Elena Bonner: Soviet dissident and human rights activist who campaigned alongside her husband, Andrei Sakharov

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.

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album