There was a time when moral giants walked the Earth. One of them, Soviet dissident Elena Bonner — widow of the great physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov — left us on June 18 at the age of 88. A model of courage, Bonner was one of my heroes when I was a teenager in the Soviet Union and my parents listened to news of Sakharov and Bonner on banned foreign radio broadcasts. She was also a personal hero I had the privilege to meet several times.
A devoted wife, Bonner was much more than her husband’s helpmate. A former World War II army nurse, the daughter of a father executed in Stalin’s purges and a mother who endured 10 years in the gulag camps, Bonner was already active in Soviet Russia’s budding human rights movement when she met Sakharov in 1970.
After their marriage in 1972, Bonner became the Kremlin propaganda machine’s scapegoat for Sakharov’s scandalous fall from grace as a top Soviet scientist. She was attacked as a wily Zionist and a gold-digging seductress. Bonner remained unbowed. In the 1980s, she served as her husband’s link to the world during his exile in the town of Gorky, until she was forced to share that exile.
In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms brought the couple back to Moscow. Sakharov died of a heart attack three years later, at 68, leaving Bonner to fight the good fight for both of them.
And that she did, to the very last.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bonner was involved in the democratic transition under Boris Yeltsin. Yet in 1994, she resigned from Yeltsin’s Human Rights Commission in protest against the war in Chechnya. She later came to see the early 1990s as a badly missed opportunity: putting all their eggs in the Yeltsin basket, Russia’s pro-democracy forces endorsed a government-crafted constitution that eventually allowed an executive power grab.
The chicken came home to roost with the rise of Vladimir Putin and his neo-authoritarian regime. Bonner, by then spending much of her time in the Boston area for family and medical reasons (her two children from her first marriage have lived in the United States since the mid-1970s), once again found herself the target of officially sponsored smears. In 2004, after she criticized Putin’s attempts to portray human rights activists as Western stooges, a commentator on Russia’s leading state-run television channel lambasted her for spewing anti-Russian libels and backing “the U.S. and NATO” against Russia. The stench of the bad old days hung in the air.
In her 80s, in failing health after several heart operations, Bonner had to watch from a distance as the freedoms for which she had fought were squashed one by one in the country she still called home. The West’s stance, too, was a bitter disappointment. To Bonner, the tendency of both Europe and the United States to turn a blind eye to rising fascist-style statism in Russia reflected both naivete (exemplified by George W. Bush’s claim to have looked Putin in the eye and gotten “a sense of his soul”) and oil-and-gas-based cynicism.
Another disappointment was the relative neglect of Sakharov’s legacy in the West. Bonner fondly recalled Ronald Reagan, who mentioned Sakharov in several speeches, including a 1987 New Year’s Day radio message to the Soviet people broadcast over the Voice of America. “Reagan had a soft spot for Sakharov, and regarded him as a like-minded man,” she told me — an attitude that she felt had given way to “insulting indifference” after the Cold War.
Among Bonner’s greatest fears was that, once she was gone, the Kremlin regime would claim Sakharov as its own by recasting him as a champion of Russian nationalism and populism rather than liberal values. Her tireless work to prepare Sakharov’s diaries for publication was not only a labor of love but an effort to preempt such a hijacking.
Too frail to leave home unassisted, Bonner still traveled as far as Strasbourg, France, and Oslo, Norway, to speak on causes she held dear. These causes included not only freedom in Russia but also the defense of Israel, which she saw as an integral part of the fight for liberty. Bonner had harsh words for human rights activists who showed more concern for terror suspects held at Guantanamo than for Hamas-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Ironically, in death, Bonner was finally honored in her own country with pious TV tributes that omitted her activism after Sakharov’s death. Bonner would have viewed such hypocrisy with wry amusement. Yet she never lost the hope that someday, freedom in Russia would thrive.
The world is a poorer place for Bonner’s passing. It is also richer for her legacy of speaking truth to power — a legacy relevant under any system.