Elena Bonner, R.I.P.

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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay Bergman, Professor of History at Central Connecticut University and the author, most recently, of Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov, published by Cornell University Press in 2009.

FP: Jay Bergman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Elena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, has just passed away at the age of 88.  Please tell us about her.

JB: Elena Bonner, who was two years younger than her husband, shared his belief in universal human rights; among the most important of these were the right to choose one’s place of residence, the right of critics of governments to a presumption of sanity, and the right of everyone to due process in the administration of justice.  But her early years were different from his.  Whereas Sakharov’s childhood was largely devoid of politics, Bonner’s was consumed by them.  Her stepfather, to whom she was closer than to her biological father, was a prominent official in the Comintern, the agency Lenin created in 1919 for the purpose of spreading communism globally.  Young Elena therefore lived for a number of years in a Moscow hotel reserved for Comintern officials; there she played parlor games with Tito, Togliatti, and other foreign communists visiting the Soviet Union.

But none of this saved her family from Stalin’s Terror.  When she was fifteen, her father was arrested and sent to a labor camp, where he was executed six months later.  Her mother, arrested for the “crime” of being his wife, spent eight years in a labor camp, several more in exile elsewhere, and was not rehabilitated until the mid-1950s.  As an injured war veteran – she suffered a concussion when a bomb exploded near her while serving as a nurse’s aide in World War II – she had access, after the war was over, to the special stores only members of the Soviet elite could enter.  And like many victims of Stalinism, she could plausibly believe that after Stalin’s death, Soviet communism would recover its original benevolence; for this reason she joined the Communist Party – which Sakharov never did.  But the misfortunes she endured as a youth helped to foster an independent streak, and before Stalin died, she even refused to join the chorus calling for the death penalty for the accused in the infamous Doctors’ Plot – for which she was expelled temporarily from the institute in Leningrad where she was studying to be a pediatrician.

Partly because of such experiences, Bonner became a dissident before Sakharov did, and the Soviets’ intervention in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush the so-called Prague Spring caused her to realize that joining the party had been a mistake; in November 1972 she formally renounced her membership.  Moreover, her dissidence, at least in the early 1970s, shortly after she married Sakharov, was more radical than that of her husband:  by this time she no longer cared whether the Soviet Union obeyed its own laws or adhered to its own principles.  And because she was more skeptical than her husband that the authorities would respond positively to his appeals to reason – as in, for example, his essay Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom – she was also more willing to challenge these authorities directly.

FP: What was Bonner like in personal terms, and how did her personality and temperament differ from Sakharov’s?

JB: Whatever their political agreements and mutual needs, Sakharov and Bonner were separate individuals with personalities that were in many ways diametrically opposite.  Whereas Sakharov was shy, self-effacing, and slow to anger, Bonner was outgoing, comfortable with other people – it was through her that Sakharov met literary figures and other dissidents in the early 1970s – and quick to rebuke persons she believed had treated her husband unfairly.

These differences, which in other couples might have precluded a harmonious relationship, drew Sakharov and Bonner closer together and made their unions stronger both personally and politically.  What one partner lacked, the other supplied.  Together, he and Bonner instilled genuine fear in the leaders of the second most powerful nation in the world.

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  • tagalog

    Elena Bonner believed that when Stalin died, Soviet communism would
    "recover its original benevolence?" When was Soviet communism benevolent? I mean Lenin began a terror campaign in the fall of 1918, and it never let up for the next half-century.

    Does the commentator mean the period of the NEP, perhaps?

    • Jay Bergman

      I did not mean to suggest that the Soviet Union was benevolent. It never was. But the perception was common after Stalin's death that it would return to its original, Leninist ways, which many believed — in my view wrongly — were humane. JB

  • Chezwick_mac

    I was 16 when I discovered 'Progress, Co-Existence and Intellectual Freedom' (several years after the book had been written) and I must say I was profoundly moved by the experience. I suppose I was just as naive as Sakharov himself…and to have the idea of "convergence" conceptualized and detailed was for me a new-found hope that the Cold War could be overcome systemically, not just diplomatically.

    The next year, 'My Country and My World' came out and it was clear that Sakharov had shed many of his earlier illusions. He was no longer an exponent of convergence – the belief that the West would socialize, the East would liberalize, and the two would meet in the center. The evolution in his thinking had brought him to the realization that the Soviet model was essentially bankrupt – politically and otherwise – and needed a pervasive overhaul. In response, the pressure on him from the KGB became more acute, culminating in his internal exile in Gorky around 1980.

    Andre Sakharov influenced me greatly…at a time when I didn't know my ass from a hole-in-the-ground and was otherwise polluting my intellect with the works of Marx, Trotsky and Bukharin. I even remember buying Mao's little red book…and being young and impressionable enough to mistake its crude didacticism for profundity.

    Together with Solzhenitsyn and Milovan Djilas, Sakharov helped steer me clear of a gargantuan political and philosophical dead-end. I owe him greatly.

    Elena Bonner, RIP.

  • bob maram

    elene bonner ofblessed memory. one of humanity''s angels who along with her husband andrei sakharov traveled along the dangerous road towards freedomand true justice. mayother angels of humanity follow inthese footsteps of elene bonner and bring us closer to a messianic age of freedom a nd peace for all mankind. bob maram

  • Hadassah

    Daniel Johnson relates an interesting anecdote about Bonner. He says that "She was fierce in defense of the Armenians against the ethnic cleansing being carried out by Azerbaijan with the help of Soviet forces. A few days earlier, she had organized a memorial congress for Sakharov, a gathering which Gorbachev, then still head of state, had unexpectedly attended. Bonner ignored his presence until she called for a moment's silence to honor the Armenian dead. Everybody rose except Gorbachev. "Won't you stand too, Mikhail Sergeyevich?" demanded Bonner. And he did. The second most powerful man in the world obeyed the little old lady on the stage. Such was the force of her personality." (http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2011/6/27/main-feature/1/one-woman-army)

    RIP Elena Bonner.

    • Jay Bergman

      A revealing anecdote of which I was unaware. Thank you for posting it!

      • Hadassah

        Sure! I thought it encapsulated the personality of the woman!