Interview with Sergei Kovalev, Russian State Duma, October 17, 1997
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Interpreter — Natalia
Natalia, the interpreter, sometimes refers to Kovalev in the first person, sometimes in the second person form. Sometimes he speaks in English himself, though not well.
Kovalev: I was out of the country at that time. Russian Federation.
Nah! Not Russian Federation. Russian Socialistic Federation Republic.
MS: … In the early eighties I was coming to Moscow and I wa acquainted with members of the Moscow Trust Group. Brodsky, for example.
Kovalev: What Brodsky?
MS: Dr. Vladimir Brodsky. And the Medvedkovs. There was a group called the Group to Establish Trust Between the US and the USSR.
Kovalev: I don’t know about the group because i was in prison. I don’t know Brodsky.
MS: I want to explore your experience as a human rights activist and your connection with other such activists. For example, your relationship with Sakharov.
Kovalev: It is easy to answer this by saying what I was charged with. I was charged with 17 episodes, many there were some open public protests against the general conditions in the USSR according to the rights of human beings, in particular policies. I also was a member of the Initiative Group of Human Rights, which was the first independent organization in the Soviet Union which dealt with Human Rights. Then some other groups appeared, in particular Sakharov’s group and the most famous one, the Helsinki Group.
MS: Yury Orlov.
Kovalev: Yes. This Initiative was the first in SU. And my membership in this group as well as in Amnesty International. In 1974 (?) there was organized a Russian section of Amnesty and I was one of the 11 founders but I didn’t have time to work there because I was jailed. For all those things I was charged. So I was editing this samizdat Chronicle of Current Events and this was the main point of the verdict. I was the main editor of it for a period of time. As far as his relationship wtih Sakharov, they were quite close and friendly. You can read about it in Sakharov’s book. It was a relationship of cooperation. We had to write some documents together. Also they tried to participate in some court cases with our friends. But it didn’t last for a long time because I was absent for ten years and when I was back, he was in Gorky. Again we met only at the end of 1986 when Sakharov was returned from Gorky. We participated in founding the Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity. I became one of the directors of this. Sakharov had some skepticism about this activity and there were legitimate reasons for this skepticism. All the same, in the board of this fund there was organized a Human Rights Project Group inside this fund. Actually at that time it was two-sided — Russian and American. From the Russian side, I was co-chairman of this group and from the American side it was Mr. Edward Kline. After we met again our activities were connected with this group. Sakharov _______ insisted that I [stand for election] in the Russian parliament, though I himself doubted. I had an appointment with Sakharov on this point exactly on Dec 11, 1989 to discuss this point. We met on this question. Sakharov insisted, said it is very important, you should do it. On December 13, Sakharov died. After that I understood that I should not only run but I should win. Otherwise I would have a bad memory. And you know Sakharov was a deputy in the Soviet parliament. It was a special attitude of the majority of the soviet parliament’s deputies toward Sakahrov. If you remember he was whistled at when he was speaking. And you remember what was the attitude to him by the first and last Soviet president. In this way I’s situation in the duma is the same. The point is, the modern duma tries to hide its negative attitude less than this one. But I am [treated as someone who is anti-Russian] and even as a traitor to the people — an agent of Western influence. This attitude in the duma is a kind of indicator. My position is worse and I don’t go away from the common position of Sakharov. If I were liked more in the duma I would worry and think that I am doing something wrong.
If you talk about work in the parliament, in the previous two Russian parliaments, it was not resultless work. In the first Russian parliament I was head of the Human Rights Committee. Now there is no such committee in the duma. That committee worked with the great resistance of parliament. All the same they managed to put across some very important laws. With great difficulty we managed to put them into law; parliament voted for them. To make them be laws from draft. For example, the law of rehabilitation of victims of political oppression. For example, the law about declaring states of emergency. It seems that the new parliament is going to change this law into something else. It is trying to. This law determines what the government is allowed to when some extraordinary emergency appears, and what it doesn’t have a right to do. For example, is it possible to close newspapers? Is it allowed to hold a person without some official verdict? Is it allowed to prohibit demonstrations and if so, for what period of time?
MS: I want to ask about the relationship between the dissidents and Yeltsin. Can you tell me about their early support of Yeltsin?
Kovalev: I can talk about MY relationship with Yeltsin but not speak for others.
MS: But is it not true that the dissidents did support Yeltsin very early.
Kovalev: It is not possible to speak of former dissidents; they are not a group What are dissidents? Sakharov is a dissident. Kovalev is a dissident, but Osipov is also a dissident, and to some extent Solzhenitsyn is also a dissident. I could not have anything in common with them. Osipov is a Russian nationalist even and I don’t like that at all. We don’t have any common points. I had some solidarity in one thing only. If Osipov was arrested, of course I was for him. I would be ready to cooperate. To insist only that Osipov has a right to say what he thinks without any obstacles.
MS: Okay, sure. But let’s say you and Yury Orlov and Sakharov and Grigoriants, you have something in common. Did not that community support Yeltsin early?
Kovalev: I can tell you only about my attitude to Yeltsin. It’s true that among other dissidents there are others who think as I do and I know who they are. For example, some very famous persons like Potrabinik. He [dis?]agrees with I on many points — his attitude on power. He has criticized both I and Sakharov. But there is not any unique attitude. If those preliminary points are clear then I am ready to tell you about my, and not only my, attitudes toward Yeltsin. There are articles in Zname — my article and about 15 others. Dissidents about Dissident Movements. It will answer some of your questions.
Many things are arguable there. We cannot agree.
But now, about Yeltsin. During the first elections in 1990 I was asked a lot of time would he support Yeltsin if he is elected. The answer was that he didn’t know. I would need a lot of time to think over what position to take toward Yeltsin because I had serious doubts about this political figure.
Coming back a little into the past, the same kind of doubts were there for Sakharov. The elections of 1989 when the Soviet deputies were being elected, Sakharov said that he didn’t want to have tight connections with Yeltsin. Sakharov was elected from the Academy and not all the academy supported him.
Sakharov had serious doubts about Yeltsin and later in the Supreme Soviet, they had five co-chairmen of the Inter-Regional Deputy Group. Among those five were Sakharov and Yeltsin. Murashov was not a co chairman, but a secretary.
MS: Were they all supporting Yeltsin?
Kovalev: Yeah. They were all supporting Yeltsin officially when he was being elected chairman of the Russian parliament, during the election. As you remember, his first official post was as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation.
So why did the liberal and democratic deputies why their position was that? Who was the competitor of Yeltsin for this position? It was the terrible figure of Polozhkov and Burbulin. For whom should I have voted? Of course, not for Polozhkov and not for Burbulin. But what was his position in the first Russian parliament? I still had doubts about Yeltsin but I energetically worked for this “least evil,” taking into consideration the democratic declarations of Boris Nicolaivich and some mood around him of the people around him. Burbulis and many others who were close to him. I realized that Yeltsin is a typical party functionary of the Soviet Union — person who made up to this time a very quick political career. And he realized the way those careers were made in the CPSU. And when Yeltsin was going up and up this political staircase [Kovalev is showing with his elbows how Yeltsin elbowed his way up.]
MS: Can I ask whether or not you feel that you were one of the leaders in influencing public opinion in favor of Yeltsin versus Gorbachev?
Kovalev: This confrontation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev didn’t mean a lot to me. I didn’t take part in this confrontation. The other question is the young Russian parliament under the leadership of Yeltsin in many situations fought against the Soviet parliament
MS I’m lost. What did this mean to you?
Kovalev: Then at least in his declarations, the young Russian parliament was more democratic than the Soviet parliament. And I wanted to support those democratic tendencies. It was the time when the head of the Russian democratic republic — members were around Gorbachev and Russian parliament was against this Soviet power.
MS Did you not support Yeltsin when he shelled the White House?
Kovalev: That situation is not so simple. [I was not for the Supreme Soviet.???] I didn’t agree with many steps of Yeltsin but in all these conflict situations of course I didn’t support Khasbulatov at all. The day [it happened, twenty minutes before it was on TV] and said that Yeltsin was going to dissolve the parliament. I tried to reach him on the telephone and tell him not to do it. But I didn’t manage to reach him. And when there was talk already about some armed conflict and it happened at the beginning of October _____ _______________, I saw that this armed conflict was inevitable, and after the first armed steps, it was clear that it was inevitable and no peaceful treatments were here … The spring and summer of 1993 Yeltsin made a chain of tragic mistakes, but in October 1993, he could have done nothing else, only stop this armed rebellion with troops.
Apple and smartphone-friendly audio link: here