Symposium: Russia After Elena Bonner

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In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have gathered a distinguished panel to discuss the recent passing of Elena Bonner, her legacy and the future of human rights in Russia. Our guests today are:

Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a former leading Russian dissident and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Upon arriving in the United States after his forced exile from the Soviet Union, he headed the New York-based Center for Democracy in the USSR.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB agent who became one of the KGB’s harshest critics. A Senior Fellow at Gerard Group International, he is the author of seven books about the KGB and Japan. His new book is KGB/FSB’s New Trojan Horse: Americans of Russian Descent.

Igor Melcuk, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Montreal and Member of the Royal Society of Canada. He left the Soviet Union in 1977 after being expelled from the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences because he defended Andrei Sakharov in a letter published in The New York Times.

Olga Velikanova, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas, where she teaches Soviet history. Among the first scholars to work with declassified Communist Party and secret police archives, she is the author of “Making of an Idol: On Uses of Lenin,” “The Public Perception of the Cult of Lenin Based on the Archival Materials” and “The Myth of the Besieged Fortress. Soviet Mass Perception in the 1920s-1930s.” She is a recipient of many awards from different international research foundations.


Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest official ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc. His first book, Red Horizons, was republished in 27 languages. A commemorative edition was recently issued in Romania to mark 20 years since Ceausescu was executed at the end of a trial where most of the accusations came out of this book. In April 2010, Pacepa’s latest book, Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination, was prominently displayed at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians held in Washington D.C., as a “superb new paradigmatic work” and a “must read” for “everyone interested in the assassination of President Kennedy.”’

FP: Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa, Igor Melcuk, Konstantin Preobrazhenky, Olga Velikanova and Yuri Yarim-Agaev, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Yuri Yarim-Agaev, let’s begin with you.

What were some of your thoughts on Elena Bonner’s passing? Share them with us in relation to how you view the state of human rights in contemporary Russia — and the future you envision in what appears to be an inevitable Putin-led Russia.

Yarim-Agaev: The death of Elena Bonner was first and foremost the loss of an old friend.  Regretfully, very few people are left in this world with whom I have such deep mutual understanding, a similarity in assessment of major events both in Russia and the rest of the world, as I did with her.  There was a good reason for that: together we were in the struggle with the main evil of our time, Soviet Communism, the struggle, which gave us profound insight not only into Russia and Communism in general, but also into the very nature of human society. That education provided Elena Bonner with the compass which would show her the right direction, and help her take the right position not only on events in Russia, but also in America, Israel and other countries.  Not surprisingly, her position would very often coincide with my own, – our common experience showed.

I strongly believe that the experience, which we acquired in our struggle with Soviet Communism, can be effectively applied to many other regions and situations.  Some intellectuals argue that the dissident struggle, which made us stronger and more decisive, made us narrow minded at the same time.   I believe that the opposite is true.  When you actively interact with an extreme form of society, as was Soviet Communism, you get better insight into the general nature of human society, which is often concealed under normal circumstances.  When, for your own survival, you are forced to think much more intensively, you get much broader and deeper understanding of your own country and the whole world.  Elena Bonner’s life proved that very clearly.  Her numerous statements and articles on various events in the US, Russia, Israel and the rest of the world have been profound and very precise.

Some considered Elena Bonner as merely the wife of Andrei Sakharov, a quite respectable position by itself. Yet, she was much more. She was not only a leading Soviet dissident in her own, but also a globally renowned human rights champion.  Her impact on world politics of the 20th century was significant, and despite her old age and poor health, she managed to carry over her influence into the 21st century as well.

Preobrazhensky: Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to meet Elena Bonner, though I now live in Boston. Only this spring I tried to interview her for our documentary, “KGB Does Not Exist Any More?” which we are shooting together with American documentary producer Michael Colbert. It focuses on growing Russian influence in the United States. Our documentary shows that Elena Bonner’s struggle is not outdated. But her daughter, Tatiana, told me on the phone that Elena Bonner does not give interviews any more. Nonetheless, we are fortunate that  God gave her a long live in spite of all of her sufferings.

The KGB always hated Elena Bonner. On the eve of the 90th birthday anniversary of Academician Sakharov, the government 1st channel of Russian TV showed the film, ”My Father, Academician Sakharov.” It portrayed him as a talented but naive physicist who was under the influence of the evil-doing anti-Soviet activist, Elena Bonner.

It is, of course, the KGB version. It was taught to us at the KGB school in Minsk, where I studied in 1976-77. In 1985, when I was a Tokyo Correspondent of the Soviet TASS new agency, I was shown a secret wire from Moscow. It ordered KGB foreign correspondents all over the world to spread a rumor that Elena Bonner had beaten a policeman. It means that she has never tried to find any compromise, tolerance or “understanding” with the KGB.

How do I see the future of the Russian human rights movement? I see it as FSB-controlled. This is because the FSB is the only one actual political body in Russia. The FSB will never yield state power to anybody. And, ironically, there is nobody to take it. The Russian opposition is weak and disorganized. The FSB is playing with it as a cat with a mouse. In the Soviet period, KGB 5th Directorate managed to infiltrate the human rights movements with its collaborators. In today’s Russia, it is impossible to create any political organization independent from the FSB.  As soon as you create it, the FSB will fill it with their informants. It was the same in Soviet times regarding the Communist Party. The FSB is its organizational substitution.

In the interview devoted to Elena Bonner, the head of “Memorial” human rights center, Oleg Orlov, spoke about permitted and not permitted compromises with authorities.  This kind of logic could be applicable, maybe, to Imperial Russia of the early 20th century. But now the total authority belongs to the FSB. It is not up to the individual to determine the extent of compromise with a secret service. They will do it instead of you. While you will be thinking about such compromises, the wheel of your car may fly away when you are driving, or a group of unknown hooligans will meet you in the street.

By the way, I have never heard from Russian human rights activists a clear statement saying that state power belongs to the FSB. The only exception was “Glasnost” Foundation under Sergey Grigoryantz. It was dissolved very soon after Putin’s coming to power. Its international conferences, “KGB: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” where I have spoken a lot, are not held any more.

KGB/FSB feels genetic hatred against human rights activists. In recent years, Putin’s propaganda has done its best to present them as national traitors living for American grants. They are painted as “jackals in the foreign embassies” — as Putin called them. The very word “human rights activist” became a sort of curse.

That is why many Russians dislike human rights activists. And the West is tired of them. They are an obstacle in developing “real politics” with Russia, which is nothing but victimizing human rights for the sake of oil. It is a historical success of Russian foreign policy.

When I tell Americans that human rights are violated in Russia as in the Soviet times, many of them don’t believe me. It is the result of the sophisticated Russian propaganda and influence here.

After Putin’s return to the presidency, Russian petro-state will continue its penetration of the Western world with its ingenuous program: “oil for democracy”. It is aimed at dissolving Western democracy. It has already begun.

Pacepa: I want to congratulate Jamie for honoring Elena Bonner and what she stood for. We all could profit from a better knowledge of her heroic life. I did not have the privilege of meeting Elena, as Yarim-Agaev did, or of learning firsthand about the KGB war against Elena, as Mr. Preobrazensky did. But I had the honor of meeting Andrei Sakharov, and I cannot imagine a better life companion for that legendary fighter for freedom than Elena Bonner.

For people of my generation, Elena is a saintly hero. She suffered years of brutal governmental exile and persecution because she dedicated her life to helping Russia get rid of its historical totalitarian autocracy. Some 150 years ago another famous Russian, sociologist Petr Chaadayev, had the guts to describe Russia the way it really was:

“A unique world, submissive to the will, caprice, fantasy of a single man, whether his name be Peter or Ivan. … Contrary to all the laws of the human community, Russia moves only in the direction of her enslavement and the enslavement of all the neighboring peoples.”

Tsar Nicholas declared Chaadayev insane, and locked him into an asylum–where he died. By the beginning of the 1980s, the whole Russian government looked like an insane asylum, and Elena Bonner was not afraid to say that out loud. The Soviet tsar exiled her to the boondocks.

In 1991 the Communists lost power, but not for long. On December 31, 2000, the first anniversary of his appointment as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin ordered Stalin’s national anthem resurrected, with new lyrics by Stalin’s lyricist, Sergey Mikhalkov. Old Communism was back in style. Elena called the act a “profanation of history.” Putin disagreed: “We have overcome the differences between the past and the present.” [1]

Have we? During the old Cold War, the KGB was a state within a state. By 2010, Putin’s KGB, rechristened FSB, became the state. Over 6,000 of his former colleagues in the KGB–an organization that had in the past killed over seven million, after framing them as Western spies—were running Russia’s federal and local governments. The Soviet Union had one KGB officer for every 428 citizens. Putin’s Russia has one FSB officer for every 297 citizens. [2] It is like democratizing Germany by putting the old, supposedly defeated Gestapo in charge.

Elena Bonner called that KGB dictatorship a malignant tumor on Russia’s body, and she warned that that cancerous tumor might kill the country’s hopes of breaking with its tyrannical past. I have not only political but also personal reasons to fully agree with Elena. I was 25, when the doctors advised my mother to have a just discovered malignant tumor removed as soon as possible. “What’s the rush, if it doesn’t hurt?” my dear mother kept asking me every time I tried to take her to the hospital. Two years later I was kneeling at her grave. That was the last, and probably most important, lesson I learned from my dear mother. This is also the last lesson Elena Bonner tried to teach her fellow countrymen: If you have a cancer, get rid of it.

Velikanova: Jamie, thank you for inviting me here to share my personal thoughts about an outstanding personality — Elena Bonner. In opposition to the members of our round table who have their personal perspectives to share, I suggest here the brief reflection of a historian about Elena Georgievna – a free individuality who lived in a totalitarian state.  She was a courageous person who was able to speak loudly about what she believed when all others around her kept silence.

How was it possible that such a free person could be raised in the USSR?  Andrei Sakharov – another example of an absolutely free personality – was the son of a professor. He received a home education and did not attend Soviet school until the 7th grade. A genius with an immediate affiliation with science, he did not belong to the Soviet mundane. But Elena Bonner was a Soviet girl, close to earth, and the daughter of a party official. While her father was a Comintern worker and her mother, Ruth, a devoted-hardliner Communist, the girl was influenced very much by her grandmother Tatiana who still lived by old values.  In Bonner’s writings she acknowledged the role of “babushka” Tanya and the good books in her childhood. A 14-year girl experienced the arrest and execution of her father in 1937 and the exile of her mother. During the war she served as a nurse on the front and was wounded, and later became engaged in medical education and practice as well as literary and political activity.   The experience of an orphan of 1937 as well as her talent gave Elena Georgievna the ability to see through all things “Soviet,” but surely she belonged to an insightful  but tiny minority.

Another question to ponder was her fate:  why was so much dirt poured upon her in the Soviet press and public opinion? Of course that was an intentional strategy of the KGB, discribed by Mr. Preobrazhensky above, to discredit human rights activists. I remember another version of the aforementioned rumor in the 1980s that Sakharov was a hen-pecked husband and his wife regularly beat him (with N. N. Yakovlev among the gossipmongers). But the KGB is not a sole explanation to all Russian troubles.  It seems that the KGB’s ignoble strategy had its soil in Russian old traditional suspicion to talented individuals, especially of her gender and of half Jewish origin. These low, plebian instincts were exploited by the KGB. Bonner’s active and independent role near the great scientist Sakharov was unusual for a traditional Russian family. An example of such patriarchal and misogynic attitude is the fate of Raisa Maksimovna Gorbacheva, a beautiful and strong woman, who was hated by all the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the dissident movement, of which Bonner was a member, was not comprehensive for a vast majority of Soviet people. They hardly understood the concept of human rights and why it worth going into exile or even prison for it. The general population had almost no information about the movement for human rights until 1975 when the Helsinki Declaration with its seventh clause — an agreement to uphold human rights — was signed published in the USSR. But even after that public opinion was molded mostly by propaganda and the KGB which represented dissidents as an evil foreign force. A handful of intelligentsia who understood the situation had too little influence on public opinion inside the USSR. In this context, in the eyes of philistines she looked as an outcast — how could this woman, a Jew, dare to criticize Soviet politics?

Elena Bonner had courage, talent, and strength to struggle for the goals that seemed unrealistic in the suffocating atmosphere of the late Soviet Union. Despite all censorship and suppression of the critical voices, the efforts of these dissidents contributed to emancipation impulse in the end of the 1980s.

Melcuk: I did not know Elena Bonner personally—this makes it more difficult for me to say things about her heroic life. I must insist, however, on the fact that she was a hero of our times, one of the very few human beings who fully and openly opposed the three-headed monster of the KGB, the Communist Party and the Soviet State.

I did have the honor of meeting her husband, Andrei Sakharov, face to face and to speak with him. As a result, I was completely under the impact of his personality: the razor-sharp logic, deeply human philosophy, extreme openness and friendli­ness, the readiness to go as far as necessary to protect his convictions that, linked to unbelievable purity of his thoughts and intentions, seemed to me then to be out of this world. To a great degree, it was thanks to Elena Bonner that this great man had seen the truth and aban­doned his wrongly based idealism of a naïve wunderkind.

Elena Bonner was much more than just the wife of Sakharov of course: she was herself a great champion of human rights, so great that in 1985, the KGB felt it necessary to instruct its agents abroad, as Mr. Preobrazhensky tells us, to smear her name by spreading the most fantastic slandering rumors. I think it is important to remember that even in 21st century Russian authorities hate Mrs. Bonner and will hate her memory: she was, and her memory is, and will always be, a powerful thorn in the eye of the modern gangster dictators ruling Russia.

It is important, therefore, to spread in Western societies the knowledge and understanding of Mrs. Bonner’s struggle—in order to open eyes to more well-intentioned, but self-blinded idealists who live in their imaginary rosy world and refuse to face the gore reality.

I agree with Mrs. Velikanova that it is a miracle to see Elena Bonner to have developed into this eternally free and courageous figure that she was—out of an all-Soviet girl, with no family to lean on and completely ‘educated’ by the Soviet school and the Soviet army. This makes me feel even more respect and admiration for this extraordinary woman and personality. Her life and her moral standing should be an example not only for the Russian people, but for all people of good will around the world.

Yarim-Agaev: There is some irony in what I heard from the other panelists.  This symposium is devoted to the memory of Elena Bonner, yet more was said about the alleged power of the KGB and even the FSB than of Bonner’s real power.  It may be appropriate to mention how strong her archenemy was, but it would be awkward not to say how much stronger Elena was, who emerged victorious from that battle.

It is no mystery how a Soviet girl developed into a champion of freedom and human rights. Bonner’s outstanding intelligence and courage fully explain it. As a young girl whose father was shot and mother imprisoned she had enough facts to draw the right conclusions about the political system she lived in. There were millions of other people, however, who were in similar situations and many of them were smart enough to connect the dots–but they did not have the courage. And courage it takes, since if you don’t deny the facts, if you follow the logic, you come to conclusions which put you in a very dangerous if not lethal position.

Elena Bonner was never broken by the Soviet authorities and never obeyed them.  They, rather, obeyed her: She forced Gorbachev stand up for a moment of silence in memory of the Armenians killed in Nagorno-Karabakh under his watch.

Elena Bonner was never afraid of the KGB, whereas the KGB was very much afraid of her.  Why?  Because she had the courage to say openly and loudly that the emperor had no clothes.  The more the emperor real condition was exposed by her (and us, her fellow dissidents), the weaker he became, until finally he collapsed.  By 1991 the KGB was completely defeated and Elena Bonner stood victorious upon its rubble.

The KGB could not fully recover and never will, since its life support was provided by the Soviet communist system, which cannot be resuscitated, at least in any foreseeable future.  Although the direct descendent of the KGB, the FSB has very limited and very temporary authority.  If the KGB was a tragedy for Russia, the FSB is a farce—a Russian farce, though, with blood and jails.  Yet all the killing and the stealing was never a sign of power, but rather of weakness. The FSB came to power not because it was strong, but because everybody else was even weaker.

This refers to the post-soviet human rights community as well.  It differs radically from the dissident human-rights movement of the Soviet era, and can by no means be considered its continuation.  No single dissident organization remained after 1991 and very few former dissidents joined the new community of human-rights organizations. Elena Bonner was always skeptical about new democrats and human rights activists, and later distanced herself completely from them.  The problem with the current Russian opposition is that there is a paucity of people in its ranks who have the courage and commitment to follow Bonner’s footsteps.

The best way to end this symposium is to recall once again the heroic life of Elena Bonner and the lesson which she taught us with such clarity and power.   This lesson is that even a single person, who strongly believes in the basic principles of freedom and human dignity, and who is ready to die for these principles, can overwhelm the strongest totalitarian system—not to mention Russia’s current rulers.

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  • Fred Dawes

    The KGB Is not dead it just moved to the USA

  • BernardScherd

    Most Russians, especially over 30 years old, are mentally ill. This is the key to understanding them. Study narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), paranoid schizophrenia, then you will understand Russians and Russia today.

    • tarleton

      There's a little truth in that …they were the victims of a bizarre political cult for 70 something years ….when the S U finally collapsed they were walking around dazed and confused , and not a little paranoid ….I've not met many Russians that don't have some bizarre conspiracy theory of the world

  • Chezwick_mac

    I had the greatest admiration for Andrei Sakharov. In many ways, he was a mentor from afar. I discovered his work in the early 70s, when I was 15 years old and very impressionable. At the time, I was heavily influenced by Marxism, gobbling up "progressive" tracts as the centerpiece of my intellectual awakening from the game-playing of boyhood.

    Discovering the dissident literature of Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn and Djilas helped steer me clear of that blind ally…and by the time I was 16, I had already made the irrevocable turn away from the progressive faith. From his books, I watched Sakharov morph from the naive scientist who entertained the idea of convergence between capitalism and socialism…into the moral giant who insisted there could be no compromise with evil.

    Elena Bonner was Sakharov's partner-in-crime. Reading accounts of their internal exile in Gorky, it's apparent that she was not only an intellectual, a moralist, and a very strong personality, but also a loving wife who was absolutely devoted to her husband.

    God keep her.

  • Chezwick_mac

    I wrote and posted my little tribute to Bonner…and for some reason, I got a response saying my comments must be approved by the Administrator. I hope it gets posted.

  • tfc mod manager

    response saying my comments must be approved by the Administrator. I hope it gets posted.