On June 18, 2011, the Russian human-rights activist Elena Bonner, who nearly single-handedly led the long campaign to have the voice of her dissident husband, Andrei Sakharov, heard during the final, oppressive years of the Soviet Union and continued to speak out against human-rights abuses even after the USSR crumbled, died, at the age of 88.
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Growing up, Bonner had personally witnessed the arbitrary brutality of Stalinism. But she was not cowed: The more she endured, the more determined she was to speak her truth.
Bonner was born Lusik Georgievna Alikhanova, on February 15, 1923, in what is now the city of Mary, Turkmenistan. Her father, Georgy Alikhanov, was an Armenian and the founder of the Armenian Communist Party. Her mother, Ruth Bonner, was a Siberian-born Jew and a dedicated communist.
Elena grew up in privilege in Moscow, where her father was a member of the powerful Communist International, also known as Comintern. In 1938, during the unpredictable years of Stalin’s purges, Alikhanov was arrested, charged with treason and executed. His family did not learn of his fate until after Stalin’s death, in 1953, when Alikhanov was exonerated posthumously.
A short time after her husband was arrested Ruth Bonner was arrested too, and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp, which was followed by nine years of internal exile. She survived, but didn’t see her daughter again until World War II was drawing to a close.
From patient to pediatrician
Elena Bonner served as a nurse during the war. She was wounded twice, and was discharged as a disabled veteran. She attended the First Leningrad Medical Institute, from which she graduated as a pediatrician. It was there that Bonner met her first husband, Ivan Semyonov, with whom she had two children before they divorced.
Bonner joined the Communist Party in 1964, at age 41, but almost immediately began to become disillusioned. Her doubt intensified after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was then that she came to the conclusion that the problems of communism could not be solved within the system.
Bonner and Andrei Sakharov met when they both attended the trial of human-rights activists Revolt Pimenov and Boris Vail, in Kaluga, Russia, in October 1970. They married in 1972.
Born in 1921 and trained as a physicist, Sakharov was the designer of the Soviet Union’s thermonuclear bomb, the RDS-37. But by the late 1950s, he had become an opponent of nuclear proliferation and of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. (He played a vital role in getting the USSR to sign the test-ban treaty). Later, he lobbied against anti-ballistic missile defense.
After he co-founded the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR and was barred from further military research, Sakharov became a full-time human rights activist.
Sakharov’s conduit to the West
Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, which Bonner accepted for him in Oslo, and soon afterward he was stripped of most of his rights. When he was sent into internal exile in Gorky, in 1980, Bonner became his link to the outside world, transmitting his statements. But in 1984 she was also sentenced to exile in the closed city, for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”
After three hunger strikes, in 1985 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev let Bonner travel to the United States for heart-bypass surgery. In 1986, she and Sakharov were allowed to return to Moscow. In March 1989, eight months before his death, he was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies and co-led the democratic opposition.
Sakharov’s death did not end Bonner’s activism. Though she defended President Boris Yeltsin during an attempted coup in 1991, she later became a harsh critic because of the war in Chechnya, referring to the “genocide of the Chechen people.” She wrote and spoke out about growing anti-Semitism in Europe and defended Israel energetically from what she saw as the double standard by which much of the world judged it.
Toward the end of her life, Bonner was the first to sign a “Putin must go” online petition in 2010. By then, she was living in Brookline, Massachusetts, near her children. She died in Boston of heart failure on June 18, 2011, after a prolonged hospitalization.