Alone among Soviet dissidents of the Leonid Brezhnev years, Sergei Kovalev, who has died aged 91, went on to play a major role in the eras of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, only to find that his outspoken support for human rights put him once again in opposition to the Russian government.
Kovalev had already sacrificed a scientific career in the late 1960s to speak out against the Soviet state’s abuse of human rights and was one of the leading campaigners to be imprisoned under Brezhnev. Appointed against strong opposition as chairman of the Russian parliament’s human rights commission in 1990, and human rights ombudsman in 1994, he was forced to resign following a series of brave and damning reports from Chechnya in 1995. A quiet, almost self-effacing man, he became the hero of the internal opposition to the genocidal war.
Born in Seredina-Buda, in north-eastern Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, Sergei was the younger of two sons of Irena (nee Makarenko) and Adam Kovalev, who had worked in the railway organisation in Belarus, also then in the Soviet Union. When he was young the family moved to the Podlipki district, near Moscow.
Kovalev belonged to a generation that experienced the atmosphere of Stalin’s purges in childhood and was at school during the wartime deprivations. He showed an early brilliance in biology, studying physiology at Moscow State University (1951-59) and gaining a doctorate (1964) in mathematical biology and electrophysiology, subjects of great importance in heart research. He went on to teach there, publishing more than 60 scientific and medical papers.
However, by the end of the decade Kovalev had turned his attention away from cardiology and voluntarily begun to examine the well-being of humanity and the reform of society. In 1969 he left his university post and became a founding member of Andrei Sakharov’s Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights. In this capacity, and following Sakharov’s example, he looked at the integral context of individual rights, not least from the legal standpoint. Though there were only a few hundred dissidents, their moral stance helped toll the death-knell of communism.
Kovalev became editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, detailing state repression. In 1974 he tried, unsuccessfully, to set up the first Soviet group of Amnesty International, with the aim of adopting political prisoners in other countries. He publicised protest hunger strikes in the Perm and Mordovian labour camps and signed appeals on behalf of such high-profile victims of persecution as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky. In December 1974 he co-authored with Sakharov an address to the world on human rights.
By this time Kovalev was involved in a number of specific issues, most significantly the right to self-determination of certain national minorities. He defended both the Crimean Tatars, exiled from their homeland, and the Lithuanians, seeking the right to religious liberty on their own territory.
In December 1974 the KGB searched Kovalev’s Moscow flat, found a copy of the clandestine Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church and used this as a pretext to fly him to Vilnius for investigation and trial. His imprisonment there for almost a year had its peculiarities and rebounded on his persecutors in an unexpected way.
As a transcript of his trial in December 1975, secretly made by a sympathiser, eventually showed, the Lithuanian aspect of the activities for which he stood trial formed only a minor part of his indictment. Clearly the authorities had hoped that removing Kovalev from Moscow would deflect international attention.
The ploy did not work. Sakharov travelled from Moscow to Vilnius at the very time he should have been in Oslo to receive the Nobel peace prize, only to be refused entry to the trial. Given an expensive bouquet (it was mid-winter) by a Lithuanian woman, he said: “These flowers would be more appropriate for my friend Sergei Kovalev. He struggles and suffers more for your rights than I do.”
And so Kovalev received a sentence of 10 years, seven in a labour camp plus three in exile. He became a hero in Lithuania, a factor that persuaded Lithuanians that their cause was supported in Russia.
Denied the right of correspondence and to family visits, Kovalev, imprisoned in the notorious Perm Camp 36, went on hunger strike. The resulting international furore persuaded the authorities to make some concessions, fearing, too, that illness (severe haemorrhoidal bleeding) might lead to his martyrdom in the Lithuanian cause. More punishment followed for celebrating Christmas and Easter. However, groups he had defended, including Jewish and Ukrainian human rights activists, appealed to world public opinion for his release. In 1979 his son, Ivan, wrote an extended account of his father’s experiences and in 1982 was himself imprisoned.
Exile in Kolyma, in the Russian far east, came to an end in 1984, and the following year Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union as general secretary of the Communist party. Elected to the Russian parliament in 1990 – he remained in what became the state duma until 2003 – Kovalev was controversially proposed as chairman of the human rights commission. Only Yeltsin’s insistence on a formal vote rather than a show of hands secured his election.
Despite much factional strife on human rights issues, Kovalev carried out his tasks with vigour, notably visiting Chistopol prison, in Tatarstan, in 1990. He also visited his own former prison camp in the Perm complex.
At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved, Gorbachev resigned as president and Yeltsin became leader of the new Russia, which wanted to retain control of Chechnya. From the end of 1994 Russian troops were openly involved in the first Chechen war, and Kovalev’s reporting from Chechnya during the initial disastrous weeks of the campaign led to his breach with Yeltsin. In 1995 an international jury including Václav Havel awarded him the Nuremburg human rights prize.
Once again in opposition to the Russian government, Kovalev continued to criticise Yeltsin’s rule. In September 1996, in the aftermath of the presidential elections, Kovalev wrote an open letter protesting at the failure to keep election promises and denouncing the unconstitutional presidential decree giving the police broad new powers to combat crime: “Your policies today will revive a state where inequality will flourish. You are recreating the swamp of Stalinism and Brezhnevism, only now communist phrases have been changed to anti-communist rhetoric.”
Though he continued to monitor the situation after Putin took over at the turn of the century, Kovalev found it difficult to gain access to media outlets controlled by the state or sympathetic oligarchs. His attempt in 2002 to initiate a public inquiry into the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999, which increased tensions at the start of the second Chechen war, came to nothing when two of its participants were apparently assassinated.
In 2009 he and two colleagues from the organisation Memorial were awarded the European parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, and five years later he criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ivan was the son of his first marriage, to Elena Tokareva. With his second wife, Ludmilla Boitseva, he had two daughters, Maria and Varvara.
• Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, biologist and human rights activist, born 2 March 1930; died 9 August 2021
• Michael Bourdeaux died in March 2021