated. How was popular support organised for the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968? A meeting was arranged. Workers’ collectives in those days used to vote unanimously. There you have your popular support.” 

“And today UralVagonZavod has voiced its full support for Putin. Are you saying that this is the same thing?” 

“Of course, it’s the same scenario. UralVagonZavod. By the way, why ‘Vagon’ (carriage) when they make tanks there? When I was doing time in the prison camp I was involved in making “Lysva” irons, and these “Lysva” irons were made in the Lsyva factory, we only made a few prototypes for them. And in actual fact this Lysva factory didn’t manufacture irons at all. They had a little workshop that turned out irons as a sideline.” 

“Were they good irons?” 

“They were rubbish. Why would you need good irons? This little workshop at the Lysva factory, in typical Soviet style, was only needed as a cover for hiding what they were really manufacturing there - tanks and guns, that sort of thing. In order for this factory not to appear on the list of military facilities, it produced irons.” 

Commissioner, but without any rights

“You were the first Human Rights Commissioner in Russia. In your opinion how are human rights protected in Russia today?

“They’re not protected at all. One of the most important human rights in our time is the right to an independent, fair, prompt and humane trial. But what do we have here?”

“So could the girls from Pussy Riot be called political prisoners?”

“Yes of course. They are political prisoners pure and simple. They ended up in prison as a result of the political motives of the authorities. It was because of the political motives of the authorities that the court delivered an unjust sentence, therefore the judges are criminals: they have committed a crime against justice. The acting legal system has changed little since Stalinist times. There was a brief period in the early 1990s when two fantastic declarations were adopted – on judicial reform and human rights, which were approved by parliament and which heralded the beginning of some baby steps towards progress. Independent judges appeared. But it was just a brief flash and then it fizzled out. And judges again became just as dependent as they were throughout the Soviet era. It should be noted by the way that the section of the legislation on crimes against justice is not used here. Where have you ever seen a judge who knowingly presides over an unjust verdict?

“Maybe under the next government… I would like to cite a quote of yours. At the 2000 presidential election you supported Yavlinsky, who said that “Vladimir Putin is a direction aimed at constructing an authoritarian police state, where the authorities will be explicitly, or even worse, not completely explicitly, assisted by the secret service.” Why were you so sure of this at the time?”

“Where did this president come from? He’s a former KGB agent.”

“But maybe that was his previous life.”

“I’m sorry but there is no such thing as a former KGB agent. Incidentally, who did he bring with him? Everyone says that he brought people from Leningrad with him. But they were KGB men more than they were Leningrad people, they were Leningrad KGB men.” 

Constitutional criminal

“Here is another one of your quotes: “I can no longer work with a president whom I do not consider a supporter of democracy, nor a guarantor of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of my country.” You said this about Yeltsin. If we look back at the situation, with the benefit of hindsight, then Yeltsin was a much bigger democrat than Putin has turned out to be.”

“Yes of course. I would like to say that I retain a great deal of respect towards Yeltsin. I can practically remember off by heart the response I received from Boris Yeltsin in reply to my statement, my harsh statement. It said: “Dear Sergei Adamovich, I understand the reasons behind your decision. Allow me to express my gratitude to you for our joint efforts and wish you every success in your future endeavours. Yours sincerely, Yeltsin.”

“That was dignified.”

“Totally dignified. Can you imagine Putin in that situation?”

“In July 1995 you called Yeltsin a “constitutional criminal” at a hearing on the Chechen issue. By this logic then is Putin a “constitutional criminal” as well? Under Putin’s rule we had Beslan, the Nord-Ost theatre siege, the second Chechen war…

“Nord-Ost, Beslan, these were crimes. These were criminal acts and they should be punished."

“Who should be punished?”

“The leaders of the counter-terrorism operations. And the terrorists themselves of course."

“The leaders of the special operation at the Nord-Ost Theatre received medals.” (The head of the team to free the hostages, First Deputy Director of the FSB General Pronichev, head of the FSB Special Operations Centre General Tikhonov, and the chemists who released the gas into the theatre [their names have not been made public], all received the Gold Star of Hero of the Russian Federation. E.M.)

“In the entire history of counter-terrorism in Russia there has been only one genuine instance where a counter-terrorism operation was conducted in accordance with generally accepted international rules. I was directly involved in that operation. It was Budennovsk. That is the only instance where the authorities acted correctly and according to the law, not all the authorities, but Chernomyrdin." 

“But Chernomyrdin was criticised for talking to Basayev on the phone.”

“When terrorists succeed in taking people hostage, there is only one priority for the people who are dealing with such a terrorist act. There can be only one undeniable priority in this instance. That priority is saving the lives of the hostages. You have to talk to the terrorists. That is what is done throughout the world, and rightly so." 

“They don’t in Israel.” 

“That’s not true, they do in Israel too. There isn't any other option. Of course you can trick the terrorists, you can promise them things you have no intention of following through on. But you cannot risk the lives of hostages. And Budennovsk was the only instance where a lot of hostages’ lives were saved. Yes, they let the terrorists escape, but that’s another issue. 

“No negotiations were conducted at the Nord-Ost theatre siege. They stormed the building, first releasing this gas into the theatre. People were poisoned by this soporific gas. Any secondary school pupil knows how gases injected into an open space diffuse. The concentration of this gas will be uneven, gradually it will even out throughout the huge hall. There will be a huge concentration of the gas next to the area where it is released. That means that next to the area where it is released it will be lethal, and knowingly so. That’s how just over 130 people lost their lives. That’s my first point. 

“Secondly. This gas does not take effect immediately. As the concentration of it increases on the upper floors and at a certain distance, the terrorists will begin to feel sleepy and they’ll guess that something is going on. So what’s to stop them pressing the button and blowing everything up, they are suicide bombers after all? It’s a miracle this didn’t happen. What sort of risk were the leaders of this operation taking! If that had happened we wouldn’t have been dealing with 130 deaths, practically all the hostages, terrorists and OMON officers who had already gone into the building would have been killed. Compare this with the situation in Buddenovsk.”

“So you think Putin bears responsibility for what happened at the Nord-Ost theatre?”

“Of course. Who gave the approval for this operation? You don’t have to consult a fortune-teller. Nobody has ever said that the orders were signed by the president, but it is perfectly obvious that this decision came from the very highest level. Maybe the plan was not his idea but he of course would have approved these actions.” 

“And is he also answerable for what happened in Beslan?”

“Who else? When the U.S. Ambassador in Libya is killed, Mrs Clinton says she can no longer remain as U.S. Secretary of State because someone died under her watch. That’s how they understand the concept of responsibility. Of course American politicians lie without regard for the consequences. But if they lied the way Putin lies, they wouldn’t stay politicians for very long.” 

“How does Putin lie?”

“Quite openly. Take his meeting with Masha Gessen, where he talked about the amphoras. Putin said: “Yes of course, they were placed there for me, I knew where to find them.” Can you imagine a U.S. presidential candidate talking that way? That would be the end of their political career. It’s unseemly.” 

“So what do you think, when will Vladimir Putin’s political career come to an end?”

“I would hope before the end of his six-year term of office, but I can’t guarantee that.” 

“And has the presidential administration not offered you any way of getting involved in public life?”

“No, of course not, nor will they.”

“Why not?”

“Let’s just say they know how to sum people up. No one ever tried to recruit me as an informer. Only when I was still a very young man and just starting out on my university career. They suddenly appeared and started recruiting people. I was pretty scared, I'm ashamed when I look back on it.”

“And what if you were offered the post of Human Rights Commissioner again?”

“I wouldn’t say no. The fact that this will never happen is another matter. You have to be adaptable, be a political pragmatist. And I can’t do that.” 

Opposition? No, crowds, just crowds

“If you compare the dissident movement of the 1970s-1980s with today’s opposition, are there any similarities?”

“The difference is this: we were politically idealistic and I have remained so. Sakharov was like that too. But these are realistic politicians, and that is all about the art of the possible.” 

“Speaking about the opposition you said that “the leaders of the political opposition, those who lead their parties and political movements, and those who are intent on coming to power, don’t like one another any more than they like Putin.” 

“I don’t like this Coordinating Council, even the idea of the elections to the Coordinating Council. Nobody elected KAS-KOR in Poland or Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. These were people of widely differing political ideas and views, and there were very few of them. What was KAS-KOR – 100-150 activists. These were people who were smart enough to set aside various party political differences. Now is not the time for putting forward party positions. And this Coordinating Council has envisaged a kind of curia: this number of left-wingers, this number of nationalists, so and so many liberals, and the rest made up of who knows who else. That kind of approach is politically possible when pre-election blocs form or when parliament is elected and a majority comes together. Today, I strongly believe, there are only three items on the agenda: fair elections, an independent judiciary and an independent media.”

“So you believe that the Coordinating Council will not bring any benefits?"

“Unfortunately, these are discussions by primitive Machiavellianists to crowds of poorly informed citizens. These are not elections.”

“So what are they?”

“Well I hate to keep repeating the same word: crowds, just crowds…

On a prisoner convoy

“What do you think about the kidnapping in Kiev of one of the leaders of the Left Front, Razvozzhayev?"

“How do you assess Yandarbiyev being blown up in Qatar? How do you assess polonium finding its way to London? How do you assess the fact that the person who brought the polonium to London is what he is today? A State Duma deputy. And you know from which political party. 

"I don’t like Limonov, but he said one very truthful thing: that this confession by Razvozzhayev, which was driven out of him, actually driven out of him (he was not beaten or tortured, but squeezed by threats), this confession will play a role in the judicial process, because okay he retracted it and the defence will play on that, but the judge won’t forget what sort of confession it was and will take it into account when passing sentence.” 

“You served your sentence in Perm 36, in a labour camp reserved exclusively for political prisoners. Today there are no camps exclusively for political prisoners, they are sent to general prison camps. For instance Tolokonnikova was sent to one of the most brutal prison colonies, in Mordovia, and Alekhina to Perm. So in the Soviet era would it be correct to say there was a more, how can I put it, clear-cut attitude towards political prisoners?”

“They treated us more cautiously. It was clear that given the liberty, escort guards could beat you, or even kill you, but they understood that they did not have that liberty. When I arrived at Perm 36 it was 1976 and there were 140 people there.” 

“Do you think that special prison areas will be set up for political prisoners?”

“It’s difficult to say. If there are enough of these trials, then the need to create such areas may arise. It would be better to put them in among all the normal prisoners. But a criminal environment is not very sympathetic towards the authorities either. It reminds me of a particular prisoner transport I was on. The convicts treated me with respect. I was put in one of the two side-sections, ie I was separated off from the main section by a small compartment."

“A highly dangerous criminal.”

“Highly dangerous, yes. And with my own prisoner escort. From Vilnius I travelled to Perm. We had one general prisoner escort between us, and I had my very own lieutenant, and I was taken to a different toilet, to my own toilet and always when I asked to go. You see hardened criminals were disposed to be anti-Soviet. Today, anti-Soviet sentiments are anti-Putin sentiments."

National Awards

“Dubayev awarded you Chechnya’s Order of the Knight of Honour, and you also received the highest award of France, the Legion of Honour, for freeing hostages in Budennovsk..."

“I have received more than just those two awards, I have several, Czech, Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish…"

“For your human rights activities?”


“But you have never received an award from Russia?”


“Does that hurt?”


Interview by Elena Masyuk