YELENA BONNER OBITUARY
Sunday 19 June 2011 16.57 BST
Valiant human rights activist and widow of Soviet dissident Andrei
Yelena Bonner addressing the European parliament during the
award ceremony of the Sakharov Prize in 2008. Photograph: Vincent
Kessler/Reuters Now that the battles fought by the dissident movement
and by the thousands of individuals who voiced their opposition to the
Soviet state have been swallowed up by the larger events of history,
only a few names will be recalled. Yelena Bonner’s will be one of
them. She and her husband, Andrei Sakharov, symbolised – within the
Soviet Union and throughout the west – the strength and courage of
those opposed to state socialism. Bonner, who has died aged 88, was
often portrayed merely as the wife of the Soviet Union’s most famous
dissident scientist, but her history as an activist was as lengthy
as her husband’s. Her determination, organisational skills and often
fiery temper consistently drew attention to human rights issues.
Sakharov and Bonner were a team, bound together by the conviction that
freedom of conscience was a prerequisite of any civilised state and
that east and west should move towards reconciliation. This conviction
helped them survive the ordeals of surveillance, harassment, arrest
and internal exile.
The two first met in the autumn of 1970 outside a courtroom in Kaluga,
central Russia, where a scientist, Revolt Pimenov, and a puppet-theatre
actor, Boris Vail, were on trial for distributing the samizdat human
rights journal Chronicle of Current Events. Sakharov had already
achieved worldwide attention for publishing his essay Reflections
on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, in the
New York Times in 1968, but Bonner was the practical and already
experienced organiser of the group – it was she who found rooms for
both the defendants and the observers of the trial.
Like Sakharov, Bonner came from the Soviet elite. Unlike the brilliant
physicist, who was recruited straight from university to the team that
developed the Soviet Union’s first hydrogen bomb and then became the
youngest member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Bonner had seen
the brutality behind Stalin’s Soviet Union early on.
She was born in Merv (now Mary), a town in Turkmenistan, the eldest
child of Bolshevik revolutionaries, who named her Lusia. Her father,
Georgy Alikhanov, was first secretary of the Armenian central committee
and her mother, Ruth Bonner, was a committed party activist.
Yelena’s earliest years were spent in Chita in the Soviet far east,
where her father had been sent after a political falling out with
Grigory Zinoviev, a leading member of the politburo. The family then
moved to Leningrad, where they lived among the city’s Bolshevik elite.
At one stage, they had a flat in a house where Sergei Kirov, secretary
of the Leningrad party, also lived. In her second book of memoirs,
Mothers and Daughters (1991), Bonner recalled being taken out by
Kirov in his car and standing on the dais with him at an official
demonstration. It was the murder of Kirov in 1934 that signalled
the beginning of the Terror and Stalin’s purge of the old Bolshevik
cadres. By 1937 the family were living in Moscow, where, some time
before the winter of 1938, during the first wave of the Terror,
Bonner’s father was arrested and shot.
Her mother was arrested as the wife of an enemy of the people and
sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp. Bonner herself was taken
to the “big house”, the secret police headquarters in Leningrad,
for questioning. She remained in Leningrad to be brought up by her
grandmother. When she was eligible for her internal passport she
discovered that her parents had failed to register her birth. Free
to chose her own name, she picked her mother’s surname and Yelena
after the heroine of Turgenev’s novel On the Eve.
When the Soviet Union was invaded in June 1941, Bonner volunteered for
the Red Army’s hospital trains, becoming head nurse. The after-effects
of a shell attack that October, which left her temporarily blinded,
led to her being invalided out of the medical corps in early 1945. She
returned to Leningrad and in 1947 was accepted as a student at
the city’s medical institute. After graduating, she specialised in
paediatrics. She met her first husband, Ivan Semyonov, at medical
school and they had two children, Tanya and Alexei. In the 1950s
Bonner spent six months working in Iraq for the Soviet ministry of
health and contributed articles to medical newspapers, as well as to
In 1965, after her first marriage had fallen apart, Bonner moved into
her mother’s flat in Moscow. Her upbringing had seemed conventional
enough: childhood membership of the Komsomol, followed by an
application for full party membership after her parents had been
rehabilitated in 1954. However, the fate of her family and friends
and her Jewish/Armenian parentage – which made her politically
suspect to the authorities – encouraged Bonner in her scepticism of
the officially presented party line. The crushing of the 1968 Prague
uprising marked for her, as for many dissidents of her generation,
the beginning of her questioning of the basis of the Soviet state.
Gradually, she moved into dissident circles, although it was not
until 1972 that she renounced her party membership.
Bonner and her mother introduced Sakharov to the wider dissident
movement. As he wrote in his memoirs, it was she who “taught me to
pay more attention to the defence of individual victims of injustice”.
Their flat became a clearing house for those involved in the Helsinki
Group, the human rights group set up to monitor Soviet violations
of the Helsinki Accords, and for groups fighting for the rights
of Christians, ethnic minorities and of Soviet Jews who wanted to
emigrate to Israel.
When Sakharov’s children complained to him about his increasingly vocal
opposition to the Soviet state, as well as about his friendship with
Bonner so soon after his first wife’s death from cancer, he moved
into the Bonners’ flat. He and Bonner married in 1972.
With Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974,
they became the central focus of the dissident movement. Sakharov went
on his first hunger strike in 1974, during Richard Nixon’s visit to
Moscow, to publicise the plight of political prisoners.
That winter, Bonner’s eyesight – already damaged by her wartime
injury, thyroid problems and glaucoma – deteriorated sharply and she
was warned that, without an operation available only in the west,
she would go blind. While she was in Italy in 1975 recovering from
the eye operation, Bonner heard of Sakharov being awarded a Nobel
peace prize, and she remained in the west to attend the prizegiving
ceremony and to deliver her husband’s Nobel lecture that December.
The KGB had now resorted to sending the couple obscene pictures and
photographs of dismembered corpses through the post, and accusing
Bonner in particular of being a “money-grubbing Jew” who had married
Sakharov for his privileged position. Despite such harassment, the
couple continued to highlight the plight of political and religious
dissenters in Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnant Soviet state. Sakharov’s
position as a state scientist and Bonner’s status as an Invalid Veteran
of the Great Patriotic War prevented the KGB from attacking them too
openly. But their friends and fellow human-rights activists were picked
off the streets, given summary trials and exiled or imprisoned. The
Sakharovs, both in poor health, remained at liberty to speak, write
and give interviews to foreign correspondents. However, at the start
of 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sakharov’s open call
for an international boycott of the Moscow Olympics led to his arrest.
Sakharov was stripped of his awards and exiled to Gorky (now Nizhny
Novgorod) by decree. Bonner remained free to travel between Moscow
and Gorky, give interviews and publicise her husband’s plight. She
was Sakharov’s lifeline to the outside world. She was, as Sakharov
put it, “always a doer” and refused to stop her activities because
of her husband’s arrest. But the strain immediately began to affect
Bonner’s health. Stripsearched on a train on her way back from Gorky
in the winter of 1982 and left to find her way back to Moscow alone,
she suffered her first heart attack the following spring and another
more severe one a year later.
Then, in 1984, she too was arrested, charged with slandering the Soviet
state, sentenced and exiled to Gorky. Bonner’s health deteriorated
further and Sakharov went on hunger strike on three occasions to demand
that she be allowed to travel to the west for treatment. Finally,
in 1986, she was allowed to travel abroad for heart surgery. She took
with her a volume of memoirs of their internal exile, which appeared
as Alone Together in the same year.
The release of Bonner and Sakharov from their exile came suddenly and
unexpectedly. One day an engineer turned up at the flat in Gorky to
install a telephone. The following morning they received their first
telephone call. It was from Mikhail Gorbachev, telling them they were
free to return to Moscow. Their release was one of the most tangible
signs that glasnost had begun.
Although some of Gorbachev’s policies seemed close to fufilling
demands made by the dissidents of the 1970s, the Sakharovs continued
to dissent from the official party line. They were instrumental in
forming the unofficial organisation Memorial, set up to campaign
for the rehabilitation of political prisoners. In 1989 Sakharov
was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies and during its
first session criticised Gorbachev for refusing to relinquish the
Communist party’s monopoly on power. On 14 December that year, after
a particularly tense session of the congress, during which Gorbachev
had demanded Sakharov sit down, he returned home and told his wife
that he had work to prepare for the next day’s session. In the morning
she found him dead from a heart attack.
Bonner, grief-stricken, had to face Yevgeny Primakov, one of
Gorbachev’s aides, who wanted to give the former dissident a state
funeral. She also had to endure the row that had erupted when the
congress did not honour Sakharov with a day’s recess. In distress,
Bonner shouted to waiting reporters from the flat where her husband’s
corpse still lay: “You all worked hard to see that Andrei died sooner,
by calling us from morning to night, and never leaving us to our life
and work. Be human beings. Leave us alone.”
When Gorbachev appeared at the funeral and asked her if there was
anything he could do, she requested that Memorial should be registered
as an official organisation. Many reformist politicians rushed to her
side. Boris Yeltsin was not slow to show his support of her ideas,
but Bonner distrusted politicians wanting to use Sakharov’s memory
for their own ends. In early 1991, when Gorbachev, also a Nobel peace
prize winner, crushed a pro-independence demonstration in Vilnius,
the capital of Lithuania, with force, she requested that Sakharov’s
name be removed from the list of laureates. Later the same year she
spoke to the crowd outside the White House, the Russian parliament
building, in support of Yeltsin during the abortive coup.
As the Soviet Union fell apart, Bonner continued working to support
human rights and democracy. By 1996, she was calling for democrats
not to vote for Yeltsin in the presidential elections; the war in
Chechnya had dashed her hopes for him as a democratic leader. She
became an outspoken critic of Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin,
and last year was among the prominent signatories of a petition
calling for his resignation.
Bonner divided her time latterly between Russia and Boston,
Massachusetts, where her son and daughter, who survive her, had lived
since the 1970s, and where she died.
~U Yelena Georgievna Bonner, human rights activist, born 15 February
1923; died 18 June 2011