‘Soviet propaganda abroad was always highly successful’ Meduza speaks to renowned human rights activist and chair of the Memorial society, Sergei Kovalev
Renowned human rights activist and chair of the Memorial society, Sergei Kovalev, called Russia an “Orwellian world” at a summer 2015 meeting in defense of the Dinastiya foundaton (a non-governmental organization that supported science and education that was closed in June, after being declared a “foreign agent”). At his 85th birthday last spring, Kovalev devoted an entire lecture to the “danger of patriotism.” The former Soviet dissident has spoken out against a proposal to return a monument to Feliks Dzerzhinsky to the front of the federal police headquarters at Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, saying it would mark the return of “the sovok” (using a Russian term for "dust pan" that's commonly applied as a pejorative for people nostalgic for the USSR). In an interview with Meduza's special correspondent Ilya Azar, Kovalev explained how patriotism arises “from the basis of our genome” and why Soviet foreign propaganda was always highly successful.
How do you feel about the idea for a referendum on returning the Dzerzhinsky monument to Lubyanka? Is it a symbol of the restoration of the past?
I don’t know what it means to them [the referendum’s proponents in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation]. I don’t think it means very much. Our authorities have not strayed far from the criminal mileu; it is no accident that from the very outset [of the Soviet justice system], criminals were declared social allies while the intelligentsia were social outcasts. It’s a symbol of loyalty that everybody votes. Maybe they will decide that this monument isn’t necessary, that just getting lots of votes is what's important. Actually, on the whole, this is trivial. It's disgusting, but it's trivial. It is probably likely that people will vote for the reinstallation of the Dzerzhinsky monument. Does that mean something? I think it does. You can see all the hysterical frenzy, crudely and cynically cooked up by the television, and by the authorities. This is very dangerous.
What's the danger?
I remember the invasion of Soviet and satellite troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Back then, no voting was conducted—rather they gathered people from each institution, recited texts about assistance to a fraternal people who were in peril, who might turn from the path to socialism, and in the overwhelming number of instances all gathered and raised their hands in unison. Those who didn’t want to participate excused themselves with some sort of work or cited a medical condition, so as not to show up. But they were very few.
In the first days after that intervention, I had to go for a month—month and a half—to Kazakhstan, on a hunting and fishing trip. There are shepherds who graze their sheep, and some fishermen, in a little aul (Central Asian village) called Ucharal. I didn’t encounter a single person who didn't start a conversation by saying “They did it right,” “Fascism is on the way,” “The Germans are just about ready to invade.” I said to them, “Here you are living in your house, and I don’t like how you have your furniture arranged. I come over and start to take charge. Would you like that?” After the conversation in the overwhelming majority of cases, even if they didn’t agree with me, then at least they began to waver.
I think that now it's not easy to shake those 86 percent [the segment of the Russian population who say they support Moscow's foreign policy], because hysteria has been aroused, especially by our so-called journalists. And not only by them. Someone like Oleg Tabakov [a Russian actor and director who has been outspoken in support of Moscow's intervention in Ukraine] is not inclined to hysteria, he is certainly not a stupid person, and he’s a wonderful artist, yet for some reason he supports Putin.
Because he’s persuaded himself that this is necessary to help the theater, since art ennobles man—but that requires [proper] conditions, work, and money. Excuse me, but this is simply prostitution—the true horizontal profession, which we've been busy performing since the Stalin era. Tabakov’s colleagues at the [popular theater] Sovremennik say: “Oh lord, isn’t this unseemly, isn’t this bad. But, after all, you know, as a party member, he helped our theater, lobbied for us with the authorities.” This is the usual manner of reasoning among our cultural elite.
They’ve recently opened a Stalin House-Museum in Tverskaia Oblast, and in the labor colony Perm-36 where you served time they’ve practically liquidated the Gulag Museum.
This is the restoration of the sovok [pejorative slang for the USSR], updated and adapted to new conditions. The circumstances are different, but the political course is certainly in that direction. It’s been chosen definitively and irrevocably. I don’t understand why they are so frightened, why they’re anticipating a “color revolution” and are so afraid of it.
Generally speaking, flare-ups of activity among the Bandar-logs, as Putin called them [a reference to Putin's comments in December 2011, when he likened protestors to the monkeys in Kipling’s The Jungle Book], made an impression that clearly hasn’t gone away. Nevertheless, I see no great danger for the current regime, and I think that their choice for confrontation, self-isolation, contention with the entire surrounding world may put off for a time their collapse. Or, perhaps, this brings it closer.
Recently it seems the regime is moving towards all but recreating the Iron Curtain, what with laws against “foreign agents,” drawing up a list of people with dual citizenship, and even banning foreign products.
And now also the list of “undesirable organizations.” The Soros Foundation [a reference to Open Society Foundations, the international grant-making network created by George Soros], for example, has almost left Russia, with just a little remaining. Soros is the man who saved Russian science, spending substantial money—many millions. My colleagues who benefited from the support of the Soros Foundation are very grateful to him.
It’s suggested, though, that his money is used to organize “color revolutions.”
He is not organizing anything, and that’s absolutely clear. He is a proponent of an open society, and it’s exactly in that sense that he’s dangerous. On the whole, the regime’s choice is catastrophic but rather logical. They are not looking for a more or less quiet solution to their problems. Putin is counting on the cowardice, pragmatism, and shortsightedness of the West. He remembers how Western cultural luminaries flocked to Moscow to see the Kremlin dreamers. And yet in the whole history of the Kremlin there’s hardly ever been a single dreamer—he’d be torn to pieces and eaten raw.
But nevertheless they came, and far from mediocre people: like Lion Feuchtwanger, one of the luminaries of world literature. Having been to the Kremlin and talked with a rather short, restrained man who was deeply concerned with his own public glorification and justified this by claiming the people were accustomed to seeking an idol, Feuchtwanger wrote the essay Moscow 1937. I think that—in addition to money—the reason was that Feuchtwanger was an anti-fascist. And while he sensed that Stalin was an anti-fascist by mere circumstance, the writer wanted to reinforce his enmity to Hitler. He considered it possible to achieve that at others’ expense.
It has to be said, Soviet propaganda abroad was always highly successful. So successful, that Albert Einstein once apologized to the Soviet Union for having been misled about reports of mass repressions.
Now the cult of the Great Patriotic War [the Russian term for World War II] is growing, but is there any other national idea, unifying all in Russia, that you think could be found?
Is it necessary to search? Is this necessary—uniting everyone? There is this wonderful idea of an open civil society. In a very democratic country— the US—there is a critical mass of people who understand where the all these strict, rigorous procedural rules of Congress come from. Every American congressman can cite that volume from memory. The average professor or doctor need not delve into various sorts of problems, as they know for certain that they live in a democratic country.
That is, the concept of civil, open society in no country becomes an idea that engages the entire masses. But it can be a state-creating idea—you could even say it's a foundational idea. And Igor Guberman has very well characterized what was written in the classics of Marxism regarding the idea that gripped the masses: “An idea thrown to the masses is a maiden thrown to a regiment.” And that is what we’re witnessing.
Does that mean that these 86 percent will transform into a meager 25 percent, if the regime were suddenly to collapse? I think they would change. That is how they were raised. I witnessed it not so long ago.
Yes. There was the Soviet Union, then came Perestroika, announced by Gorbachev. Not that much time passed, a public arose that organized the Inter-Regional Deputies’ Group [the first legal parliamentary opposition in the USSR, formed in 1989], and things moved along. First we saw how the overwhelming majority of the population sang Stalin’s praises, voted, and expressed themselves as they were told to—seemingly genuinely, too. And then we saw the hundred-thousand-strong demonstrations in the streets of Moscow. Where did they come from, where were the future “KrymNash” [an expression for the pro-government majority meaning “Crimea is ours”]?
Joseph Vissarionovich [Stalin] was a talented breeder. He was justifiably unsatisfied with the people that were his inheritance: it was all either insurrection, or profound laziness, or peasant greed. He totally succeeded in making the people he needed. To this day, we feel this in ourselves: a subservient people, a people that when gathered together are malicious but also brave, yet individually can’t do anything, aren’t worth anything, and have no face, nothing. The criteria for this selection can be found in old Soviet newspapers: statements about how a Soviet person should be. A new historical community arose: the Soviet people. This was something unifying, and it still exists to this day.
And what were the methods used by Joseph Vissarionovich? There is a method of selection, using some kind of provocation as a stimulus. If you want to breed a plant variety that is resistant to a certain illness, then you infect your experimental plots with that disease’s pathogen. The majority of the seedlings die off, many are seriously ill and wither, but some can be found that don’t react so strongly to the disease. Now you've got material for cross-breeding—for selection. What else is the Gulag but selection on the basis of provocation?
You mentioned America. Patriotism is highly developed there, flags hang everywhere, but in Russia that all looks artificial. Why?
Patriotism, alas, is a hereditary trait in each of us. Of course, it is not patriotism that’s written in our genes since patriotism is a social concept, but it arises on the basis of our genome. Animal life, in harsh conditions of survival struggle, is designed so that dividing all the world into "us and them" is existentially important. Without this, you’ll be devoured, but if you are able to do this maybe you’ll devour the other. Such are the conditions of survival. The genome also contains another, contrary property: curiosity. But there is a strict rule: there is us and there is them, protect yours and oppose others. Maybe be curious, but also be extremely careful, otherwise you'll perish. This is the behavior of a herd of antelope, a pride of lions, and a human tribe. According to some rather crude but not wholly senseless models, Cro-Magnons ate up the Neanderthals, and later all of our politics, alas, emerged after Nicolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513. All of the political principles outlined there are functioning to this day, only now it is no longer customary to say them aloud.
As far as American patriotism is concerned, it has its blossom and its scent, and it should be said that this patriotism does not contradict, but rather encourages a critical stance to power. The American patriot must know how authorities are running the country. “Be so kind as to report to me, since the next elections will come and I do not know whom I will vote for”—that’s what the American patriot says. Nevertheless, I also don’t like American patriotism, because in the mid-20th century a new subject and object of law appeared: humanity. It emerged from the nuclear threat. Many of the fathers and creators of the nuclear weapon, led by Einstein, started to reflect on the necessity of a new political paradigm, based not on national egotism, but on the needs of all humankind. Among our politicians, Andrei Sakharov took that ideology the furthest…
Who also took part in the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Right, and he did not regret this. What scientist doesn’t hope to come up with something new and complex? But Sakharov at a certain point reflected on these things and understood that super-weapons must not remain all in the same hands—they would then inevitably be used for violence. For all his political idealism, Sakharov was very grounded and understood that overcoming the temptation to conquer the world is very difficult, and there must therefore be a balance. It's precisely this balance, and nothing else, that has kept us safe from a World War III.
You're talking about an all-human counterweight to nationalism, yet even the European Union's effort to subsist on certain general principles isn’t totally working out.
The EU is making, in my view, very tentative steps in the right direction. It is becoming a substantially supranational union, without infringing upon anybody.
But Russia would be better off without patriotic ideas?
I think that our patriotism, handed down to us from Soviet patriotism, is generally a very dangerous thing for us and for the entire world. Note, among other things, the role the Great October Socialist Revolution played in the world. Lord only knows. I think, that we would have lived in another world if that revolution had turned down a more civilized road and humane path. But it was planned to transform human history.
You know what was a global problem and what remains the primary danger of the present historical era? This is, to my mind, the most important of what can be said today. Where did the Soviet Union get those six East European countries? The basic phase, shall we say, was laid out in Tehran, then in Yalta and also Potsdam. So those three international conferences handed over a significant part of Europe to Stalin—millions of Europeans whose liberation from fascism the West fought for. We're talking about America, England, France, and nominally, as it affirmed and continues to affirm, the Soviet Union. How did that come about? There were three key figures: Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, who took charge of the world at that moment, and you don’t consider Roosevelt or Churchill fools, right? This was realpolitik. They gave away millions of Europeans, in order to save several million more Europeans from the armada of Soviet tanks because that armada could have easily reached the English Channel. That wouldn’t have cost it anything.
Do the Minsk Agreements now seem to you a continuation of this?
On the whole, yes. If you look roughly at the contemporary geopolitical situation, then Putin is counting on the same things as Stalin, and earlier Lenin, who wrote in one of his works, “If we need a noose on which to hang the West, we will buy it from the West. Not to worry—they will sell it to us for a good price.” Such is the calculation of all criminal politics, and no other real politics exist, as they are all criminal.
Putin is playing nuclear blackmail. In their day, the Americans rejected doing that in order to put Stalin in his place. Our diplomats and spies are working meticulously in the West—they’re tracking what impression Russian maneuvers make in Western society, and they see that the overwhelming majority of people in the West do not approve of Russian policy in Ukraine, but folks are chickening out.
In the West, they say: you cannot touch a rat that’s driven into a corner, it’ll start to bite like crazy. But cornered or not, the rat is after all a real and very powerful reservoir for the plague, and that plague has already claimed hundreds of millions around the globe and continues to act in the world. I think that no Kremlin nuclear blackmail could be effective if the West had already made plainly clear that such games won’t pass without their cost.
Haven’t they [made it clear] though? What about the sanctions?
You know, sanctions are sanctions, but discussions of how you can’t quarrel with Russia are underway and gaining. Last year on September 1, German President Gauck said several modest but firm phrases about how you cannot indulge an aggressor. Yet you saw how many German publications went after their own president.
So what should the West do?
First off, I think that assistance to Ukraine should long since have been somewhat different. For a start, a step analogous to the Lend-Lease program. Why was Lend-Lease available to support a bandit like Stalin against another bandit, but Ukraine cannot be supported against armed pressure? Finally, there’s the Marshall Plan. In relation to Ukraine it would be nothing comparable to the Marshall Plan, carried out in broken, looted, and destroyed Europe. Ukraine is going through enormous difficulties, you need to haul it out, to do it consistently and demonstratively. After all, what in fact are the goals of Russia in Ukraine? Crimea, sure, but the strategic goal is not letting Ukraine into Europe. You don’t think that Western diplomats are in a position to work strictly and clearly against that goal? Yes, it will cost some money, and if the situation becomes particularly acute, you could even recall your ambassador. But what of 2012, after the [Russian Duma] elections of 2011, after United Russia got 99.4 percent of the votes in Chechnya and the Russian population was informed in advance who their next president would be, did any one of the Western leaders not call and congratulate Mr. Putin on his victory?
Their universal values are just following protocol.
This year almost nobody among the West's leaders came to Moscow for May 9 [Russia's WWII Victory Day celebration].
Well yes, and I applaud that, but I fear that given a serious exacerbation the situation will shift back. You understand, very few people in the world get that Russia is not a local but a global problem.
As I understand, if they accuse Russia of meddling in Ukrainian affairs, then they do not want to meddle in Russia’s internal matters.
It depends on how you meddle. In Ukraine there is direct, forceful interference of Russia, but I am definitely not calling for an intervention against Russia. This should have been considered after 1917.
There was one in a certain form.
Yes, there was one in a certain bastardized form, but an entirely other kind was needed that would not have led to territorial acquisitions, so that the Constituent Assembly [a short-lived post-revolution, elected government body] would have been only partially arrested rather than disbanded [as it was in January 1918]. So that no Dzerzhinsky, with whom our conversation today started, could have written out instructions on who and how many hostages to take among the intelligentsia, how many merchants, how many of them to shoot and at what pace.
And do you not have any qualms with the American intervention in Iraq?
I think that the intervention in Iraq came too late; it needed to be carried out during Operation Desert Storm. Excuse me, but if some head of some state not only conquers another, but also annihilates part of his own population with chemical weapons, why should this be tolerated? And if you want to tolerate this, then you have to give up on the notion that at some point the evolution of the democratic order in the world will lead to a point where such and such methods will no longer be utilized.
Ronald Reagan was absolutely right when he said that you cannot tolerate the Empire of Evil. This empire produced enough corpses, and not only at home. Second, there are international agreements that, according to our non-functioning Constitution, have a higher authority than our own laws. In several such agreements it is written in black and white that human rights are not the exclusive domestic affair of any state. First the Soviet and then the Russian signature follows below. But what can be said about humanitarian intervention, if even unarmed means of influence were never approved by the Council of Europe…
For half a year, they suspended the right [of Russia] to vote—that’s it. Even [potential action over Chechnya] drowns this out in damnable political correctness. Who came up with this nonsense? You see, the word “correctness,” just as “democracy,” tolerates no modifiers; if some epithet is added to correctness, it means this is not correctness. Correctness is accuracy, directness, and respectfulness, right?
And the Ukrainian operation in the Donbass, can it be compared with our Chechen operation?
I think not. You know, I spent a lot of time in Chechnya, but my health has not allowed me to go to Ukraine. I do not walk well. But my friends have been there, in fact, including those who were with me in Chechnya, like Oleg Orlov. A good many reproach Oleg and Sasha Cherkasov [board member of the Memorial society] for being too disengaged, that they forget about the relative strength of forces, that they forget what the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics are doing with the civilian population, how they conduct themselves with prisoners, and on whose account they’re armed—that they shouldn’t be so hard on Ukraine. But these guys have more than once established that Ukrainian armed forces used Grad rockets, that is, a weapon that is by design not intended for precise destruction of military targets. I think that there have likely been other violations.
But you spoke out against the war in Chechnya?
Yes, of course. The difference is the following. Not only in the use of such weaponry, not only in the minefields, not only in the bombardment of a peaceful city. Take, for example, cleansing operations. I myself spoke with no fewer than a hundred people who spent time in Russian filtration camps. Not a single one of them escaped the application of force. With my own eyes I saw torture, signs of burning by electrical current. I saw underground dungeons, where they held these captives until they were sent somewhere else. I saw with my own eyes a prison on wheels—comprised of an electric engine and several wagons stuffed full of detainees. I saw how the guards would sing of their atrocities. You want to say that something similar is being done by the Ukrainian army? Are they carrying out cleansing operations?
I haven’t seen Ukrainian generals, so I cannot compare. But the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republic leaders I have seen on the internet. I'm quite familiar with guys like this.
But it seems both Russia in Chechnya and Ukraine in the Donbass are restoring their territorial integrity and constitutional order.
Pardon me, there are problems in Ukraine, but the methods are completely different. The difference lies in the fact that in Chechnya we were dealing with state-organized terror. Now there has been a Chechen-ization of Chechnya, and Ramzan Kadyrov is continuing the same thing, only now with Chechen hands. And he is not even ashamed to admit to it.
I was in Chechnya all together more than a year and was there well before the storming of Grozny. I witnessed the bombardment of the peaceful city of Grozny myself. With my friend Orlov we once came to our bedroom, from which we had on multiple occasions fled to the basement's bomb shelter during Russian air raids, and on the exterior wall by the window [we found] a round hole from a rocket. This is called restoring the constitutional order? By international norms, agreed to and recognized by the Soviet Union and then by Russia, if an internal conflict arises, the state is required to declare a state of emergency.
International bodies are informed about the state of emergency, its conditions, restrictions on rights, the motivation for these specific restrictions, and the same groups get reports about measures taken in the area of the state of emergency. I do not know, how things stand with this in Ukraine. In fact, did the Kiev authorities try to declare a state of emergency there?
No, they started an Anti-Terrorist Operation.
In any case, they are in contact with international organizations and allow them to carry out observations. And how long did the separatists grant international commissions access to the wreckage of the Boeing [Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over the conflict zone]?
You are often called a Russophobe. Many think that you overall sympathize with the other side more than the Russian side.
You know, I don’t let this bother me. If they stopped cursing me, I would be surprised and reconsider whether I’m conducting myself properly. But this is not true: our mission [in Chechnya] was the kind that could only be led by an ombudsman, such as I then was [Kovalev was the Russian Ombudsman for Human Rights from 1994-1995]. Our group had only one task: the defense of the civilian population and prisoners of war, independent of their nationality. Unfortunately, it was necessary more often to advocate for the Chechnyan prisoners. I told you what conditions they found themselves in. As far as the Russians, there was a case in which a field commander called “Tractor-driver,” leading the defense not far from Bamut, declared that if the artillery bombardment, which was killing civilians, did not cease, he would start shooting prisoners. We got in contact with him and he said that, if Kovalev is asking, he wouldn't shoot them. Everything that was within our power, we did.
But you were given an Ichkerian award [from the unrecognized Chechen rebel government]?
So what? I said that while the war is ongoing, I cannot receive an award from any of the fighting sides. When the war was over, I accepted it. I consider this medal to be an honor, and I am proud of it. I see it as the gratitude of the Chechen people for our team's work. I would not have accepted the order from Basaev [Shamil Basaev, a Chechen rebel leader linked to later terrorist attacks]. But I was never and never became a partisan of the Chechen government. At the Warsaw Conference, after the war, the question of international recognition for the state status of Chechnya was raised. Who spoke out against it? A certain Mr. Kovalev! I stood up and said, “So long as sharia norms reign in place of due process in Chechnya and public executions are carried out, there can be no talk of international recognition.”
And from Putin, would you have accepted an award?
No. You know, for one, it will never be [offered], and second, were it to happen, I would say: “Thank you, Mr. President, but I will wait for different times.”
Why is that? Because we’re approaching another 1937 [the year commonly used to refer to Stalin-era mass purges]?
No, thank God, it is still completely dissimilar to 1937. God forbid. I think that if the Kremlin team is really pressed, then it may become similar. How can you know? Could anybody from our circles at the beginning of 1999 have suggested that a KGB lieutenant colonel would become our big boss? I don’t think all of the blame is on Putin. The blame is on us, the Russian intelligentsia, ten times more. Who is Putin? Even in his own field he was unable to make a good career. He sat in East Germany and looked after his own compatriots in Germany. That’s it.
After the inclusion of the Dinastiya fund on the list of “foreign agents,” it shut down operations. Do you think it was right to stop?
[The foundation’s creator] Dmitrii Borisovich [Zimin] acted completely correctly. He acted like a man of honor. You would prefer that he signed up on the list of “foreign agents”?
It's not about what I want, but maybe he could have continued helping people further.
They spat in Zimin’s face for the fact that he spent his millions here in Russia, on the publication of useful books and other things. The Dinastiya Foundation was very careful—it was not involved in any projects that the authorities labeled political. Another matter, for example, is that Dmitrii Borisovich gave me his personal money for the publication of books on the Khodorkovsky case. He gave the Sakharov Center some of his own money for various expenses.
Decent people should not tolerate such insults. In point of fact, there was no possibility of working further. We understand what would have happened then. Say you give in. Great. Now here are some state subsidies, but for this program, not that other one you want to pursue. You don't get to do that other thing. And you were wondering why social organizations [in Russia] are significantly dependent on foreign funds?
Please tell me.
The official viewpoint is because [foreign funders] give money and orders. This is deeply untrue; it's an intentional lie. It’s inconceivable to take, for example, a grant from some American foundation for election campaign activism. If Memorial took part in any previous election campaigns, they did it on their own funds. Do you understand what “agent” means in American legislation and what “agent” means in the Russian language? If you read our law carefully, you will see that it is unconstitutional. Because not only does our current, out-of-order Russian Constitution not deprive me of rights, it even considers monitoring the authorities and free discussion of their activities to be a civic duty. In normal law, this is not considered political activity. And in this law, they speak of trying to influence the state into making particular decisions. That is my right as a citizen!
Yes, I think that soldiers and weapons—however they got there—should be removed from Ukraine, and that weapons should stop being provided to the separatists. Yes, we should ensure they won’t be repressed, and that they’ll have the chance to participate in the local government, for God’s sake. Should we recommend that [Ukraine] recognize the Russian language as one of the state's officials languages? I hope to God, yes. But it should be a recommendation, not a demand.
I feel as if you want me to repent my anti-social and anti-Putin activity. That’s the objective, isn’t it?
That is definitely not my objective.
Well, thank God. We’ll see how everything turns out.