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Shame is also a force

01.11.2007    source:
Sergei Kovalev
"We were very different. Political idealism – that is simple: when engaged in politics, behave as befits a decent person. That’s all."

He says terrible things out loud. These days such words already frighten us, and we want to run from them.  He maintains that he is only speaking the truth, the pure truth, and it’s not his fault that we’re afraid and don’t want to accept it. He’ll still keep doing what he’s doing.

From a recent address given by Sergei Kovalev at a roundtable on the role of the media and civic organizations in civic society

On imitation

I am convinced that we are experiencing a global political, and to an even greater extent, legal and moral crisis. And as has often been the case in recent history, our country is the arena for - I won’t mince words - a clownish mockery and grotesque reflection of that crisis. Politicians’ hypocrisy is well-known, that’s real politics. However there is one country in this world where hypocrisy knows no limits.

We live in a country of simulation, where the government imitates everything. It’s called the Russian Federation, yet this is a lie! We imitate a federal structure. There are no federations where regional power, the power of a subject of the Federation, is designated from the centre. That contradicts the very concept of a federation as a union of equal states which have renounced certain prerogatives in favour of a common centre.  Where will you see in an independent state that anyone appoints a President or Prime Minister?

There are masses of such examples. For those involved, one main condition is important: the imitation must be credible so that exacting western partners believe it, or can pretend that they believe it. Western leaders feel able to publicly state that “Russia has not turned from the path of democracy”. When you hear such things from an American minister, the first thought is: “Is he an idiot, or something?” Yet it’s not possible that in a huge country with a great number of professionals that they could have put an idiot in a high government post. Maybe he’s been conned?  Yet then he again proves to be an idiot.  The conclusion must be that he’s lying because it suits him, whether it’s our oil he needs, or support for their position on Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s one example of the global nature of the legal crisis.

On the judiciary

The Constitution sets out the inalienable principle of the division of powers – executive, legislative and judicial. Do we need to produce arguments to demonstrate that in reality there is no division of powers? The judiciary – well we all know what is meant by “Basmanny justice” [from the name of the court in Moscow]. Court rulings are ordered just like in the old Soviet times, sometimes directly by telephone.  Sometimes they don’t need to be ordered – an astute judge understands anyway what is required of them.  That’s when a case even remotely touches on politics, like the Khodorkovsky case or numerous cases involving crimes by federal servicemen in the North Caucuses.

I could talk for hours giving hair-raising examples of such sentences. I’ll mention just one. A group of one soldiers decided to go drinking.  Tough conditions in the war, how could they not have a break?  They went to an elderly Chechen woman who sold vodka. But she didn’t have any. That so upset them that one took his rifle and began shooting at her legs.  Thank God there was a military hospital nearby, the woman was treated quickly and she didn’t suffer any serious harm. The young man was tried – for careless use of a weapon!  So he didn’t know that the thing hanging over his shoulder shoots. He was punished terribly: for a whole 6 months he was deprived of the right to be promoted.

That’s in the area of justice with any political overtones. In other areas we have a new acquisition which strongly differs from Soviet times. As far as I can recall, in Soviet days court rulings were very seldom sold. Now that happens all the time. Why is this judicial corruption on the rise?  It’s quite simple. If I, being in power, order a court ruling, I must understand and do that the person who does me this favour and issues the required sentence will compensate him or herself in other cases in purely material fashion. An obedient judge will inevitably turn into a crooked judge, a bribe-taking judge. And there are people who are well-aware of the rates.

On shame as a stimulus

It would be absolutely meaningless to talk about political opposition in the USSR of the 1960s – 1980s were it not for one circumstance. None of us then had any idea what politics was about. Indeed, what was politics?  There were no political platforms as one is accustomed to call them.

Those who began signing letters of protest, publishing things in samizdat, none of them even thought that in a country stuck in a communist Marxist bog, anything could change.

All our actions then from the point of view of realists were doomed to result in nothing. Although no, there was a result – they ended as a rule with a prison term. It seemed that that was the sole result.

What were those actions prompted by? In actual fact nothing but shame. Shame was the main motive urging people on to be active. When Sakharov was asked whether he expected change in the Soviet Union, he reflected as he always did and said: “No, in the foreseeable future, I assume that there will be no changes”. – “So why then are you doing what you’re doing?”  Everybody must do what they’re able to do. And what can the intelligentsia really do? They only know how to do one thing: build an ideal. So let them do that”. But then he thought again and said: “However the mole of History burrows unnoticeably”.

That was the single prophecy I’m aware of then regarding possible fast changes. And it came true, we would note. Yet all the others assumed, like one marvellous mathematician with regard to the Byzantine Empire decaying over 300 years. “Well, 300 years suits me fine”. We too assumed something like that period. As you understand, that’s not political calculation.

What is not to be measured by salary?

Our citizens are very pragmatic, very practical. They quite often say: “Well, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, all your electoral things. Who needs them and what for? Now salary, that’s is something, yes”.  And connected with that, you hear the hard-hitting question: “And you human rights activists, what in fact have you done?”  What we’ve done is this. We paid with our liberty so that the whole country would become different.

It’s very bad, but different – not the Soviet Union. We got the present Constitution. It’s far from faultless, but it has a second chapter and other democratic norms. We began judicial reforms and as a result Soviet judges – who in fact weren’t judges but government functionaries – got up from their knees.  Then, it’s true, they again fell and became obedient, but the very movement upwards is worth a lot. We gave our media a brief period of freedom when they said what they thought, and they thought what bore relation to reality. They made many mistakes but they weren’t under anyone’s thumb. That is also worth a great deal.

When I say “we”, don’t think I mean any specific group or party. We were very different. Political idealism – that is simple: when engaged in politics, behave as befits a decent person. That’s all.


Sergei Kovalev is Co-Chair of the Board of “Memorial” and President of the Human Rights Institute.  

The following gives some biographical information for somebody who is often called the “conscience of Russia”.

Sergei Kovalev became famous as a dissident in the 1970s and later as a politician working for human rights in post-communist Russia. Trained as a biologist, he spent much of his early career at Moscow State University. In 1969 he was dismissed for dissident activity. From 1970 to 1974 he worked in a research station.

In 1967 Kovalev became involved in human rights circles, and soon developed a close friendship with fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov. Like Sakharov, he believed in the strategy of insisting on strict application by the authorities of the existing laws, and also of working for law reform. In 1968 he was one of the anonymous founders and editors of the samizdat (typewritten self-published) journal A Chronicle of Current Events, which documented violations of human rights and circulated covertly from hand to hand. In 1969 he was a founding member of the Action Group to Defend Civil Rights in the USSR.

In 1974 he was arrested and eventually tried in closed court. Sentenced to seven years in a strict-regime labor camp, he served his whole term, taking part in numerous protests and hunger strikes by prisoners. On his release he was forced to live from 1984 to 1987 in the remote town of Kalinin.

In the late 1980s Kovalev took part in various initiatives aimed at creating a civil society. In 1990 he was elected on a Democratic Russia ticket to the RSFSR’s Congress of People’s Deputies and its Supreme Soviet. He chaired the latter’s Human Rights Committee, which passed important legislation on refugees, citizenship, procedures for emergency rule, the exculpation of political prisoners, and parliamentary supervision of the security services.

In the fall of 1993 he opposed Yeltsin’s proroguing of the parliament, but did not support the parliamentary opposition. In October Yeltsin appointed him chair of his Commission on Human Rights, and the political movement Russia’s Choice elected him chair of its council. In December he was elected to the new parliament, and as of 2003 has remained a deputy, switching his allegiance in 2001 from the successor of Russia’s Choice to Yabloko.

In 1996 Kovalev resigned from Yeltsin’s Human Rights Commission, in protest against his increasing authoritarianism and the war crimes committed by the military in Chechnya. He continues to be active in a variety of forums, and is widely seen in the early twenty-first century as the leading champion of human rights in Russia.

—Peter Reddaway

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