“When I am entering discussions about so called traditional values versus universal values and trying to put them into conflict, any time I am trying to insist: Guys, we are not talking about traditions, we are talking about traditional values. Those who are eating people have a tradition to eat people but I do not think this is a value. It´s an old practice which has to be eliminated and that is all. And the same could be said about early marriages and women rights. We have to agree that traditional values are empowering or enriching universal values, bringing some specific cultural traditions. But do not mix traditions with traditional values! This is about values. Democracy for me is some kind of system of development, based on certain values. When we think in this way, then we are not looking at democracy as a set of institutions or procedures, which sometimes bring us to the tyranny of majority or something like that. We have to agree on the values. This is what I am perceiving, this is what I am promoting and this is what I believe in, being a free person with my dignity and with respect to the dignity of others.”
"At the time when I was arrested, before the court of appeal, they decided to open a new penitentiary facility in the Far East of Kazakhstan. Because at that time there was only one penitentiary facility for the people who committed so called crimes from negligence, as it was crime from negligence, allegedly. And this prison was near Astana. They thought it was difficult to bring me to Astana where you had diplomatic corps, journalists and so on. The decided to open a new prison in the Far East of Kazakhstan, in Ust-Kamenogorsk. And they took 150 prisoners from the prison in Astana and brought them by train 1000 km to this prison, so I should not serve my term alone. When I arrived to that prison, they were ´very happy to see me´, speaking frankly. They asked: What happened? Who are you? What does it mean? Interesting is that when I was released under the amnesty in February 2012, in May they closed this prison and brought them back to Astana. One of the criminal authorities in our country, with whom I had contact because of this tragedy, told me that he had heard many things already, but that a prison was opened for one person and then closed, that he recognises as a real ´criminal achievement´.”
“They started to adopt new and new legislation limiting the free space for political parties, for civil society, for media. But we could live, more or less, there was no direct pressure. Anyway, in 1999 for the first time we experienced some kind of pressure when my office was burned down. Exactly where I was sitting with my deputy. Practically to the scratch, everything was burned, I had my archives there, some videos; I could not even imagine that I should hide something, because this could happen. Then for some time, it was more or less calm. Nobody was found, in spite of the fact that it was confirmed that it was arson. Interesting was, where this arson took place. We had our office on the fourth floor of a building where on the first floor there was a bank with all security and in the second part of the building, there was the city police. You could imagine we were ´in a very good place´ in a sense of how it could be organized.”
„When I was writing my dissertation in the Soviet times, you had to write introduction. At that time it was typing, hand typing. In introduction, you had to mention what the first secretary of the Communist party said about the theme of your dissertation or about something around. And secondly, what the Congress of the Communist party said about that. Any time if you changed something, you had to rewrite the whole section. I went to Moscow, where I had the person who was guiding my dissertation and assisting me. I provided him with the text and in that month, Mr Brezhnev died. I had to rewrite the introduction and find out what Mr Andropov said about the topic of my dissertation and so on. I found something and when I was finishing my dissertation, Mr Andropov died. I again had to rewrite the introduction and to find out what Mr Chernenko said. Mr Chernenko was very short time in his position; he did not say anything about anything. You had to find out at least something to put in your introduction. Finally, I found something – he died. Then I rewrote it again, now finding out what Mr Gorbachev said about that. It was already in 1987, probably, and I went to Moscow and met my teacher. At that time, it was more free and people were speaking more freely. He was a member of the Soviet Academy of Science but a person with a very good sense of humour. He said: Mr Zhovtis, probably you should not move on with your dissertation. These people don´t like it.”
„He was trying to do his best in promoting truth and pushing forward truth, critical thinking and so on. Of course, naturally, he ended up with a criminal case opened against him by the KGB, committee on state security. There was a search in our house and occasionally all literature which was prohibited was in my bed and they did not find it. And with my mother there is another interesting story. She liked to cook, but she was a very artistic person. For some time she was working in our theatre and then she studied medicine and was a well-known pediatric, had PhD and so on. Because of such nature, she used to forget that she was cooking sometimes and something often burned down. We lived on the first floor and sometimes smoke was going out of our windows. She used this and the whole night after the search, she was burning all this literature and nobody was suspicious, because they thought that again she was cooking something and forgot about that. My father was under investigation for about a year, because at that time the authorities tried to disclose a “Jewish network of traitors” around the country. Two hundred people were arrested and cases were opened against them.”
„On the one hand, of course, I am Russian speaking, I grew up on Russian culture, I am Russian. On the other hand, being a Jew, at least half, I am of course keeping this difficult, tragic history in a certain way. At the same time, being born and living in Kazakhstan for my whole life, I am Kazakh, no doubt about that, I have this type of Eastern mentality. And of course I am patriot of my country, of Kazakhstan. I say that modern Russia is not the Russia I want to be associated with in any way. For me, I am… let´s put it this way: I am Kazakh of Russian origin with a Jewish memory.“
I am a Kazakh of Russian origin with a Jewish memory. And I believe in freedom, justice and human rights
Yevgeny Zhovtis was born on 17 August 1955 in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan, and considers himself a Kazakh patriot. However, his mother is from Russia and his father from Ukraine, and his parents settled and got to know each other in Kazakhstan as a result of the tragic events of the Holocaust and Stalinist repression. He is a Doctor of Sciences in mining economics, but above all a leading Kazakh human rights lawyer. After the collapse of the USSR, he tried to get involved in politics and established the human rights organization Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR). He is recognized abroad and by domestic civil society, but he also faces pressures from official authorities. Between 2009 and 2012, he spent two and a half years in prison in the remote east of the country, following a court decision that bore numerous signs of bias. Yet he has not stopped his meritorious work. He has received numerous human rights awards, including the EU-US Democracy and Civil Society Award in 1999, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Human Rights Award in 2007, and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in 2010. He is a member of the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal. He visited Prague in late August and early September 2022 at the invitation of the Forum 2000 Foundation, to whom we are grateful for arranging this interview.