Kovalev, Sergei

Sergei Kovalev (long-time dissident), 2008

Transcript of Interview with Sergei Kovalev
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Interpreter — Ignat Kalinin

[ Started at 8:40 ]

MS: Well I read your article in the New York Review of Books about why Putin always wins elections and I thought I would like to talk to you a bit about that.

SK: (If I write such article now, it was a very different article)

MS: Oh, really, you’d change your mind?

SK: Simply, at that time, that article was written before the so-called elections and now the central thought of the article would be question of power or the state being legitimate.

MS: You are of the opinion that this new election was not a genuine election, is that correct? You believe that this was a fraudulent election?

SK: (I have) no doubt that if, by some other…, by some miracle, those elections , the parliamentary elections of second of December, were held in a legitimate way that Edinaya Rossiya Party would won; it would sure won, no problem. But the problem is that the point of the whole thing is that those elections were legitimate.

MS: Yes, someone said in my presence that someone had estimated 14 million votes were cheated, fraudulent. I don’t know where she got that estimate.

SK: It probably does not matter how much of those __________ were fraudulent, yes. Probably in central part of Russia, there wasn’t that much fraud at all, if we’re talking about votes that were just signed, the bulletins that were signed by someone else, yes, not all the other aspects of how elections were held. On North Caucasus, the situation was not the same. You could even not open the boxes after elections because the results were written in a day or two before the elections were held. In the old North Caucasus republics, for example, in Chechnya, ninety-nine and a half percent population officially visited the polls, and Edinaya Rossiya received 99.4 percent of the votes. And so there were eleven parties that participated in the elections and that mean that like one thousandth of a percent would be given for each other party.

One hundredth…

MS: One hundred percent out of the…

IK: One hundredth percent

MS: One hundredth

IK: 0.01 percent would given ___ for any other party but Edinaya Rossiya, so any thinking person wouldn’t believe this right?

MS: Certainly not

SK: [Russian]

MS: Why would anybody do anything so silly?

SK: All our highest officials, each one of them, they defended those results as true.

Former president Putin, it’s a minister of _________, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the chairman of Central Election Committee, Churov, for everyone of those they said that those results are true.

MS: It is so stupid to do something that is so obviously fraudulent. Why couldn’t they make it just a little? Why didn’t they cheat just a little?

SK: The question is very good but let’s focus on something else. Why would the normal person in our general life, why would a normal person lie? Why would he do this?

Well, people lie to cheat someone.

The lies that comes out of our officials, of highest-ranking officials, can’t fool anyone and they know this but they still do this.

Even the hottest supporters, the most heart-full supporters of Edinaya Rossiya, know that Putin lies when he believes the Chechen results of those elections.

And Putin himself knows that no one believes him.

Why then lie?

MS: I don’t know

SK: (I think) that probably this is a ritual to show that herd is loyal to shepherd.

The other side of the question is that why don’t they care that West wouldn’t say anything against this. The reason is clear that those people are very cynical, our officials, very cynical and they know that West wouldn’t say anything against them because they are the masters of the oil pipe.

Our cynical former KGB workers, they been cynical, they don’t really care what people would think about, what Bush or America or Sarkozy or Brown would think about them. What they care for is what they would dare to say.

MS: In your article, you avoided certain questions that I want to go a little bit off the topic. You were on the commission that looked into the bombing of the apartment building, I believe, because I read the book by Litvinenko and this (what’s his name – starts with an F) [LATER: FELSHTINSKY] and there was a passage at the back where you were questioning them. But in your article in the New York Review, you said this is not the place to discuss that. Do you have any conclusion of your own about who was responsible for that bombing?

SK: First of all, about the book of Litvinenko and Felshtinsky, that probably this book is not very accurate and sometimes even they have mistakes, and probably no one has enough proof to say that those houses were bombed by FSB.

Then about the conclusions of that work ____________…

The conclusion doesn’t have any proof as well, because probably no civil committee, no civil body, can get their hands on that kind of proof.

It was pretty predictable and they never hoped, in the beginning, that they could they could get any proof that can be used.

Well, _________ committee can’t do much. They can’t interview people under the oath, you know. They can’t get any kind of documents and be sure that they will receive them. They can ask for them but probably those are classified; they won’t receive it. They can’t even point person that being interviewed by the committee that the words, if they are not true, they can be punishable.

So in the end, they’ve got what they hoped for. The whole committee was to get the reaction of power, presumably Putin and so on, to see his reaction on their requests and their questions and so on. It was about to see the reaction, not to get the proof.

(I am) sure that civil society, ________ of civil society, not only has right to not trust power in that kind of cases and to ask from power and to request power, and he’s the highest power, to have answers on that kind of case but he’s obliged to do so.

Those bombings turned out to be very powerful electoral factor for Putin.

Because if that kind of thoughts on the power would turn out to be true that would be very fearful to live in such country where power can do such things.

So the only way the power can deny such accusations is to set its own investigation very clear, very transparent investigation, that would be actually the official denial…

MS: What was the source of the authorization for the committee that you were on? Who directed you to do this investigation?

SK: (I myself)

MS: Oh, you did it without authorization?

SK: Yes

So in Duma, at least three times there was that question to set up our elementary investigation on that topic but each three times Duma declined.

MS: So this was a private activity not mandated by parliament, by the Duma?

IK: Yes, yes.

SK: Few deputies were in that committee at that time, _________________ which was a deputy himself, and was created by an initiative of Sergei Yushenkov who is now killed.

So what tools they used was actually request to some official bodies first of all, FSB and [some other?] _____, that’s the main tool they used.

So the main result of the committee’s work and all of the requests, there were three kinds of replies on the requests. First, one was just some mumbling that doesn’t show anything interesting there; it was just something abstract. The other group of requests, silence was the reply, and third was the clear lies.

Two times, (I) went to court, (I) sued the bodies that denied (me) information but of course, (I) lost the case.

The main result, the main conclusion of the committee, is that power doesn’t want to investigate or take part in anything in the ________.

So (we) still think that power has something to do with it but we can’t get any proof.

There is, except for bombings in Moscow, there was [Ryazan?] bombing, well you know, you’ve read the book yes, and (we) have proof that there was no war games taking place at the same time because the officials explained what happened with war games, you know , and that’s something that… And (we) have proof that there were nothing like that.

MS: You said that of course it had a big impact on the election. My assumption then, and I have to go beyond what you’ve said, is that the whole activity, if Putin was involved or his people were involved in these bombings, it would have been to help promote another war in Chechnya and that war mentality would have favoured his election. And I presume that the logic that people are attributing to him is that this would have been the factor making it most likely for him to be elected.

IK: And so the question?

MS: I guess to mind I wonder whether there is absolute proof that the intention would have been to exacerbate a war mentality and a desire for war against Chechnya because this would get him elected.

IK: What is the question? You know it’s clear what you’re asking …

MS: I assume that everybody thinks that if he did it, he did it in order to get people wanting a war. And if they wanted a war then they would elect him and that would be the reason behind doing this, if he did it.

SK: Yes

MS: That’s it. I take it … You article…

SK: The only proof is that when Putin was appointed Prime Minister in summer 1999 nobody knew who he was.

Before this, he was ________________, he was head of FSB, yes, director, and before that he was assistant to [Sobchak?], nobody knew who he was. His ratings were very low and when they skyrocketed, it just coincides, you can check the timeline, it coincides when he started the second war.


MS: In your article, you were very pessimistic. You felt that at the present, and for a long time maybe, there is no obvious way to create democracy here given the situation with Putin. And yesterday or the day before, I had visit with Ludmila Alekseeva who is far more optimistic than you are, and if I can summarize it, it is that she seems to feel there is going to be democracy as people get over the traumatic memories and psychological disturbances that came from Russia’s long and terrible history. When you talk with her about these issues, do you actually disagree as much as that would appear and if so how do you discuss this question of pessimism versus optimism?

SK: (I don’t) know what Alekseeva optimism is built on but (I don’t) think (my) position is completely [black?] pessimism.

(My) point of view is very simple. First point, our power is not legitimate.

It’s not even because there are no more elections in…

Non-legitimacy was evident even before the last parliamentary elections.

Power that destroyed all the fundamental principles on which constitution is built cannot be legitimate no matter how many people supports it, still non-legitimate.

The interesting point is that during all of our history, we lived with that kind of power all the time.

The Soviet power wasn’t legitimate.

And by the way, much more violent.

Hardly in Soviet Union, we could have talked…

Probably in Toronto.

But (I) was _____________ Toronto. [laugh]

So what? Does it mean that we are supposed to live like this as our history lines us, yes, channels us to do? Mostly it depends on us.

Well, (my) optimism quite distant in time and probably not that brave that of Alekseeva’s, but still we have a very similar case. Not far away from our time is the history of revolutions in Eastern Europe.

(I) understand that it’s really harder for Russia to go through under that kind of revolution, how much it’s harder than for Poland or Czechoslovakia in the end of the eighties.

MS: Because why? Why is it harder for Russia?

SK: First reason is that Soviet satellites, everyone that were members of Warsaw Pact and so on, they were oppressed, yes, by actually occupant forces. They were national __________.

And no one occupied us.

MS: Alekseeva said the same thing.

SK: And the second reason is at the time they invade is when those countries had the rise of the revolutionary movement; people there still remember the bourgeois, the …

Maximum, one generation divided them from the ________.

And we never had freedom ourselves and even before 1917… ____________ of the communist radicals.

IK: I pointed out that the difference that Ludmila Alekseeva thinks that before 1917, we were actually free. And he says no, we had small [vague?] experience probably by 1913 before the war started. For example, Stolypin was known for his, not only for his reforms, but actually for train cars that all twentieth century were used to take prisoners to Siberia and he designed this and the thing called Stolypin’s Tie which actually is ______.

MS: I understand… Oh, sorry.

SK: For sure, in ________ time ___________ was imprisoned; he was sent into inner exile from where he could run away quite easily and where he received money from his family.

Nevertheless, all our history we lived in totalitarian state.

MS: In your article… Well I assume that all dissidents believe that democracy must or should come only from bottom up, that the people must demand democracy and that actually there were other people in the government and in the institutes and so on who kept working for democracy in the system without being dissidents. My sense is that your pessimism is that this kind of democratic demand or claim for democracy as in Eastern Europe is harder now because of the power of the government, and I think maybe you agree with Ludmila Alekseeva that it’s going to be a long time before this can happen. Is that right?

Do you agree that it will be a long time before the Russian public will be able to see its need for democracy and demand it and that only then will real democracy come here?

SK: For sure, now demand for democracy is much less than…

And those who call themselves democrats at that time are to blame for this.

MS: How so?

SK: It’s not only Yeltsin, Chubais, and Gaidar are to blame for this but those who call themselves democrats.

The end of the twentieth century showed us a little miracle. Until eighties, it was commonly assumed that dictature of communist party didn’t need any recognition from the nation that supported it. It didn’t need any support; it was self-sufficient.

And it turned out to be that it’s wrong.

That even the Soviet power actually needs support from the public.

And when active and enterprising members of communist party felt that kind of change, most of them in just one hour they turned out to be anti-communists.

So only very stupid communists were trying to held back …

All those who were a bit smarter said they are democrats and the people believed them.

And the elections of 1989 and 1990, although they were not perfect at all and there were a lot of mistakes made, those were actually real power-giving processes.

And those people who said that they are democrats and those who made the crowd believe they are democrats, they became power.

MS: Who were the people?

SK: Yeltsin

Until August 1991, Yeltsin and people who supported him, those so-called democrats, they actually tried to reform Russia. They did work on this of course. Yeltsin, mostly, he spent his time fighting Gorbachev, but, nevertheless, they tried to do something to reform Russia.

September 1991 was a tragic term. At that time, after the coup d’état, a group of people, an initiative group of people including [Sergei Adamovich], (we) addressed Yeltsin to call for a larger parliament. If you remember, we had two-step parliament, one was acting all the time, and the other was to be summoned each time…

It was two-step; they were supposed to be summoned when it’s needed but not less than once in two years. (We’d) asked him, Yeltsin, to summon the high parliament and to accept a new constitution. (We) had a project, very good clear, very constitution that would grant Russia really clear democratic power that would actually help it survive. And Yeltsin said no, time works for us. And went off celebrating, went off on vacation to celebrate — meaning playing tennis and drinking vodka.

MS: That’s when he made the deal with the other two guys, or not?

IK: Probably a bit later. They made a deal in two months.


SK: (I) cannot say what Yeltsin was thinking about at that time. But intuition told Yeltsin at that moment that this is something strange. What is this transparent politics? What is it? I never knew this. I don’t know who I’m going to play with this transparent politics and so on. At that time, Yeltsin had like four or five people around him who was the …

But most of them were pretty equal, more than four, or five, but most of them were pretty equal, that so-called inner circle, the people who were making actually politics, the people who were close to the central figure in Russia, yes, and they called themselves democrats. And pretty much the same time, Yegor Gaidar cabinet, the government administration was gathered and being market liberal, being very anti-Marxist in his views on economics and so on and so on, he still shared one mistake that had Marxist theory – that the basis, the economics will actually formulate everything else – the government, the religion and so on. And he thought that way, and he felt as soon as we get free market, we’ll get a democracy, and that has turned out to be wrong. But he wasn’t in politics. He was making real things and politics was that group around Yeltsin.

So this cynical, not very smart but very lusty for money – greedy inner circle, they began shaping Russian politics and they called themselves democrats. And they are to blame for that switch which came into popular opinion about democracy.

MS: There has been a study… You know there’s Freedom House in the United States that does, every year, a study of all the countries in the world and measures them on a seven-point scale as to whether they are very free, or not free, or sort of partly free or so on. And there’s a study that finds that in the transitions to democracy, for the last thirty-three years, there have been sixty-seven countries that have become democratic, at least for a while. Of those, forty-eight percent were led from the bottom up, civil movements, and those democracies that were led by civil movements have a much better rate of succeeding and remaining democratic five years or more later on. But where you mentioned Eastern Europe, they obviously had movements in the street; they claimed their own democracy. But the democratic elections that you saw in eighty-nine and ninety, which were, you say democratic and I think it was…, I believe that Russia was becoming democratic, or the Soviet Union was, that was given from above. That was given from Gorbachev and not claimed by movements of popular demand, which would explain to me why Russia did not keep its democracy. Can you comment on that?

IK: Solidarnosc is probably one of the civil…

MS: Yes, or Czech Republic or…

IK: I’m mostly clearing this for myself so…

SK: ( I ) pretty much agree on what you said, but those were supposed to be the builders of perestroika, Gorbachev, Yakovlev and Shevardnadze. When they started the whole thing, they didn’t think about democracy, actually. They thought that USSR actually lost everything, lost the arms race, we also lost the Cold War, and they were facing economical collapse, not any crisis but a collapse, complete economic collapse of the Soviet Union. So what they began, what they tried, is being reforming not the country itself to communicate with the West because the only way to avoid the collapse is being friends with the West. What they tried to do is not reforming the country but reforming the party, the communist party, and keeping its power over the whole Soviet Union.

( I ) can prove (my) point of view but there’s probably no need if you remember the fight against the six article of constitution about the…

MS: Communist party

SK: Because Gorbachev and Yakovlev were fighting to keep it very hard and Sakharov was fighting to abolish it and so on. Probably Yakovlev would have thought that yes, this country will have democracy at some future [like?] twenty-five, thirty years. But before this, they want to keep the party and make it more human-like, more flexible, more smart , and so on and so on. The question is why couldn’t they do the thing, what they wanted to do, right, without being [fakely?] humbled. Dissidents play a great role in what happened because they shifted the tension of West, of everything, to the Soviet Union and because of the [out?] oppression on Soviet government, they didn’t succeed, for example in this fight about six article.

(I) remember the words of Sakharov who said that my country needs support and pressure. And that time, the six articles were abolished and reformers were, very hastily, they were making to create the party, party of Zhirinovsky was the first one, but the first one those were with the fake under control parties. They tried to do that kind of thing. So it was the first and only one, probably.

MS: The fake communist successor.

IK: No, I don’t think so.

SK: It’s not the successor but it’s a fake position, you know. It’s called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and it’s not a party because it’s governed by a single person. It’s not liberal and it’s not democratic.

MS: OK. But I don’t know whether you disagreed with me when I said that actually, in so far as Russia had for a time something like a democracy, that it was given from above. You were suggesting that because dissidents had some real influence that perhaps I’m wrong in saying that the democracy was given from above. How should I understand your meaning?

SK: I thought it’s from bottom or from up, from Gorbachev or from dissidents – from the inner…, from the side.

MS: Oh, you mean foreign pressure.

IK: Yes

MS: From the Unites States, et cetera?

SK: (Not only United States but President Carter, of course, and President…)

It’s a complex of all these things. Carter and Reagan played a big role in Russia’s history. Dissidents, their pressure, their demand, could be eliminated very easily.

Gorbachev, he didn’t move the country towards democracy. He moved towards economical partnership with West to receive grants and credits from West but it was he and the top of communist party who would use this money, who would channel this and not democracy, not people.

Dissidents, they had one last channel, one last tool, that actually played… It was very small but actually, it was the main one, turned out to be the best one because it was the appeal towards a popular opinion on the West. And on the West, popular opinion stimulated their leaders.

The first… Yes, the side-wards pressure turned out to be the very important one and it moved, shaped how things will go further. But at the first, that pressure was regarded in Russia, in USSR and Russians’ popular opinion, very good and people thought that as soon as there will be democracy, there will be freedom and then it means that communists will be eliminated, not eliminated but thrown out of the [history’s?] board, and it will be freedom and sausage.

MS: And sausage. OK. [laugh]

SK: After that happened, people who called themselves democrats, they started the privatization process and yes, crowd in the street has received the sausage but they didn’t have any money to buy the sausage. And at the same time, billions were raised by few people, you know. And where have you seen it that if a person start a business and then in three months he already counts his money by millions and so on? And they start, all our oligarchs – so-called oligarchs, our billionaires started at that time and Russian people, they don’t like rich. Rich are always conceived as something really unpleasant.

(I want) to say about (my) second source of (my) optimism. It is Western popular opinion, actually, that now it is sleeping and it’s been sleeping for some time and it is still sleeping, but probably it will wake up and…

MS: Here?

IK: No

MS: In the west?

IK: In the west, yes.

MS: Public opinion about what?

IK: About Russia.

MS: About Russia. Western public opinion is not as favourable to Russia as it was?

IK: It’s not about favourable but there is not much interest in it; that is the thing.

SK: We are much more… We are major factor. We are much interest towards USA because without us – we’re connected very tightly – without us there wouldn’t be Saddam Hussein. Without us, without USSR, acting and playing the Cold War game and so on there wouldn’t be a Palestinian terrorist. So there wouldn’t be Al Qaida, or Taliban or something. We are competitional centre, you know, [central?] USA and we are the competition. USA competes with the all other world but we are the centre of this competition.

MS: That’s new to me. That’s not an idea that I can… Well you may be right but it’s not something I’ve thought about and I’m not aware of that, of Russia as being crucial to Saddam Hussein and all of these things.

IK: But it was. Saddam Hussein’s regime was created in antagonism towards the socialist movement that was spread by Russia. It’s history actually.

MS: So it is a fact you say. I should just wise up. [laugh] I don’t know these things. Okay, I won’t argue with you. Yet you did sound, and I think you still sound… Wait a minute; finish this, just a minute because you said this is the second reason for his optimism. I don’t hear any optimism there. Where is the optimism in that comment? What do you mean is optimistic about that?

IK: Popular opinion will wake up again and West will focus on Russia, and it will be…, people will begin thinking again about Russia not being democratic and not being friendly and so on.


IK: That is the point.

MS: Okay, then I guess I’m your best hope because I’m very interested in Russia and I live in North America and I’ve never stopped being pre-occupied with Russian democracy. But what I want to maybe finish with because I’ve taken a lot of your time, you did sound pessimistic in your article and I wonder since you don’t see any…, well, let me back up. I think you would like to see more happen in Russia like in Eastern Europe, the miracle of Eastern Europe of 1989, you want that to happen here.

SK: What (I) want is a very small miracle, ______ large but small for a miracle, that with the help of West in Russia, they would create a critical mass of people who understands that democracy is not about ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’…

Do you know what is critical mass?

MS: Yes, yes. In physics…

SK: In nuclear …

MS: Yes

SK: So this critical mass to be created that would understand that it’s not ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ but very boring procedure that’s just supposed to happen and that is it. And after this, any miracle like an Charter 77 or something in East Europe can happen.

MS: And you want it to happen?

SK: Yes

If it happens, then great possibilities open because Russia actually, with the Soviet Union, that system, infected the whole world with very bad germ called realpolitik, politikreal, yes, when they do things. Nevertheless, all the best minds of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Sakharov and so on, they were talking. They proposed the new political party, yes, the new political system and it’s very simple. It’s set in the preamble to United Nations Charter. It’s saying that law is above politics. And every politics state that but nobody follows it because it’s politikreal. So the end, there is a difference, the difference between professional and [new by?], green workers or something. The difference is that professional, he knows what’s possible and what is not. And newbie…

MS: He said dilettante.

IK: Dilettante

MS: Yes. I understand him…

IK: Yeah, you can use this word.

SK: So dilettante doesn’t know this. And if Russia would be reformed that way, (I) still think it can happen with that critical mass of people thinking that democracy is a boring procedure. Being a dilettante, it can go higher than a possible level thus pushing democracy, pushing old world towards the new political thinking where law is above politics.

MS: Beautiful. [laugh] I want to contribute to that. Now if you were…, let me… I almost pray that I can contribute to that. But just the last thing, if you were his age now, what would you do? Because it sounds as if, now, one has to wait because there is no opportunity really for democracy. And if you were a Russian living here who wanted freedom, wanted democracy, but lived under Putin and Medvedev, what would you do now?

SK: If (I) was his age, (I) would have try to get experience and education as being propagandist and organizer, trying to create something like [Koskor?]…

MS: Like what?

IK: [Koskort?]

SK: [Koskor?] (Russian)

MS: In Poland? OK

SK: Committee of Social Defence and Committee for Working Defence. They learned Solidarnosc to be a political movement.

MS: KOR we would have called it.

IK: Yeah.

SK: (I) would try to create something like this and, sooner or later, (my) actions would be noticed by power, by government, not by power mostly yes, and (I) wouldn’t be shouting (my) entrance next to (my) door. And that would be the end of (my) biography. And it’s pretty easy to make it look like that was skinheads that shot (me), right. What would be much better, much interesting that people that don’t get shot that easily at their entrances and that wait more, they would do something in this way. In our history, we had only one rebel, academician Sakharov, and there are more than thousands of them, more than thousand of academicians and what are they doing? Well, for example, there is Russian Academy of Natural Sciences and months or something like this ago, they elected Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya, as being member of their academy. You know he doesn’t have any education, he has bandit past and he’s…

MS: So why did they do that?

IK: Who knows? Maybe they were paid, maybe they…

MS: That can’t be that they’re trying to…

SK: (I) recite one of the Russian poets in the very literature: ‘the urge of one person to lie in front of the other on its belly is indestructible, that urge’.

MS: So has he given you an answer, what he would do? He says…

IK: You heard him?

MS: That he would be shot; he would do things that would get him killed.

IK: Let me finish translating here first.


SK: That would be much better if they tried to create the critical mass themselves, to create a centre for which, a core right, for which that critical mass would grow. (I) think it’s less than ten percent, maybe five percent of population that is interested and that has that kind of thinking mentality that would be the critical mass.

MS: And what you would be doing as a young man now would be to create that critical mass but it would be a very dangerous thing for you to do.


MS: I would like to go anyway. I should not take more of your time

And you would get shot?

SK: [laugh] I’m telling what, for example Yeltsin, about the way he behaves… You better not try to imitate self-burning ________. It’s not a good thing.

MS: No [laugh]. You know I should stop now. I wish I could spend a year here listening to you but I have used two hours of your very generous time and I think I should stop but I am immensely grateful to you.

Do we have his email?

IK: Yes.

Audio file

Apple and smartphone-friendly audio link: here

See also
Sergei Kovalev (leading dissident), 1997

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books