Sergei Kovalev, dissident who faced Yeltsin and Putin, dies at the age of 91 | Russia

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A pioneering Soviet dissident who was sent to a prison camp for his human rights campaign and clashed with Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin over Russia’s democratic setback has died at the age of 91 years old.

Soviet abuse of power columnist Sergei Kovalev co-founded the Soviet Union’s first independent public human rights group in 1969 and then spent seven years in the infamous Perm camp 36, before returning in Moscow in 1986 only on the orders of Mikhail Gorbachev. .

After the fall of the Soviet Union, he became the first Russian commissioner for human rights, blasted Yeltsin for the carpet bombing of Grozny during the First Chechen War and later found himself in opposition to Putin.

In a dramatic episode, he conducted direct negotiations with Chechen militants led by Shamil Basayev during the hostage crisis at the Budyonnovsk hospital in 1995 in Russia’s North Caucasus. Ultimately, at least 129 people were killed in the incident after a botched commando raid.

His son wrote in a social media post that Kovalev died early Monday morning “in his sleep”.

“Sergei will be missed in every way: as a beloved old friend, a fearless ally, an intellectual and an advisor, faithful to the idea of ​​human rights always and in all, in war and in the days of work, in politics and in everyday life, “Memorial, the human rights organization Kovalev helped found in 1990, wrote in a statement.

Sergei Kovalev, center, at a demonstration against the Chechen war in Moscow in 1995. Photograph: Georges DeKeerle / Sygma / Getty Images

Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization, was named a “foreign agent” in 2013 as Russia exerted greater pressure on independent human rights defenders such as Kovalev.

A biologist by training, Kovalev came under the wrath of the KGB in 1956 by rejecting the theory of genetics officially recognized by the Soviet government in an open letter. He became a public dissident in the late 1960s, co-founding the Human Rights Action Group in 1969. He was also editor-in-chief of Chronicle of Current Events, a major samizdat publication that has disseminated powerful essays and reports on mock trials. and other human rights violations in the Soviet Union.

In 1974 he was sentenced to seven years in Perm 36 for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and was subsequently exiled to Kolyma, in far eastern Russia, for another three years. Exiled permanently from Moscow, his return required an official decree from Gorbachev in 1986 when he introduced the period of glasnost.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kovalev helped found Memorial and became a senior official, both as Russia’s human rights commissioner and as a deputy in the Duma. He notably clashed with Yeltsin over the bombardment of Grozny, saying that “only you are able to stop this senseless war”.

He was also very critical of Putin, wisely predicting the democratic setback that would take place in Russia in the days following his promotion to the presidency.

“I believe Vladimir Putin is the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history,” he wrote in a 2007 essay for the New York Review of Books. “From the start of his reign, he led – and almost completed – a broad undemocratic counterrevolution in Russia. “


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