Elena Bonner, R.I.P.

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FP: Did the Soviet leaders treat Bonner differently from the way they treated Sakharov?

JB: Yes.  Not surprisingly in light of their anti-Semitism and strong animus towards Israel, Soviet leaders both privately and in public ascribed her dissidence to her being Jewish, and claimed that her actions as a dissident were designed somehow to benefit Israel; in the Soviet press she was often condemned as a “Zionist.”  In addition, the Soviet leadership sought to diminish Sakharov – whose accomplishments included the construction of the Soviet hydrogen bomb – by describing him as Bonner’s puppet – a tactic which had the effect of making Bonner ostensibly responsible not only for her own dissidence, but for her husband’s as well.  The image of a duplicitous and scheming Bonner manipulating the naïve and innocent Sakharov in the pursuit of her own evil designs was a common one in the occasional press campaigns against the latter in the 1970s and 1980s.

FP: What did Bonner see as her role in life after Sakharov’s death in December 1989?

JB: Her foremost obligation, as she saw it, was to preserve his memory and the ideals to which he had devoted his life after becoming a dissident in the late 1960s.  It was thus entirely fitting that at Sakharov’s funeral she pointedly wore the grey fur hat he favored while attending outdoor demonstrations in Moscow and elsewhere for victims of government repression.

But it was in the years after Sakharov’s death that Bonner showed conclusively that all along she was always her own person, and that her dissidence, while obviously influenced by her husband’s, was, at bottom, self-generated and self-sufficient.  She condemned as “genocidal” the tactics Russian forces used in the Chechen campaigns in the 1990s, and was not mollified when Vladimir Putin, in a gesture of conciliation, placed flowers on Sakharov’s grave in February 2000.  To Bonner, the Putin regime was a form of neo-Stalinism, and therefore the embodiment of everything she and Sakharov had fought against when the Soviet Union existed.

In her last years, Bonner also spoke out publicly on behalf of the state of Israel, defending it passionately and eloquently against the Muslim and “third world” dictatorships that hypocritically condemned the Jewish state for imagined human rights violations while flagrantly and consistently oppressing their own people.

FP: What is Bonner’s legacy?  What is the principal lesson one can learn from her life?

JB: To me it shows that humanity is still capable, albeit infrequently, of producing persons of integrity and courage, whose unflagging efforts to advance the ethical principles they believe in give one at least some reason to hope that these principles will eventually be realized in the laws, the policies, and the actions of sovereign nations.  While today in Russia the heroism of Sakharov and Bonner is only dimly remembered, if it is remembered at all, there is now in Moscow a “Sakharov movement,” the members of which seek to replicate in themselves the personal example Sakharov and Bonner set during their years as dissidents, and to resurrect the noble ethical principles they fought for against seemingly insurmountable odds.

FP: And what does Elena Bonner’s passing means to you personally?

JB: That the world is diminished morally as a result of it.  But I also believe that there are human beings with her many virtues who are yet to be born.

FP: Jay Bergman, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

I would like to say, on behalf of our staff here at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and on behalf of many of our Frontpage readers, that we all light a candle in our hearts in respectful memory and appreciation to Elena Bonner.

And on behalf of my own family, especially my mother, Marina Glazov, who also fought courageously within the dissident movement against the Soviet monstrosity, and who notified me, with great sorrow, about Elena’s passing, I would like to say: We love you Elena. Thank you.

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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!