Sergei Kovalev, a renowned human rights advocate, and dissident died in Russia on Monday at age 91. He had campaigned for democratic freedoms since Soviet times. His son Ivan said on Facebook.
A prolific biophysicist, Kovalev was part of the first independent human rights association in the Soviet Union, co-authored a chapter of Russia’s constitution, and served as the first-ever human rights ombudsman in Russia.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said Kovalev “was well-known and admired as a stalwart defender of fundamental rights who always spoke his mind and never compromised on principles.”
Sergei Kovalev was born in a small town in then-Soviet Ukraine in 1930. Two years later, his family moved to a village just outside Moscow. He graduated from the biology faculty of Moscow State University in 1954 and moved on to working in the university.
In 1969, Kovalev became part of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, the first independent human rights group. He was pressured to resign from the university. Between 1971 and 1974, he published Current Events Chronicle, an underground bulletin of Soviet human rights advocates that documented human rights abuses.
Kovalev was arrested in 1974 on the charge of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda and a year later sentenced to seven years in prison, followed by three years of exile. He returned to activism in the late 1980s after serving him the sentence. He was among the co-founders of the Glasnost press club, which later turned into the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of Russia’s best-known human rights organizations.
In the 1990s, Sergei Kovalev was a member of the Russian parliament, served as the country’s first human rights ombudsman, and co-authored one of the chapters of the Russian constitution. In recent years, he also became co-chair of Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights group and a target of government crackdowns.
He was a fierce opponent of Russia’s war in Chechnya and repeatedly traveled to the war-torn region, documenting human rights abuses.
Since 2006, Kovalev had been a member of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party. He was a vocal critic of the Kremlin during both Boris Yeltsin’s and Vladimir Putin’s rule.
“We will miss Sergei … in all aspects: as a beloved older friend, a fearless ally, an intellectual and an adviser, committed to the idea of human rights always and in everything, at war, and on workdays, in politics, and everyday life,” Memorial said in a statement Monday.