Sergei Kovalev obituary: Dogged Kremlin adversary

Campaign during the Brezhnev era led to seven years’ hard labour and internal exile

Sergei Kovalyov speaking at his home in Moscow. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty

Sergei Kovalyov speaking at his home in Moscow. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty


Born: March 2nd, 1930
Died: August 9th, 2021

Sergei A Kovalev, a dogged Kremlin adversary during the Soviet era who went on to campaign against the post-communist leaders Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, died Monday in Moscow. He was 91.

A colleague in the Russian human rights community, Alexander Cherkasov, confirmed Kovalev’s death.

As a founder of a clandestine human rights movement, Kovalev tilted against government abuses throughout a long career as an activist and a biologist. 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 lockstep with his country’s progression from the repression of Stalinism to the dawning of a troubled democracy and then the resurgent authoritarianism of 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 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’s trial, his father was in exile and his wife, Tatiana Osipova, a fellow dissident, was serving out a sentence in a labour camp.

Critics of the elder 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 Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-communist leader.

Outside Russia, Sergei Kovalev was feted with accolades such as 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 marginalised in his country, denied access to major broadcasters that were generally state-controlled or owned by pro-Kremlin entrepreneurs.

Stalinist purges

Sergei Adamovich Kovalev was born on March 2nd, 1930, in Seredina Buda, in northeastern Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. The family moved to the Podlipki district, near Moscow, when he was two.

His father, Adam Adamovich Kovalev, had been a midlevel railroad bureaucrat in Belarus; his mother, Irena Ivanovna Makarenko, had studied medicine in Kiev before returning home to nurse a sick mother. He had an elder brother, Yuri.

Kovalev’s parents sought to instil in Sergei “the practice of silence and acquiescence” – the response of many Soviet citizens to Stalinist purges, according to Emma Gilligan, an Australian scholar and author of Defending Human Rights in Russia, a detailed 2009 biographical study.

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 Khrushchev.

In 1956 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 KGB pressure. During his interrogation, Gilligan wrote, KGB agents made veiled threats against his son, Ivan, who was then two, and Ivan’s mother, Elena Viktorovna Tokareva, Kovalev’s first wife.

Kovalev met his second wife, Ludmilla Iur’evna Boitseva, a senior laboratory assistant, in the 1960s. They had a daughter, Varvara.

In 1969 Kovalev was a founder of the first independent rights group in the Soviet Union, the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights. That same year he resolved with some reluctance to resign as a senior scientist at Moscow State University rather than expose his colleagues to KGB scrutiny, Gilligan wrote.

A year later, he met physicist Andrei Sakharov, the one-time designer of Soviet nuclear weapons who became a leading dissident and a powerful influence on Kovalev.

State repression

Kovalev later became editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, a self-published journal that reported on state repression.

As his battle with the KGB and the Kremlin sharpened, Kovalev became ever more outspoken. In May 1974, he was one of a small group of dissidents who handed out issues of the journal to foreign correspondents, accompanied by a declaration defending “accurate information about violations of elementary human rights in the Soviet Union”.

Sergei Kovalev and Russian economist and politician Yegor Gaidar at a protest at the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) building. Photograph: Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty
Sergei Kovalev and Russian economist and politician Yegor Gaidar at a protest at the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) building. Photograph: Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty

He expanded the Chronicle to include sections on Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine, all parts of the Soviet empire. He went so far, Gilligan said, to write personally to the head of the KGB, demanding the return of a confiscated copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

In November 1974, 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 December 23rd, 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 Kovalev to nationalists there. The venue made it easier for the KGB to prevent friends, foreign correspondents and supporters from attending.

Throughout the trial, Sakharov protested loudly outside the courtroom, even as his wife, Yelena Bonner, travelled to Oslo in his place to read his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Soviet authorities had barred him from attending the Nobel ceremony.

Hard labour

Kovalev was sentenced to seven years in hard labour camps and three years of 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 political landscape in Moscow as Gorbachev pursued policies of openness and structural reform 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 Gorbachev in Moscow. When Soviet rule collapsed, he initially resisted a political role but was persuaded by Sakharov to run for parliament even though, Gilligan wrote, he “frequently lacked political instinct”.

Russia’s first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, created an enduring rift with Yeltsin, a one-time ally, as 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 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. – The New York Times