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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Human Rights in Russia

Living in Moscow, one becomes increasingly aware of the role played in Russian life by skandaly -- scandals or uproars caused by the sudden revelation of a hitherto concealed outrage. Even literary works -- especially those of Dostoevsky -- contain plenty of skandaly and skandalchiki (little scandals) for readers' delectation.


Both literary and real-life skandaly have been characterized by one thing: After all the huffing and puffing, they usually come to naught. In literature, this denouement merely has entertainment value. In real life, however, it can have disastrous political implications. The latest scandal, concerning one of the mainstays of the Yeltsin administration -- its commitment to legality and human rights -- is a particularly shocking case.


The source of the scandal is a 90-page report on violations of human rights in 1993, prepared by the Russian President's Committee on Human and Civil Rights and submitted to Yeltsin on July 5. The head of the committee is Sergei Kovalyov, a man of impeccable credentials, himself a former human rights activist and political prisoner. Another member is Kronid Lubarsky, also a former dissident.


The document, with its detailed account of violations committed under and with the de facto imprimatur of the Yeltsin regime is nothing short of extraordinary, rendered even more extraordinary by the fact that Kovalyov has been a consistently loyal Yeltsin supporter, never openly voicing any doubts or criticism of the president.


Not any more. His report charges the Yeltsin regime with violating the constitutional right to move freely and to choose one's residence. It paints a chilling picture of conditions in the armed forces, where soldiers are often treated like chattel, beaten, humiliated, fed rotten food and prevented by threat of punishment from voicing complaints. The armed forces, says the report, "continue to live by the same laws and traditions as in the past." When accused of wrongdoing (as it has been regularly by groups of soldiers' mothers), the army consistently refuses to respond. In 1993 alone, 2,572 soldiers died under non-combat conditions; for unexplained reasons, 9,294 were traumatized; and 462 soldiers committed suicide. According to the report (all based on careful research), "not a single army in the world has suffered casualties on such a scale." The report also lists "massive and continued" violations in prisons and other places of detention.


Particularly devastating are the charges regarding the behavior of Russian military forces and police during the state of emergency imposed by Yeltsin in Moscow last October. It has been the official wisdom of the Yeltsin loyalists that the president's enemies ran amok, beating and shooting helpless civilians to the accompaniment of fascist and anti-Semitic slogans. The Kovalyov report now reveals, with ample documentation, that the "loyalist" version is a myth. It was the soldiers who caused most of the casualties, often shooting at unarmed civilians who were not involved in the hostilities at all. It was the soldiers and police who dragged people into places of detention (over 6,000 between October 3 and 5, without any formal charges), clubbing them and hurling anti-Semitic invectives. The report also describes the rounding up of "suspicious-looking" (read: dark-skinned) men and women, some of them in the middle of the night, and deporting them if they did not have residence permits.


Protests from human rights groups went unheeded, and to this day the Yeltsin government has done nothing to correct these abuses.


Last December, I challenged some of my "democratic" friends on their version of the October events and was met with anger and disdain. Will they now eat humble pie?


I doubt it. No sooner was the report drafted and sent off than Yeltsin and his faithful advisers set up a smoke screen designed to prevent it from reaching the public. The report was to be discussed at the meeting of the President's General Assembly on July 1, but was postponed until the end of the month. Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief of staff, refused to supply the members of the Assembly with copies of the report. By July 30, when this body met again, the report had been subsumed within a longer document, the report itself remaining under wraps.


The valiant efforts of Yeltsin's retainers proved to be only partially successful. Copies of the report were leaked and disseminated throughout Moscow. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a paper with a distinctly anti-Yeltsin bent, published several excerpts in its pages. Its editor, Vitaly Tretiakov, told me he could not publish the whole document, and therefore selected only those he felt were of particular interest -- a perfectly understandable decision. Nevertheless, he was condemned by the Vice Chairman of the Committee on Human Rights, Mikhail Arutunov, who in his broadside somehow failed to mention both the report and the role of his chief Sergei Kovalyov.


To its credit, the weekly The New Times, one of whose editors is Lubarsky, published a detailed account of the report and of the efforts to suppress it. Finally Literaturnaya Gazeta, just this week, published a long and devastating interview with Kovalyov. Among other things, Kovalyov said in that interview that the effort by one of Yeltsin's men to persuade him to withdraw the report reminded him of the tactics used by his one-time KGB investigator. So far, no other "democratic" newspaper or magazine has published any of the report.


What now? Will the latest skandal suffer the fate of its predecessors? The answer is probably "yes." In this -- as in other areas -- Soviet law remains helpless. After a while, the heat abates, the noise recedes and everybody settles down. For the time being, then, Yeltsin and his loyalists can relax. The ship of state and its captain have been saved -- to the detriment of the people of Russia.





Abraham Brumberg has written widely on Russian and East European affairs. This article is based on a longer piece that will appear in "The Nation." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.