Sergei Kovalyov and the Tragedy of Russian Liberalism

Sergei Kovalyov, who died this week, was a controversial figure. A Soviet dissident who became Russia’s first Presidential Human Rights Commissioner, Kovalyov provoked intense reactions. To his admirers he was a principled defender of human rights and democracy, a man of enormous courage who faced down first the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and then the post-Soviet government of Boris Yeltsin. To his detractors, he was a Westernizing zealot devoid of any patriotic feeling who betrayed his country and its soldiers by taking the side of Chechen terrorists. In a sense, Kovalyov embodied the triumphs and tribulations of Russian liberalism, and as such his life deserves a closer look.

Sergei Kovalyov

A high proportion of Soviet dissidents were scientists, and Kovalyov, a biologist by training, was no exception. Nikita Khrushchev put a great emphasis on science as the means by which Soviet society would catch up and overtake the West, and consequently scientists were given a fair amount of intellectual independence in order to pursue new discoveries. This provided fertile ground for the growth of dissident thinking.

The scientific mindset helped shape the dissident movement. It brought with it Enlightenment humanism (influenced to some degree by the more humanistic elements of Marxist thought) and a form of scientific positivism that saw human society as being driven by the same sort of laws that determined chemistry and physics. This produced a historical determinism that saw society as inevitably heading towards a given goal, which for those imbued with Marxism-Leninism was communism, but which for some others, such as Kovalyov, was Western-style liberal democracy. One might say that just a Marx flipped Hegel on his head, Soviet liberals flipped Marx on his head to discover a new “End of History”, personified by the West. This gave them the sense of confidence they needed to oppose the Soviet regime, and, in some cases, a certain dogmatism that led them to believe that the ends justified the means in the pursuit of the inevitable liberal and democratic future.

Kovalyov fitted well within this paradigm. As his biographer Emma Gilligan writes, his “morality was founded on a rational philosophy that stemmed from a scientific worldview and he shared the enlightenment practice of questioning authority.” His views were “rationalistic humanism … with their emphasis on positive law.” Kovalyov’s “scientific worldview” and “rationalistic humanism” rendered him a cosmopolitan who valued individual humans more than social constructs such as nations. He described himself as an “anti-patriot”. As we shall see, this proved to be his eventual undoing.

After losing his job at Moscow State University, he worked at an experimental fish hatchery in Kalinin (Tver) before being arrested and imprisoned in 1974. His arrest owed itself to the two years he spent editing The Chronicle of Current Events, an underground publication that surveyed abuses of human rights in the Soviet Union, including the Soviet practice of locking dissidents up in psychiatric hospitals on the spurious grounds that they were insane. It was this work that would rightly entrench Kovalyov’s reputation as a courageous defender of human rights and individual liberty.

Kovalyov in prison

After seven years in a strict-regime prison camp, and three years of internal exile, Kovalyov was freed in 1984, just in time for the start of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika one year later. His attitude to perestroika put him at the more moderate end of the dissident spectrum. This had been true even when editing The Chronicle, when as Gilligan says, “Kovalyov argued against … a simple line between ‘us and them’.”

In my last post, I discussed how some Russian liberals tend to blame the country’s problems on a small band of crooks who have usurped the state, while others blame the Russian people as a whole. Kovalyov belonged the second group. He wrote: “Totalitarianism is not only government pressure over society. It consists also of a society that displays a readiness to submit itself to that violence and even to assist in state terror.” Given this belief, he felt that simply opposing the Soviet regime and seeking to topple it was pointless. Regime and people were equally responsible for the fate of the country and needed to work together to improve it.

Kovalyov’s position was controversial in dissident groups. Fellow dissident Alexander Podrabinek, for instance, complained to him that: “You cannot attempt to place moral responsibility for the crimes of the regime on everyone. … This government was never ours. … The majority of the people in our country cannot and must not be held responsible for the crimes of the regime.” Kovalyov, however, argued that, “not all compromises are dishonest. If I agree with something I am ready for conscientious cooperation.” To this end, in 1987 he created the group Press Klub Glasnost which, against opposition from dissidents such as Podrabinek and Valeriia Novodvorskaia, passed a resolution saying that, “We consider it essential to continue persistent attempts to establish a dialogue between the human rights movement in the USSR and the authorities … we from our side are prepared in all good faith to establish cooperation with the authorities at all levels.”

This is, I think, something that Kovalyov’s conservative detractors miss: Kovalyov showed a willingness to work with the authorities, not to seek their destruction.

This applied equally to the post-Soviet government of Boris Yeltsin. Indeed, one might say that Kovalyov, like so many Russian liberals, took his support for Yeltsin too far. The passionate commitment to democracy and human rights led him and many others to tolerate, even encourage, the creation of an authoritarian order in the early 1990s, a move he would later regret.

So it was that following the failed August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, Kovalyov supported banning of the Communist Party, providing expert testimony to the Constitutional Court that the party and the KGB were one and the same. Later, he supported Yeltsin when he sent tanks to attack the Russian parliament in October 1993. He said:

“There is no doubt that the victory of [parliament’s leader Ruslan] Khasbulatov and his supporters … would have meant the end of democracy, the end of parliamentarism, and the final result, the end of freedom in Russia … For my entire life I have tried to fight against the arbitrariness of power. But I am firmly prepared to defend these rights from a crowd of pogromshchiki, from a possessed crowd whose leaders have passed guns to them.”

Yeltsin had acted on the will of the people when he dissolved parliament, said Kovalyov, adding that, “The President by definition must be the guarantor of constitutionalism. But what is constitutionalism – following the letter of a bad law or the fundamental principles of constitutionalism?”

The contradiction between this and Kovalyov the defender of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, is of course striking. He was at least aware that there was a problem. “Haven’t we resorted to the principle of revolutionary expediency?” he asked, “I hope that the present precedent will not become [parliamentarism’s] tombstone.”

Before long, he would decide that indeed it had.

In June 1990, Kovalyov was appointed Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Russian Supreme Soviet (the same body whose physical destruction he would later celebrate). In September 1993, Yeltsin also appointed him head of the new Presidential Human Rights Commission. As such, he was responsible for examining the condition of human rights in the Russian Federation, receiving citizens’ complaints, and making suggestions for improvements.

Beyond this, Kovalyov also made a significant contribution to Russian law by drafting Section 2 “On the Rights and Liberties of Man and the Citizen” of the new Russian Constitution that came into effect in late 1993. Section 2 gives the Russian Constitution a distinctly liberal feel, guaranteeing Russian citizens a host of civil and political rights, and unlike the old Soviet constitution makes these rights unconditional, not dependent on citizens’ fulfilment of their obligations or on compatibility with the advancement of the cause of communism. This was perhaps Kovalyov’s greatest achievement. For this alone, he deserves his place in the pantheon of Russian statesmen.

Before long, however, his relationship with the Russian state collapsed into a condition of mutual acrimony.

There were multiple causes. One was the increasingly authoritarian methods used by Boris Yeltsin’s government. Kovalyov objected, for instance, to Yeltsin’s 1994 Decree “On Urgent Measures to Protect Citizens against Banditry and Organized Crime,” saying that it violated the constitution on several counts, such as its articles allowing for warrantless searches and prolonged detention without charge. It’s worth highlighting this case, as it indicates how the Yeltsin government started abusing the Russian constitution before its ink was barely dry. The idea that the 1990s were a liberal paradise that was then destroyed by Vladimir Putin is a little hard to sustain.

The second cause of Kovalyov’s break with the Yeltsin government was the First Chechen War, that started at the end of 1994. Kovalyov called this an “act of terrorism against the Chechen people.” After travelling to Grozny to observe events, he was shocked to see how Russian forces indiscriminate shelling was killing large numbers of civilians. He noted:

“The firing, perhaps, is directed at military targets, but the strikes are falling on people’s homes. I have seen the destruction of people’s homes with my own eyes. I have seen the corpses of peaceful citizens, clearly not combatants. … What is happening is clearly an enormous tragedy. … The Chechen nation, like any nation, can make mistakes in its choice of leader and ideals. But this does not give anyone the right to conduct a debate with them in the language of bombing and bombardment.”

Kovalyov demonstrating against the war in Chechnya

It was at this point that Kovalyov sealed his fate. It’s worth remembering that his job was to defend human rights, not to support government policy. And he took the job seriously. Seeing the massive human rights abuses taking place in Chechnya, he determined that a ceasefire was necessary. But a ceasefire inevitably favoured the Chechen rebels, as it would leave them in control of most of Chechnya. Because of this, many in Russia concluded that Kovalyov was actively supporting the Chechens against his own people.

Kovalyov deepened this impression by visiting the bunker of Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev, where he and others found themselves stuck after Russian forces launched an assault on Grozny. It was at this point that Kovalyov is said to done something that forever tarnished his reputation in Russia: supposedly he urged surrounded Russian troops to surrender to the Chechens, guaranteeing their safety if they did (something he was, of course, unable to do). From that moment on, in the eyes of many Russians, Kovalyov was little more than a traitor.

The result was a huge political storm when Kovalyov returned to Moscow. Deputies in the Russian parliament, the State Duma, lined up to condemn him. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for instance, ranted:

“Who is he defending? The bandits, rapists and troublemakers…people who are fighting against our Constitution, our State, with weapons in their hands! And millions of citizens have suffered. Suffered from the disintegration of the USSR as a result of the activity of his political movement… Why wasn’t he monitoring human rights violations in our city? Why was he sitting in a basement in a city where a war is going on?”

It’s worth pointing out that the State Duma in 1994, though dominated by Communists and Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, had a much stronger liberal representation than it does today. Yet even then, a strong patriotic mood, and a tendency to denounce political opponents as traitors, were obvious. Once again, the idea that this mood is a creation of Putin is, in retrospect, a myth.

In response to the attacks, Kovalyov dug his grave further. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” he said on TV, an idea he reiterated some years later, telling an interviewer, “I am an anti-patriot. I really do not like what is called patriotism and think it is a socially harmful idea.”

One can argue about whether Kovalyov is right. But politically speaking, his anti-patriotism was politically fatal. The State Duma voted to dismiss him from his position as parliamentary human rights commissioner. For a little while, though, he remained in his presidential post, a fact which led him to the final controversial incident of his career – the Budyonnovsk hospital siege.

In June 1995, Chechen terrorists, led by Shamil Basayev, seized a hospital in the town of Budyonnovsk in southern Russia, taking up to 2,000 people hostage. Kovalyov then negotiated their release. Under the terms of the agreement, Basayev let the hostages go, and in return was allowed to leave Budyonnovsk safely. To guarantee the agreement, 100 volunteers went with him as hostages. Kovalyov joined their number.

One has to admire Kovalyov’s courage, putting his own life on the line to ensure the release of other hostages. Even this, though, wasn’t enough to satisfy his opponents. Kovalyov’s deal allowed Basayev to get away with his act of terrorism. To some, it was proof once again that Kovalyov was on the side of the terrorists. The fact that Dudayev awarded Kovalyov a medal and that Dudayev’s wife described Kovalyov as her favorite politician didn’t help.

By January 1996, Kovalyov had had enough, and resigned as head of the Presidential Human Rights Commision. He wrote to Yeltsin:

“I can’t go on working with a president whom I believe to be neither a supporter of democracy nor a guarantee of the rights and liberties of my fellow citizens. … Life has always been cheap in Russia, especially under the Bolsheviks. But you introduced a new ‘democratic’ and ‘humanitarian’ strain into this shameful national tradition. For a whole year in Chechnya you have been restoring ‘constitutional order’ and ‘civil rights’ with bombs and missiles.”

Kovalyov called Yeltsin a “constitutional criminal.” He said:

“The real cause of the war in Chechnya is neither in Grozny nor in the entire Caucasus region; it is in Moscow. The war pushed aside that corner of the curtain that obscured the real power struggle for control of Russia. Unfortunately, it is not liberal, but the most hard-line forces – those from the military-industrial complex and the former KGB – who are celebrating that victory in the power struggle now … the goal of the war in Chechnya was to send a clear-cut message to the entire population: ‘The time for talking about democracy in Russia is up. It’s time to introduce some order into this country, and we’ll do it whatever the cost’.”

Kovalyov’s story tells us much about the fate of Russian liberalism. In its determination to extirpate the remnants of the communist system, it threw itself 100% behind Boris Yeltsin in his struggle against the then parliament, the Supreme Soviet, and celebrated his use of force to defeat his opponents. It was then shocked to discover that the new order it had created was not the liberal democratic order it had imagined. Committed to the rule of law, it turned a blind eye to it when it suited them, and then threw up its arms in horror when Yeltsin’s army revealed its utter unconcern for the rule of law during the war in Chechnya. While seeking to save lives and end the violence, Russian liberalism proved completely out of touch with the patriotic feelings of most Russians, who didn’t like the war in Chechnya but viewed the Chechen rebels as bandity, bandits or terrorists, and couldn’t tolerate any note of sympathy for them. Kovalyov proved unable to find some sort of language that would condemn the indiscriminate use of force by the government but also condemn the terrorism of the government’s enemies. In the process, he and other liberals inadvertently destroyed liberalism’s reputation by smearing it with the “anti-patriotic” label.

Of course, one may argue that any other approach would have been unprincipled. Indeed, Kovalyov’s career speaks to a man of enormous principle, willing to endure great sacrifices in order to build a better society. His contribution to human rights, especially to the 1993 Constitution, merits high praise. But his career speaks also to the fact that the “authoritarian” regime attributed to Vladimir Putin was firmly in place already by the early 1990s, to the fact that Russian liberals themselves helped construct this regime, and also to Russian liberalism’s fatal tendency to portray itself as anti-patriotic to the bone. It was Kovalyov’s tragedy that a life dedicated to the promotion of human rights ultimately led to his rejection by the people he sought to serve.

12 thoughts on “Sergei Kovalyov and the Tragedy of Russian Liberalism”

  1. “…the Soviet practice of locking dissidents up in psychiatric hospitals on the spurious grounds that they were insane”

    You mean so-called “punitive psychiatry”? Worth bringing back. I mean, just look at the number of social network accounts of the people supporting various “dissidents” and “progressive causes”, whose owners also add “биполярочка” or “non-psychologically normative” (that’s politically correct newspeak for “cray-cray”) to their description. “Coincidence? I don’t think so” (c)

    “This was perhaps Kovalyov’s greatest achievement. For this alone, he deserves his place in the pantheon of Russian statesmen.”

    “It was at this point that Kovalyov is said to done something that forever tarnished his reputation in Russia: supposedly he urged surrounded Russian troops to surrender to the Chechens, guaranteeing their safety if they did (something he was, of course, unable to do).”

    No “said” or “supposedly”. There is plenty of evidence that he DID do that. What, can’t bring yourself to say a true thing about a fellow liberal, maestro Robinson?

    “It was Kovalyov’s tragedy that a life dedicated to the promotion of human rights ultimately led to his rejection by the people he sought to serve.”


  2. There are certain people in this world, like my mom says, “whom there is just no pleasing.” Kovalyov sounds like one of those types.
    Also sounds like the kind of guy who can’t get along with anyone.
    Except for violent terrorists, of course. But that just might be Stockholm Syndrome kicking in.


  3. “He described himself as an “anti-patriot””

    If that’s how one feels, what’s his excuse for focusing on politics of one particular national government? For participating in national politics?

    You know, a common response to “…but what about…?” is “yes, but this is my country and I feel responsible for it”. But if you are an “anti-patriot”, you should go around the world and protest the most egregious violations of your ideal world-order. And there were plenty in the 90s: the civil war and the genocide in Rwanda, for example. A couple of million dead. What’s the little pathetic Chechen war compared to that?


  4. I don’t really know why Russia is expected to tolerate and venerate such people.

    Would such behaviour be tolerated in Canada? The UK ? The USA ?

    He would be seen as a traitor – especially his conduct regarding Chechnya.


  5. Here we have a person, a hero that dedicated his whole life to destruction of the socialist state in the name of basic human rights such as 100 flavors of kolbasa and freedom to do menial jobs in Eastern Europe to feed your family. Had he ever considered any competent approach to law or statecraft, he may have still remained relevant, especially in the light of his opposition to Yeltsin. Alas, not even that.

    Little did he knew what “human rights” will evolve into at the time of his final years. I have no actual idea what he used to think about all the progressive movement of modern world, whatever it was, his freedom of expression remains suppressed by his own dear “liberals”. He got what he deserved after all – silence, fossilization and oblivion.


    1. Thank you for this very interesting and informative article. Its structure and smooth flow is impressive. Did Kovalyov and A. Zinoviev meet? Did they discuss topics such as ‘anti-patriotism’ and the degradation of life in post-Soviet Russia?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As a Post Scriptum of sorts:

    Here Leonid Gozman, arch-liberal and luminary of the “Russian” non-systemic opposition, is complaining that no member of the Russian government (you know – “the Regime”) attended Sergey Adamovich Kovalyov’s burial.

    One has only to recall classic folk Russian expression in this regard: “Помер Максим – да и }{уй с ним!”


  7. Yeltsin was a constitutional criminal from the moment he acted against the Russian constitution and decreed the Duma dissolved. That is what the Duma was legally & constitutionally impeaching him for when bloody dictator Yeltsin turned tanks on it.

    Kovalyov was so wrapped up in anticommunism that he failed to notice the outbreak of fascism. Then Yeltsin wrote a constitution that’s Dick Cheney’s wet dream of unchecked executive power. All of it done right under Kovalov’s nose, indeed, with his enthusiastic support. The blind spots… the colossal blind spots…

    So that’s the kind of power Putin, then Medvedev, then Putin again have had in their hands since 1 January 2000.

    Personally, I’m stunned at how circumspect they have been in the exercise of it. They have definitely been Good Tsars, using that vast power for Russia’s benefit.

    But not all Tsars are Good Tsars.


    1. Gregory Freeze wrote this about the Yeltsin presidency: “Most, including former close associates, concur with the former press secretary that Yeltsin ‘has no ideology of his own except the ideology of power’. For Yeltsin, ruling meant decreeing: in 1996, when the Duma passed 230 laws, the president promulgated 1000 personal ukazy (decrees) and signed another 2000 edicts and directives from his Presidential Administration. Apart from ‘ukazomania’, Yeltsin showed a strong penchant for willfulness, with no apparent purpose other than to remind his entourage who was the boss.”


  8. Rather telling description of Sergey Adamovich Kovalyov’s funeral:

    “On August 13, in the exhibition hall of the Sakharov Center (the organization is recognized as a foreign agent), was held a farewell ceremony for the famous Soviet dissident, and then the deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR and the State Duma, the first domestic ombudsman Sergei Kovalev.”


    “A significant, if not the main part of the attendees consisted of representatives of organizations with which Sergei Kovalev actively collaborated during his lifetime. That were the Yabloko party, the Memorial Center (recognized as a foreign agent</strong.), the Moscow Helsinki Group (the organization is recognized as a foreign agent). Not all of them took the floor, although the composition of the speakers was quite representative.”


    “The largest number of politicians who spoke were, understandably, from the Yabloko. They were Grigory Yavlinsky, Viktor Sheinis, Lev Schlosberg. Human rights defenders Valery Borshchev and Nikolai Rybakov, who are close to Yabloko, also spoke, as well as just a well-known lawyer and human rights activist Karina Moskalenko. The “fourth estate” was represented by Zoya Svetova, Nikolai Svanidze, Yuri Rost, Evgenia Albats, Vladimir Kara-Murza. However, among the speakers was a representative of the Union of Right Forces: Leonid Gozman delivered a farewell speech.”


    “While farewell speeches were heard in the funeral hall, on a small patch outside its walls, those who paid tribute to the memory communicated with each other and with not very numerous journalists. Many famous people also appeared there – from the poet Lev Rubinstein and human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek to the ex-Deputy Speaker of the State Duma Vladimir Ryzhkov.”

    I think that the first and last names of the attendees must be read out aloud, with the soundtrack being the tearful playing of the fiddle, whose sounds try to express millennia-long sadness and tragedy.


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