born March 2, 1930 in the town of Seredina-Buda near Suma in the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR. He was the member and, since 1990, co-chairman of the human rights society Memorial, dedicated to the memory and rehabilitation of the victims of political repressions in the USSR. He was a member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, for its first three terms (1993-1995, 1995-1999, 1999-2003).
He graduated in Human and Animal Physiology from Moscow State University in 1954. As a biophysicist, he authored over sixty scientific publications. In the years 1954–1960, he worked at the Physiology Department of the Moscow University and in 1961-1974, in the Biophysics Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences, as well as various other scientific institutions.
He became an activist in 1956, at the beginning of the opposition of biological sciences to Trofim Lysenko’s theories favored by the Party and thus officially valid. He signed the letter to the head of the Biology Faculty at the Moscow University, which postulated that genetics be reinstated as a scientific discipline. Since 1967 he was active in the dissident movement. In 1969, he became a member of the Initiative Group for Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, the first Soviet human rights association, and a close friend to Andrei Sakharov. In 1974, as a result of constant repressions, the group was forced to desist. The group members founded and edited a bulletin called Chronicle of Current Events, which appeared in samizdat from 1968 to 1982. Since September 1974 Kovalyov has been a member of the Russian branch of Amnesty International.
In December 1974 he was arrested in Vilnius and a year later, sentenced for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” to seven years of labour camp and three years of exile. He served his term is prison, in the camps in the Perm region and in exile at Kolyma until 1984.
In 1987 he co-founded the Project Group for Defense of Human Rights at the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, as well as the press-club “Glasnost”.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he turned to official politics. In 1990 he was elected People’s Deputy of the Russian Federation. From 1990 to 1994, he was chairman of the Russian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. He co-authored the Declaration of Human and Civil Rights in Russia. From 1993 he was a member of the President’s Council and of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
He opposed Russia’s military involvement in Chechnya, and later the authoritarian tendencies in the administrations of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. In 1995, along with a number of other volunteers, he became a hostage of Shamil Basayev’s band during his terrorist action in Budyonnovsk, negotiating the conditions for freeing of well over a thousand civilian hostages.
The recipient of many international award and honorary doctorates, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize thrice for his work in defense of human rights. His Polish honours include the title of “Man of the Year” awarded by Gazeta Wyborcza in 2001 and the Jan Nowak-Jezioranski Prize (2008).