Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Landsbergis Recalls the Other Democratic Russia Sergey Kovalev Represented

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 14 – Given developments in places as diverse as Afghanistan and Russia, there is a tendency among many people to fall back into the mistaken self-justification that many do and say that these countries and perhaps many others are incapable of being democratic and thus it is wrong for outsiders to try to promote that outcome.

            That some countries face greater difficulties in moving toward democracy than do others is beyond dispute, but helping those in these countries who stand for democracy is important. The only real questions are how important democracy is for those who already have it and how much they are prepared to do to help other countries reach that “least bad” form of governance.

            Those reflections are sparked not just by commentaries about Afghanistan and Russia that suggest no one should have tried to promote democracy in either because neither could become a democracy and by the words of Vitautas Landsbergis about Sergey Kovalev, the Russian dissident and democrat who died last week.

            Landsbergis, who led Lithuania back to freedom and democracy after more than 40 years of Soviet occupation, describes Kovalev as “one of the last of the Mohicans; perhaps, the very last and one of that pleiade which continued the great, singular and as yet unsuccessful tradition of Russian democracy” (

            When Russia was struggling to regain its freedom, the Lithuanian leader says, people like Kovalev “were with us. In the fatal days of January, they assembled in Russian squares hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of voices shouting ‘Hands Off Lithuania!” and “Today, Lithuania; tomorrow, Russia!”

            “This is no dream. It was a reality. Then.” And “in the first ranks even before January stood Andrey Sakharov, Yury Afanasyev, Sergey Kovalyev and also Galina Starovoitova who was later killed. And beyond their shoulders the shadows of who even under the monarchy and serfdom hoped for a humane future for their country. The Decembrists …”

            And at that time in Lithuania “were nobles of Russian origin who elevated the culture of the country, brought education and became part of Lithuania, for example, the counts Zubov. And philosophers, thinkers and art specialists … Karsavin, Sezeman, and Vorobyev. This is the Russia with which we together built a better world and a Lithuania enriched by their spirit.”

            “Of course,” Landsbergis continues, “these names do not have anything in common with the aggressive imperial system which seized lands and people and brought unhappiness to all of Europe.” But it must be remembered and “defended from the Stalinist model” which assumed that everything required that everyone be afraid of Russia.

            Whenever anyone asks are you for Russia or against Russia? he is promoting a misconception. The issue is this: One must name the Russia one is for or against. “I am for the Russia of Sergey Kovalev,” Landsbergis says. “We believe” that his Russia has a future as the other Russia does not as anything but a supplier to China.

            The Decemberists were animated by a faith that Russia could have a constitutional order and human rights; and Pushkin in his poem on Chaadayev declared Russia will “rise from it slumber, and our names will be written on the wreckage of the autocracy.”  Among these names, that of Sergey Kovalev will occupy a prominent place, the Lithuanian leader says.


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