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Interview: Russian Human Rights Activist Sergei Kovalev

Sergei Kovalev (file photo) (RFE/RL) 9 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Sergei Kovalev is a biophysicist who is credited with founding the first human rights organization in the Soviet Union in 1969. His work as an activist eventually got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was arrested and tried in Lithuania in 1974 on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."

He was found guilty and served seven years in labor camps and three years of internal exile.

Kovalev was allowed to return to Moscow during Perestroika. During that time he participated in a number of human rights initiatives, including the founding of the Russian rights group Memorial, which focuses on the rehabilitation of victims of severe political persecution during the Soviet era.

He subsequently delved into politics, serving as a member of the Presidential Council in 1992. After being elected to the State Duma in 1993, and served as its human rights commissioner before being dismissed in 1995 due to his staunch criticism of the Chechen war.

He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on two occasions, in 1995 and 1996. Today Kovalev continues his activism, making the headlines as recently as November, when he was detained for participating in a demonstration against fascism.

Kovalev currently resides in Moscow, where RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Anna Kolchina caught up with him for an interview.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us how you started your human rights career?

Kovalev: There were many impulses that pushed me. To put it bluntly, the main impulse was shame, the desire to consider oneself a decent person. Everyone wants to have some basis for self-respect. This is what [writer and dissident Andrei] Amalrik called "to be a free person in a non-free country." This was an important discovery by the Soviet dissidents. Some of us believed that they formed a political opposition. This was a naive belief. It was the ethical incompatibility with the regime, with the horrors that surrounded us, and with the constant lies. In 1966, it was the trial of [writers Andrei] Siniavskii and [Yulii] Daniel. My first participation in a public campaign of protest had to do with this trial. Actually, not long before, in a conversation with a friend, I said: "What can you do in this country? You can't do anything! All you can do is gather some TNT and blow up their stinking building where they have their stinking congresses. But in that case, I would sink down to their level. This is why I will study science." But then they had the trial of Siniavskii and Daniel and I wrote my first letter of protest.

RFE/RL: In 1974, what were you accused of?

Kovalev: Oh, there were many things. My sentence contained 17 clauses. There was also an amusing allegation, concerning the "Gulag Archipelago." It was amusing because I was accused of disseminating this book, but really, I just gave it to a friend to read. The main clause in the sentence was about the "Chronicle Of Current Events." At the time when they arrested me, I was the editor in chief of the "Chronicle." It was a marvelous publication and it is not surprising that Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov considered it the most important phenomenon that came out of our country in that time. During the investigation, of course, I gave no testimony. I didn't want to participate in anything of the sort. In 1990, when I became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of what was still the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic), I had already visited many prisons, including those where I myself was detained. It was then that we sat down to make amendments to the Penal Code concerning correctional facilities.

RFE/RL: Please tell us about your work in Chechnya.

Kovalev: This is what human rights activists these days call "monitoring." I became the first plenipotentiaryrepresentative of human rights in the Russian Federation, and when the first war in Chechnya was nearing, I thought, "Can there be a more appropriate place for a human rights plenipotentiary?" So a small group, called the "Mission of the Plenipotentiaries," went to Chechnya. We reported a lot to what was then a society and press that was active and wanted accurate information about that horrible war. We reported what we saw with our own eyes, and did so in the most meticulous fashion. On 10 March 1995, the State Duma removed me from my post for my opposition to the war. As far as our successes in Chechnya are concerned, we cannot truly measure the value of our work. There is one definite result, however: Budenovsk. I don't know how many lives we saved when Shamil Basaev seized a hospital there, but I can say one thing, there were many. When Russian forces first stormed the building, some 80 hostages were killed. It is scary to imagine how many more would have died if they had continued to storm.

RFE/RL : Being a human rights activist must be a calling.

Kovalev: My destiny, embodied by the Soviet regime, bestowed upon me a curious and somewhat surprising profession. I was a fairly successful scientist and, perhaps, would have earned a PhD or something like that. But the regime said, "No, you're going to be a human rights activist." So that's what I became, and that's what I am to this day. I like this profession just as much.

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