Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, human rights defender, 1930 — 2021

11.08.2021

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Sergei Kovalev

Sergei Adamovich Kovalev (2 March 1930 — 9 August 2021) died early this morning. On 2 March 2020, when human rights defender Sergei Kovalev turned 90, to mark that date our colleagues at the International Memorial Society published a biographical note about him, along with the 30 volumes of his criminal prosecution.​ 

On 2 March 2020 Sergei Adamovich Kovalev turns 90. In his life, Sergei Kovalev has had many roles: a biologist, one of the most prominent members of the human rights movement in the USSR, a political prisoner, a statesman and public figure, a political thinker, a writer and commentator, and head of the Russian Memorial Society.

To mark his birthday, we are publishing the 30 volumes of the materials of his 1975 criminal prosecution (in which Sergei Kovalev was charged with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda) along with an article about these events and a document-by-document inventory of each volume, as well as an extract from Kovalev’s memoirs on his investigation and trial. These and other materials are available on the webpage ‘Sergei Kovalev turns 90.’

All Sergei Kovalev’s civic activity can be defined in terms of three key personal characteristics: an aversion to lies and injustice, a unity of thought and action, and fearlessness in defending his views. These qualities led Kovalev, then a young biologist, to take part in the fight against the officially backed views of Trofim Lysenko and later made him a prominent figure in the civic protest movement against the persecution of dissenters. In 1969 Kovalev became a member of the country’s first independent human rights association, the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR. In 1972 he began working on the samizdat information bulletin The Chronicle of Current Events. In December 1974 Kovalev was arrested and sentenced to seven years in a camp to be followed by three years in internal exile, a sentence he served in full.

After returning to Moscow, Sergei Kovalev took an active part in the democratic initiatives of the perestroika years. On the advice of A. D. Sakharov, he stood in the 1990 elections to the RSFSR Congress of People’s Deputies. He went on to become a member of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, chair of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee and a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Subsequently, he was twice elected to the State Duma, in 1995 and 1999. 

In his work on the Human Rights Committee, Sergei Kovalev drafted and saw adopted several important pieces of legislation, in particular the Declaration on Human and Civil Rights in the Russian Federation and the Law ‘On the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression’. In addition, Kovalev played a leading part in the drafting of Chapter Two of the new Russian Constitution (‘Rights and Freedoms of the Individual and Citizen’). Following the events of October 1993, he was appointed chair of the Presidential Human Rights Commission. In 1994 the State Duma elected him the first Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation. 

Sergei Kovalev came to national and world prominence during the First Chechen War as a severe and consistent critic of the actions of federal forces in the Chechen Republic. For this criticism, in March 1995 he was dismissed as Human Rights Ombudsman by the State Duma. In the summer of 1995, Kovalev acted as an intermediary in the negotiations that secured the release of hostages seized by Chechen fighters in Budennovsk. In January 1996, Kovalev resigned as chair of the Presidential Human Rights Commission in protest over Yeltsin’s policy towards Chechnya. He was never again to hold an official position.

Sergei Kovalev is the author of a great number of articles published in the Russian and foreign press, the most important of which were brought together in his book, Мир, страна, личность [The World, the Country, the Individual] (Moscow: Izograph, 2000). He is one of the most outspoken and implacable critics of President Putin’s domestic and foreign policies.

Sergei Kovalev’s memoirs Полет белой вороны [The Flight of a White Crow] have been published in German translation (Der Flug des Weissen Raben. Berlin: Rowohlt, 1997).

Anniversary publications: Case No. 432 with an overview and inventory of all 30 volumes; memoirs; biographical note; and bibliography

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