Fedor Burlatsky Interview, October 23, 1997 in Moscow
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
MS: By the radical democrats, you mean people who were supporting Yeltsin and by the liberal democrats you mean people such as yourself who at that time were still supporting Gorbachev?
Burlatsky: Generally speaking, that’s right. But in December of 1990 Gorbachev did a turn to the right. That’s why I still supported him but criticized him. Our position was not to fight against Yeltsin but support them to come together, as the two main persons who can continue with the reforms.
MS: So you gave a speech in the Supreme Soviet urging them to get together.
Burlatsky: Yes, my last speech on the last session of the Congress of People’s Deputies (Not the Supreme Soviet) but the Congress —
MS: But you were a member of the Supreme Soviet?
Burlatsky: Yes, and a president of a subcomission. And I mentioned in my speech that I worried very much about the possibility of a struggle among the radical and liberal democrats, and among Yeltsin and Gorbachev. They must be together because they must together prepare their reports, and they have both ___ their position from the conservative communist forces. If they are divided, or fight against each other, it can have a terrible influence to the fate of the SU and of democracy in the country.
MS: In no way were you a member of the radical democrats?
Burlatsky: I was close to the radical democrats but I did not belong to the Inter-Regional Group. I came to them sometime and explainrf my view, which was not exactly the same as view of the leaders of this group.
MS: How did you differ from them?
Burlatsky: I supported personally Sakharov. I was close to him and his position, especially because he started human rights and I continued it. I created an organization in 87, a commission of human rights.
MS: That was a commission within the parliament?
Burlatsky: Both. I managed the commission outside of the parliament from 1987 — became co-president of an international commission called the De Burght Commission of Human Rights with Rosalyn Carter.
MS: But Sakharov was not part of that, was he?
MS. Was he still in Gorky?
Burlatsky: No. In 1987 when I established it, he was in Gorky, but when he was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies, I had a talk with him and asked him to work together and to become the president of our commission, or co-president, or whatever he liked. But he thanked me and said, “I will support you, but I have different plans now.”
MS: What did he mean by that?
Burlatsky: He became a political figure and started a fight for democracy generally — not only for human rights but to change the political system. That’s why he prepared his own constitution. Maybe he had in mind (which I thought at the time) even to run for president.
MS: Do you think he would have?
Burlatsky: I’m not sure because he never explained this, but he told me that now I want to be included in deeper political processes, not only human rights.
MS: Why did that go bad? Yelena Bonner said terrible things about you. What made the difference if he started off cooperating with you?
Burlatsky: You know, in the beginning two people came to our commission. It was in 1987 — Mr. Kovalev and Timofeev.
MS: Who was he?
Burlatsky: I don’t know where he disappeared, but he was number one in that group. I remember that he was in prison too, as Kovelev had been.
MS: What group? Was there a name to it?
Burlatsky: No, it had just started. It was a meeting of our group, which included well-known writers, journalists, social figures. It was a meeting with the people who represent Helsinki Watch Commission here in Moscow. It was the first meeting. Prince Schwartzenburg was the head of the group. Maybe you know him.
MS: He’s the Prince of Lichtenstein?
Burlatsky: No, from Austria. And then Bernstein, for the United States. He was well-known — a publisher, a member of this commission. And then Jeri Laber.
MS: I see that name all the time but I don’t even know whether it’s a man or a woman.
Burlatsky: It’s a woman. She was not so important as a social figure, she was a manager of this commission. So we had a commission and suddenly they invited these two people, Timofeev and Kovalev, and they sat on the side of this group, not on our side, and they gave them the place together with Americans and some other people from Helsinki Watch. Then Prince Swartzenberg asked me to give the floor for a speech to Mr. Timofeev. I asked him who he represented.
Ms: Who did Swartzenberg represent?
Burlatsky: Helsinki Watch Commission International. He answered that these two people, Timofeev and Kovalev, represented the American Helsinki Watch Commission. Then many people around me told me that we may not give them the floor because they are Russian citizens who do not represent the American Commission. Even Yakovlev, who is now president of Arbitrage— there is such courts.
MS: Alexander Yakovlev?
Burlatsky: No, no ______ (can’t understand first name). He was my deputy and he told me I mut not give him the floor. And I told him that, to use the words of Mao Tse Tung, my hero [He’s joking here. He wrote a book about Mao that was anything but appreciative.] My book says that nothing will happen even if we give him the floor, the heavens will not fall, the fish will still remain in the ocean. And I gave the floor to Mr. Timofeev. But franky speaking we were disppointed that these people were included, not in our commission, but in the American commission. We asked them to come to us but they did not want to. They preferred to continue to represent the American commission, and only later did I understand why. Because they received money from the American commission. I am not sure that they received it for themself. I don’t know what they did, but I do know that they did a good job because they prepared a list of the people who still are in the prison. They found these people in psychiatric hospitals, and they received money. When Rosalynn Carter, for example, came to Moscow and had a meeting here, she of course had very close relations with me and meetings with us, with our commission, but then she was going to that commission and as I understand, gave them money and received a list of those people.
And then we prepared a meeting in the Hague with Roalyn Carter and many people from the Helsinki Commission and the American Commission, members of the American Parliament. And there Rosalyn Carter gave me this list with about 400 people, not political prisoners, but prisoners who were punished for so-called religious crimes. And I sent from the Hague, using the embassy, a secret telegram to Gorbachev personally, with this list and asked him to release all of them without any judge, because there are no religious crimes. Some crimes can be done, but not religious crimes. If somebody will kill, it will be a real crime, not a religious crime.
And he assigned this to Mr. Lukyanov, who was the secretary of the Central Committee. He said, I agree, we need to decide it. And when I came back to Moscow I had a meeting with Lukyanov and asked him about this telegram. He phoned me this telegram and said what Gorbachev would decided [I don’t understand it but that’s what he says] but said, I disagree with your proposal to release all of them. Let us research every case; maybe there are in some of them not only religious questions but also criminal questions. And I said said, no, no, it should be a political action. In such case, Western people will believe that we are really on the way to democracy. If you will release them with the usual procedure, using the court, it will be nothing, but if we release 400 people and Rosalyn Carter and all the human rights people will know this, it will be a very big step, not only to democracy in our country but to American trust. And there was some discussion among us with Lukyanov, and he was going to Gorbachev to ask him, and Gorbchev supported my view.
mS: Thas was what year?
Burlatsky: 1987. The people were released. I had some meetings after this with Lukyanov, he told me we will releae 100, 200 of them, but there are some of them that have real crimes, but they all were released and I informed Helsinki Watch and Rosalyn Carter that Gorbachev did it.
As for these people Timofeev and Kovalev and some others, they created their own group — Memorial and some others — and didn’t want any contact with us. They explained that we are an official group and they are real unofficial groups, and really speaking it was that way because I became a member of parliament and had big official influence with the government, but it was a very good possibility which should be used for human rights. I did it. I prepared three drafts of laws of human rights, as you know — freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, freedom of press. The freedom of movement was the law allowing people to go out of the Soviet Union and come back. It was very difficult because Gorbachev was against this. There is a special story.
MS: You already told me the story. You told me that you got Baker to…
Burlatsky: Yes. And what happened with this group, Timofeev, Kovalev, and others, they from the beginning started to struggle against Gorbachev and to be included in Yeltsin’s group. They supported him politically.
MS: Do you know why?
Burlatsky: Maybe they believed that he is more radical and more close to their views.
MS: Did they have any reason to doubt that you were doing your best on his behalf for human rights?
Burlatsky: You know, they did not fight against my group and against me before 1991 when Yeltsin came to power. I never heard even one critical word. They understood that I was doing a very good job, using my official position. For 2.5 years I had a very good position and I had a possibility to go directly to Gorbachev and to some others. And I used it. That’s when I became very close with Richard Schifter. We had very close relations with many officials in the Western countries who supported us an with the American ambassador. Especially with Matlock and some others. They never criticized us, but when Yeltsin came to power, they became a monopoly group and started to criticize every other group, including mine. They criticized me because I became very known, especially in the Western countries. Nobody at that time — Kovalev, Timofeev — I can say everybody from the Human Rights Group in the West knew me and my commission.
And in about 1990 a friend of mine, Ernst von Eeghen in Holland, a member of our international commission, showed me a letter which was written by a woman. I did not know at that time this journalist, but maybe it was Albatz (sp?) a very well-known woman journalist. The letter was sent to all western human rights people, in which she supported very much Timofeev’s and Kovalev’s group, and criticized very much my commission and me personally.
MS: On what grounds?
Burlatsky: That I am an official.
MS: That’s not something to criticize somebody for.
Burlatsky: Yes, but what can they say? That I am official, that I have close relationship with Gorbachev, with officials, that I was in the communist Party Central Committee, something like this.
MS: That’s not enough to criticize you.
Burlatsky: I don’t remember exactly.
MS: You hadn’t done any action that they diapproved of?
Burlatsky: No, nothing concrete. But very terrible style — they must not contact me, they must contact this group. It was a typical KGB style because they did not publish it. They sent it in a secret way and I knew it becaue my friend showed it to me and said, Never say, please, that I did it. And it was the first, but when Yeltsin came to power they started to criticize me (not very much, I can say).
MS: But didn’t they have any real basis for complaint?
Burlatsky: Absolutely. What can they say? Everybody knows that I prepared … It was so terrible a discussion. For example, the draft of the law on freedom of religion. Alexei the Second took the floor in the Supreme Soviet and thanked me very much for this draft of law and asked to support this draft of law, but explained that it means only for the Orthodox Church. I took the floor after him and said that this is not only for Othodox Church. This is for all confessions. We have so many different confessions here in Russia but there are many confessions OUTSIDE of Russia and all of them are together in the fight for human rights and the fight of democracy. And Alexei II was very disappointed in my speech.
MS: He wanted freedom of religion only for Orthodox people”
Burlatsky: Yes. He did not say that. He is not stupid, but he emphasized only the freedom of the Orthodox Church and nothing else. That’s why, I did not criticize him personally, but everybody understood that I explained a different view.
And especially the struggle existed over the draft of law on freedom of movement. I spent about one month, came back to the draft of law because the majority of members of the Supreme Soviet did not support this draft of law.
MS: Had they supported the draft of law on freedom of religion?
Burlatsky: Yes, they did support it. It was not so much problems. But freedom of movement was harder. They worried about spies problem. The “iron gate” — they preferred isolation. The Communists did not want contact with the West. One man (a simple man, a taxi driver) cried out that Burlatsky must go with his family to live in the United States or leave here. He needs freedom of movement; we workers don’t need it. It was a great struggle. That’s why these people, Kovalev and others, did not have reason to criticize me. I had great authority but after 1991 when Yeltsin came to power and I did not run to him as many other people did — I still had an independent position, and they used this and started to criticize me.
MS: But not substantive? Only that you were a Communist?
Burlatsky: A Communist, and that our commission was organized by the politburo, and that’s why it became an official commission and they struggled outside of the system and something like this. I did not even answer it. I never answered criticism. Maybe it was my mistake. But so many people criticized me from the Communist side, that I became chief editor of Literary Newspaper, I release this newspaper from the Writers Society. It became independent. And all writers, conservative writers, published fifty or maybe 100 letters saying that I had taken the newspaper from the writers and gave it to a small group, they explained to the Jewish group, because really in the newspaper, the majority of journalists belonged to Jews. That’s why they explained it in this nationalistic way — as against Russians. And if you publish so many articles, that’s why I decided not to answer. And then when these people, from the other side, the radical democratic side, I did not answer too. I still think that I must sometime explain all this story and answer all of them.
MS: What do you know about the founding of Helsinki Watch”
Burlatsky: You mean Sakharov’s group or —-?
MS: I think that Yuri Orlov. Did you ever know Yuri Orlov?
Burlatsky: Yes, I met him in the United States but I did not meet him here in Russia because he emigrated, I forget, at the end of the seventies, I think. Yes, I met him and we had a good conversation in the United States and maybe some other places, maybe in Paris.
MS: Did you have any problem getting along with him?
Burlatsky: No. And such people as Richard Schifter in the US State Department, and other commissions, they knew that if they asked to do something, it will be decided because I had influence. Other groups did not have that possibility to decide something. Of course we did different _____ but in the same way I think when they came to power they became very unpleasant, I can say that Kovalev became a great bureaucrat in human rights and he prepared a draft of law in the state duma to establish so-called ombudsman, but in Russia it’s not ombudsman, it’s a man who represents human rights. But in a very strange way. First this man should become a position like a deputy prime minister and represent both parliament and the president’s administration and establish an organization of about 700 people, who must be paid by the state, and create some kind of ministry of human rights and have representatives on all levels — in parliament, in President’s administration, and in the regions — like a ministry of human rights. And built in this technology of guards, money, etc.
And the state duma did not support this. They refused to establish such an organization. People voted against Kovalev’s plan. And now they try to establish a man who will represent human rights. They still discuss this problem, even this month they discussed it — without such an organization but with real rights to influence officials and every faction in the state duma tries to support their own person to become such a position, but they could not decide it. The communists received more than any other and they support Mr. Osakov (?), the president of the law commission. He’s a deputy of the state duma. But it was not decided. They will come back to this question in November. Somebody asked me to run for this position but I decided not to do it. I’m not so young. It should be a younger, more active man, and second I’m not sure that the Communists will support me. They have a majority and will vote against me. They dislike me very much and excluded me from the party twice. It should be decided in November. What about Kovalev? The majority of the people in the state duma dislike him very much, especially for his position in the human rights (Chechen?) story. Not only the communists; even Yavlinsky did not support him. Only maybe Gaidar and Kosyrev, who sent him to Chechnya. This is a complicated story.
MS: Every dissident I met, from way back, even in the 80s, from Yuri Orlov to Grigoriants, to Kovalev to — all of those human rights activists who were activists — disliked Gorbachev and his government very very early, from the very beginning. Do you think that is so and can you explain it?
Burlatsky: It is very strange for me because Gorbachev was the man who released them. After all, he released Sakharov and Bonner and gave them the possibility to become well known, he had a great position, he had a possibility to destroy Sakharov’s ambition to become a member of the parliament but he did not do this. That’s why it’s strange.
MS: . Sakharov actually hung up on him when Gorbachev called him to tell him that he was to be released. After a while Sakharov hung up on him. In his memoirs he takes pride in the fact that he hung up first.
Burlatsky: Ah Yes. I remember that. From the beginning, as I remember he had no telephone and the officials put in the telephone for this purpose. I can understand his feeling.
MS: You can?
Burlatsky: There’s a feeling that Gorbachev did not do this in the beginning. It was, I don’t remember exactly, but about one year later. But really Gorbachev released all of them. I sent a letter about Solzhenitsyn, it was an open letter published in the newspapers, not only to release Solzhenitsyn and the others, but — I had a talk with Gorbachev about Solzhenitsyn personally, and he did it. The reason why dissidents dislike him maybe was that, first, he did not invite them to the power. Still such people like me were closer to him for human rights, and they continued to be not so important.
MS: Do you think he should have invited them to power?
Burlatsky: No. He invited Sakharov and gave him many possibilitiie but did not invite some others. They don’t became very close to the power, that is the main reason. And they believed that Yeltsin will give them such possibilities, they had in mind to become number one. But maybe they have more ____ general views that Gorbachev is not democratic enough. They had in mind Western democracy, I don’t know. But I think they had in mind that first, they still were not important in Gorbachev’s time. Nobody mentioned them. You know, nobody knew who they were.
MS: Well, they knew who Sakharov was.
Burlatsky: Yes, but nobody else. That’s why— I personally did not know what they were doing. When Rosalyn Carter gave me this list, she did not mention it but I understood that she received this list from somewhere and decided that this group were doing this. But they were not active in the mass media. I publish dozens of articles in my newspaper, but…
MS: Could they have published i your paper?
Burlatsky: Yes. Sakharov, or Popov. I supported the Inter-Regional Group very much, all of them had the floor in the Literary Newspaper.
MS: You support them but you didn’t join them?
Burlatsky: Oh, I didn’t support their fight for power against Gorbachev.
MS: Do you think that’s really what it was about— just a fight for power?
Burlatsky: Yes. Absolutely. I had such feeling, I even explained in their meetings that you fight for the power but you are not prepared to receive power. What you will do if? And Popov, by the way, in his last books explained that this group was not prepared to receive power. They received power on occasion because of the coup story. They are not ready. They have no people, They have no program, he explained.
MS: Then what happened to the Inter-Regional Group after Sakharov’s death? On the last day of his life he was at a meeting in which he wa trying to get the InterRegional Group to become an opposition party and oppose Gorbachev. Goldansky told me that he had made a speech in which he said that I remember in history that when the Communists broke from the Social Democrats in Germany, that’s what gave the Nazis an opportunity to come to power. He said that’s similar to what we’re doing, creating a division within the democrats.
Burlatsky: This is a special story. Maybe I can write an article for you. I took the floor
MS. Was that a meeting of the Inter-Regional Group and you went to it?
Burlatsky: Yes, yes. I told you about this but maybe you don’t realize it was the same meeting.
MS: I thought it was a meeting of the plenary session of Congress. You mean it was the InterRegional Group?
Burlatsky: It was a meeting of the Inter-Regional Group inside the building of the Supreme Soviet. Not in the same room but very close, the second room, it wa a very big meeting and they discussed not so much the problem of opposition. Some people explained that Popov’s position but the main problem was the problem about political strike — to stop working at the same time. Sakharov proposed that they must stop work at the same time all over the whole country.
MS: For what purpose?
Burlatsky: Against Gorbachev and his policies.
MS: Which policies?
Burlatsky: He means generally because he doesn’t fight for democracy. It was not a concrete reason. Just a political strike. This idea, as I understand it, came from his wife, Bonner.
MS: A general strike!
Burlatsky: General strike. This was the question on this meeting, and Goldansky and many others who were included in this group, criticized Sakharov. The majority did not support him. I took the floor in the beginning. They gave me the floor with great respect because they believed that I would support them. And I said that, as I understand, you started to create an opposition. But what kind of opposition— like in the West or like in the East? In the West it’s an open opposition, with a real program, with a shadow government like Great Britain, with concrete questions (We’ll do this an that; we don’t agree with this and that, etc.) Or you’ll create an Eastern style to prepare some coup without any program. And I said that I don’t understand what kind of program does it…… For example, I said that I see here in the presidium such different people — a member of the politburo, Yeltsin.
MS: Yeltsin was still a member of the Politburo?
Burlatsky: Former member. Yeltsin was a candidate to Politburo, member of the Central Committee, and secretary during many years, and a great liberal man, Sakharov, and a radical democrat, Popov, and Glan (??) was a strange man from the department of procurator. A terrible man. Liar. Armenian. But you are sitting together and I don’t understand what kind of political program brought you together. Can you explain what you fight for? Only for power? For some kind of program? What kind of program? If you’ll explain the program maybe I will support you — not only I but many other democrats. And they became disappointed. Even Mr. Yeltsin I think did not forget it because he saw in me with hate at that time.
MS: He didn’t try to give an answer to your questions?
Burlatsky: They finished in a short time and I was going out and Sakharov died on that day. It’s like a critical point in our struggle for democracy. Maybe I will come back to this story. I’ll write about this because it’s a very interesting point. The majority of the members of the InterRegional Group did not support Sakharov, but for different reasons. Not so much as I did.
MS: The logic of your position was the same as Goldansky’s.
Burlatsky: Yeah. We were close.
Apple and smartphone-friendly audio link: here