Elena Bonner, R.I.P.

A leading dissident from the Soviet era -- and widow of Andrei Sakharov -- passes at the age of 88.

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.

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.