Monday, June 8, 2009

MOSCOW | They would meet in secret, terrified of a KGB knock on the door. They laboriously typed out banned publications. Many ended up in prison, labor camps and exile.

They were the Soviet dissidents, the human faces of the Cold War, waging nonviolent resistance against a cruel and cynical system.

Today, 20 years after Eastern Europe shook off its communist chains, the Berlin Wall fell and the death knell sounded for the Soviet Union, Sergei Kovalyov might have expected to be celebrated for his role in breaking the chains of communism.

Yet the man regarded by some as the patriarch of the dissident movement is almost forgotten at home. He is unyielding in his critique of the new Russia and Vladimir Putin, the man who has done much to shape it, at a time when Mr. Putin is popular and criticism can be viewed as disloyalty.

Wistfully fingering the red lapel ribbon that signifies his membership in the French Legion of Honor, the 79-year-old Mr. Kovalyov feels honored abroad but marginalized by the very society he and his fellow dissidents struggled to set free.

In a country that claims to be democratic and open to differing views, he isn’t seen on major TV networks, which are all either state-controlled or owned by Kremlin-friendly businesses. Many Russians view Mr. Putin as the man who restored their country to greatness.

Mr. Kovalyov says that even reformist media, which reach a relatively tiny audience, seem reluctant to air his views. Today, it’s not the KGB that he and other critics of the government fear, but the unknown assassins who have shot, beaten or poisoned several of them.

As the Soviet Union headed to dissolution, he went from persecuted dissident to star of the new liberal order. He was elected to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in 1999 and three times to parliament. The champion of human rights who spent seven years in a labor camp became the legislature’s human rights commissioner and human rights adviser to Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president.

Mr. Kovalyov is as tough on Russia today as he was on the Soviet Union. He speaks of a “bandit society” and urges the West to join his struggle. His critics call this lifelong Muscovite a “Russophobe.”

In 2005, Mr. Putin, then Russia’s president, called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Two years later, writing in the New York Review of Books, Mr. Kovalyov called Mr. Putin “the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history.”

He knows he can say such things without fear of arrest — that’s one of the many things that have changed in the new Russia. But he also knows how controversial he is. Mr. Kovalyov says he recently offered to resign as chairman of Memorial, one of Russia’s largest independent rights organizations. “I understand that such an organization should be more careful than I am used to being,” he said.

As he speaks of how the group refused to let him go, the members’ loyalty makes his eyes mist over.

“Individual rights and freedoms are what’s most important to him in life,” said Edward Kline, a friend and president of the New York-based Andrei Sakharov Foundation. “But it’s not necessarily the most important thing to everyone else, and that’s a disappointment for him.”

In Mr. Kovalyov’s view, the West doesn’t realize that hiding behind a democratic facade is an authoritarian country that violates free speech and manipulates elections.

“Your countries are so accustomed to the fact that the law is something to be abided by that you can’t understand a bandit society,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press, earnestly sitting forward in his chair in a Moscow office, his gaze penetrating through owlish glasses.

After years of diplomatic tensions, both Russia and the West seem determined to rebuild relations. The West wants Russia’s help in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and fighting the war in Afghanistan, while Russia’s troubled financial system needs Western capital.

But Mr. Kovalyov argues that the West should be ratcheting up the pressure, even if it means a new Cold War.

“You fear the Cold War, but you won it!” he said. “And now you allow this dragon to grow new heads. I absolutely don’t understand why you are doing this.”

Mr. Kovalyov acknowledged that Russia has changed, but points to the dangers faced by critics of the Kremlin.

The antagonisms grew especially sharp after five apartment blocks were bombed in 1999, killing about 300 people.

The government blamed Chechen terrorists, but Mr. Kovalyov helped form an independent panel of reformist legislators who suspected that government agents had set off the bombs to drum up public support for its second war in Chechnya.

One member of the so-called “Terror 99” commission was fatally shot in a Moscow street in April 2003. Another died of a mysterious illness four months later; friends and family suspected he was poisoned. A third was beaten unconscious in his apartment building’s elevator. An investigator working for the commission was arrested, convicted of divulging state secrets and imprisoned.

Mr. Kovalyov said he regularly receives anonymous threats against his life.

The crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya was fatally shot in 2006, and no one has been convicted in connection with her death. In Mr. Kovalyov’s view, she was slain because her enemies could no longer lock her up in the gulag.

“It was impossible to shut her up,” he said. “It was impossible to try her and sentence her; that would have been a scandal. It was impossible to bribe her. So she was killed.”

Yulia Latynina, 42, an author and commentator for the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, came of age in the post-Soviet era and believes that Mr. Kovalyov’s view, coming from a simpler moral universe, is too black-and-white.

“The dissidents were fighting against a totalitarian regime, which is gone, and for all the deficits of Putin’s regime, we cannot say it is totalitarian,” she said. “Now it’s a quite complicated time. And maybe that’s a reason the dissidents are still losing ground.”

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 81, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest Russian human rights organization, worked with Mr. Kovalyov in the early 1970s, typing copies of the Chronicle of Current Events, a prominent dissident journal that Mr. Kovalyov — “Sereyosha” to his friends — helped to edit.

She says he is as uncompromising with Russian authorities as he was with Soviet officials: “If Sereyosha thinks a person is violating the law, violating human rights, acting contrary to democratic principles, he will say: ‘You so and so!’ And he will attack him.”

She, on the other hand, seeks dialogue with the establishment, and chairs President Dmitry Medvedev’s Council for the Promotion of Civil Society, meant to encourage the growth of Russia’s small community of civic and social volunteer organizations.

“I don’t accuse, I explain. I say, you don’t agree? We will speak some more.”

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