Elena Bonner: Soviet dissident and human rights activist who campaigned alongside her husband, Andrei Sakharov
Tuesday 21 June 2011
Born in Merv, Central Asia, in 1923, a wartime nurse and physician by profession, Elena Bonner was known internationally as a human rights activist in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the wife of Andrei Sakharov, the most prestigious and influential of dissidents.
Her father, Gevork Alikhanov, was first secretary of the Armenian Communist Party when the Soviet regime was established in Armenia, and later became a Comintern official. Her Jewish mother, Ruth Bonner, a former revolutionary, also worked for Comintern. Both parents were arrested in 1937. Bonner, who retained her mother's name through two marriages, was herself a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1965 and 1972. She qualified as a paediatrician in Leningrad and continued to practise into her sixties, despite the damaged eyesight she had sustained through a war injury.
In 1970 she met and in 1972 married the dissident physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. By the late 1960s generalised dissidence (among an admittedly minute number of intellectuals) was becoming focused on such issues as censorship and legal rights, but the 1970s saw the growth of a much more powerful current of dissidence expressed as the demand by Soviet Jews for the right to leave the Soviet Union altogether.
Although Bonner identified herself with this movement, her deeper involvement with the human rights movement as a whole, and the fact that she herself had no intention of emigrating, gave her stance broader political significance. She was a founder- member of the group established in Moscow in 1976 to monitor Soviet observance of the 1975 Helsinki accords which, together with intense Jewish agitation on behalf of "refuseniks" – Soviet Jews refused visas to emigrate – became a thorn in the government's side in its relations with the West, especially the US.
In his memoirs, Andrei Gromyko, foreign minister throughout the period, complained that it became impossible to start a normal diplomatic conversation with the Americans because they would always produce a list of names of individuals whose human rights were being abused by the Soviets, i.e. Jewish refuseniks. When the Politburo discussed measures to be taken against the Helsinki Group, the ethnic origin of each member was noted, the majority being Jewish, and Bonner's was also given as Jewish.
Like that other great dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov was a source of special embarrassment to the regime. A distinguished physicist and "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb", by the early 1960s Sakharov was protesting against nuclear testing, and by 1968 was also calling for intellectual freedom. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 added fuel to the flames, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country in 1974, and, with the rise of the emigration movement the Bonner-Sakharov partnership became the epicentre of open and public protest. Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975; he was not permitted to collect it, although Bonner was allowed out, to Italy, in 1975, 1977 and 1979, for specialised medical treatment, the authorities no doubt hoping she would remain there.
In 1980 the couple were banished to the closed city of Gorky (Nizhni Novgorod today). Thanks to the slightly more relaxed control exercised over Bonner, she was able to maintain a degree of contact with the outside world, as well as to keep Sakharov's name in the world's press, whose interest in them was undiminished. In late 1986, with Mikhail Gorbachev in power, the Politburo debated whether to allow Sakharov and his wife to return to Moscow, and whether to agree to Bonner's renewed request to go abroad for medical treatment. KGB Chief Chebrikov warned his comrades that "Bonner's influence on Sakharov is 100 per cent" and that "his behaviour derives from her influence", to which Gorbachev responded, "Well, that's Zionism for you." Nevertheless, with his policy of "new thinking" in foreign policy in place, Gorbachev decided that on balance the regime would gain further credit with the West by adopting a humane approach, and by January 1987 Bonner and her husband were back in Moscow.
In the new conditions of free speech that obtained under perestroika and glasnost, Sakharov and Bonner became doubly effective. He, especially, acquired an almost mythical stature as a powerful advocate of deep social, political and economic reform, and in 1989, elected to the new Congress of People's Deputies, emerged as the principal spokesman for radical change. The Politburo's distaste for Bonner was occasionally echoed by more liberal minds who felt that she was a force for extremism in Sakharov's otherwise reasonable and rational protests. She may even have regarded herself as the more effective politician of the two, or perhaps as the better organiser. During a private lunch in Oxford in June 1989, when he came to receive an honorary degree, he was asked if he was thinking of organising a political grouping. Before he could respond, Bonner interjected, "Him? Organise?"
When Sakharov died in the summer of 1989, Bonner resisted the state's wish to bury him among its distinguished citizens in the Novodevichy cemetery, insisting instead on burying him among Jewish graves in an ordinary one. Her idea was apparently that if Jewish graves were threatened one day with desecration by Russia's new fascists, the presence of Sakharov's grave among them might give a measure of protection.
A laureate of the Raoul Wallenberg International Fund, Elena Bonner also wrote a number of books, including The Bell Tolls; Andrei Sakharov: the Pros and Cons; The Year 1973, Documents, Facts, Events; and Postscript. She will be remembered for the fearless and ultimately effective campaign for freedom and human rights that she helped to inspire and wage during one of the most turbulent periods of Russia's troubled history.
Bonner had been in hospital since 21 February, and died of heart failure. Neighbours at her Brookline apartment building in Boston, where she had spent her last years, spoke of a distinguished, kind woman who mostly kept to herself due to poor health and lack of English skills. Despite her comparative isolation from post-Soviet political life, she never ceased to voice her criticism and condemnation of the persecution and abuse of the new regime's opponents. She will be cremated and buried in a Moscow cemetery alongside her husband, mother, and brothers.
Lusik Georgievna Alikhanova (Elena Bonner), human rights activist: born Merv, Turkmenistan 15 February 1923; married firstly Ivan Semyonov (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1972 Andrei Sakharov (died 1989); died Boston 18 June 2011.
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