Obituary: Yelena Bonner, 1923 – 2011

Yelena Bonner, née Lusik Georgievna Alikhanova, an Armenian-Jewish USSR citizen and then a Russian citizen, died in Boston on June 18, 2011, after a heart attack. Her father and one of her uncles were killed during Stalin’s “Great Purge“. Her mother served a term in a labor camp, and lived in internal exile afterwards.

Decades after, Bonner and her husband Andrei Sakharov would live in internal exile, too, in Gorky, from 1980 to 1986. Bonner was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, together with Yury Orlov (who was the  first head of the group), Ludmila Alexeeva, Mikhail Bernshtam, Alexander Ginzburg, Pyotr Grigorenko, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Anatoly Marchenko, Vitaly Rubin, and Anatoly Shcharansky. During world war 2, she volunteered as a nurse with the Red Army and was wounded, Russland Aktuell wrote on Monday. Her eyesight had been impaired ever since.

EU Parliament president Jerzy Buzek said that

Elena Bonner fought fiercely for the rights of the individual and family of every ethnic group and every state. She witnessed and influenced the 20th century. Along with her husband, scientist and human rights defender Andrei Sakharov, she gave hope to the people in desperate need for freedom and justice.

During Sakharov’s internal exile in Gorky, Bonner was his only contact to the outside world, Dutch evening paper NRC Handelsblad wrote last Sunday, quoting  memories of one of its former correspondents. She travelled to Moscow once every six weeks, smuggled his memoirs abroad (the script had twice been stolen by the KGB), gave press conferences, and kept calling on relatives.

Theirs was a joint cause, the Economist writes this week:

he radiating quiet composure, she nervy, passionate, sucking on cigarettes while she talked; he abstracted, lost in his writing, while she made jam, stewed chicken, washed floors and organised dissent, a “doer” always.

He went on hunger strike for her, at last persuading the authorities to let her go abroad for medical treatment. While there, in 1975, she collected his Nobel peace prize and delivered his speech for him.

Bonner wouldn’t compromise in the 1990s either. Gregor Ziolkowski, a Berliner Zeitung correspondent at the time, described his impressions in October 1995, after listening to a discussion between Bonner and former German television correspondent Gerd Ruge.

Nobody would manage to turn her into a hypocrite in her late years either, wrote Ziolkowski, and therefore,

she talks Turkey: about “democrats” only attracted to their booties, about intellectuals who try to be close to the powerful, and communists who strive for enrichment.

But then comes a surprising turning point. Somehow, the whole misery begins to look like the prerequisite for hope. The dilemma of disillusionment can be a healing thing. And therefore, she sees potential for the better right in those young people who reject the political circus, because they see through the lies. Only once, she gets vocal, and you sense the civil rights activist’s verve: “With the Chechen war, we have left a magic circle, and the West, by virtually tolerating it, has become complicit.”


» Vitaly A. Rubin (1976): Thoughts do not Die, Nov 29, 2008


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