Sergey Kovalev, a Russian dissident during the Soviet Union and human rights defender, died at the age of 91, radio Echo Moskvy reported on Monday, citing the activist’s son. Kovalev was the first Russian human rights ombudsman. He was critical of the superpower policy of Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
Kovalev was born on March 2, 1930 in the town of Seredyna-Buda in the Sumy Oblast in Ukraine. He spent his childhood and youth in Podlipki near Moscow. In 1952 he graduated from the biology department of Moscow State University (MGU), where he later defended his doctorate. In the years 1965-1969 he worked at this university in the laboratory of mathematical methods in biology. As a biologist, he was the author of over 60 scientific papers.
Sergey Kovalev sentenced to seven years in a labor camp
As early as the mid-1950s, Kovalev, while working at the university, opposed the ideologization of science, especially genetics. The trial of writers Andrei Siniawski and Julij Daniel in 1966 provided the impetus for taking up human rights activities. Kovalev organized the signing of letters in their defense. In the years 1967-1968 he was a signatory to many protests and joined the activists of the emerging human rights movement. In May 1969, he joined the first organization of this type in the USSR – the Initiative Group for the defense of human rights, and began working with Andrei Sakharov. During this period, Kovalev had to leave the MGU and took a job at a fishing experimental station in Moscow.
From 1972, he worked on the publishing of the underground newsletter on political repressions in the USSR – “Chronicle of Current Events”. He maintained contacts with dissidents in Lithuania and Georgia. On December 28, 1974, he was arrested and charged with “anti-Soviet propaganda”. A year later, he was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp and three years of exile. He served his sentence in full, first in labor camps for political prisoners in the Perm Oblast in the Urals, and then in a prison in Chistopol in Tatarstan. He spent three years of exile in the Magadan region in the Far East.
Sergei Kovalev and a criticism of Putin’s policy
After returning to Moscow in 1987, already in the period of perestroika, Kovalev became involved in activities for democratic changes. From 1990, he was a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, where, as chairman of the human rights commission, he prepared an amnesty for political prisoners. Later, in independent Russia, twice – in 1995 and 1999 – he was elected deputy of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. He was one of the authors of the 1991 Russian Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights and of the chapter of the Russian Federation’s constitution devoted to human and civil rights.
In the years 1993-1996, Kovalev headed the Human Rights Commission under the Russian president, who was then Boris Yeltsin. From January 1994 to March 1995, Kovalev was the first Russian ombudsman for human rights.
During the so-called In the First Chechen War, Kovalev sharply criticized Yeltsin’s policy on this issue and the decision to use armed forces against separatists from the outset. He headed the joint observation mission of community organizations in the conflict zone. The stance he took on this matter and the publicizing of acts of violence by federal forces led the State Duma to dismiss him from his position as human rights ombudsman.
In 1996, Kovalev stepped down from all positions in the Yeltsin administration – from the President’s Human Rights Commission and from the Presidential Council, an advisory body. He explained that he decided to take this step because Yeltsin “definitely gave up on democratic reforms”. Kovalev accused the Russian authorities of being reluctant to talk about democracy and the rule of law, and that they were increasingly resorting to the rhetoric of the great power. Never after did Kovalov take up any state position.
He was no less critical of Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his rule, especially the fact that the president and his associates came from the KGB – the institution responsible for mass repression. In later years, Kovalev was one of the harshest and most consistent critics of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy. For 15 years he was associated with the opposition Yabloko party.
Sergey Kovalev with decoration from Lech Kaczyński
Kowalow is a laureate of numerous foreign and international decorations and awards for his activities in the defense of human rights. The Polish distinction – the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland – was awarded to him in 2009 by President Lech Kaczyński. In his statements on Russian-Polish relations, Kovalev spoke in favor of investigating and judging the Katyn massacre in a court of law. His memoirs “The Flight of the White Raven. From Siberia to Chechnya – My Life Journey” appeared in Poland in 1998.
Main photo source: Leszek Szymański / PAP