Yelena Bonner was Soviet human rights activist and wife of Nobel Price laureate Andrei Sakhorov. She passed away last Sunday, June 19th. Mainstream obituaries highlight her heroic opposition to Soviet brutality:
Bonner’s life revolved around the political struggles that characterized the Soviet Union in the 20th century. She joined forces with Sakharov in the early 1970’s.
Bonner was born in 1923 in Turkmenistan into a family of prominent Communist Party officials, according to a biography posted on Harvard University’s website. Her father was killed in Stalin’s purges during the “Great Terror” of the late 1930s, and her mother was interned in a gulag for 10 years.
Bonner was twice wounded during World War II while serving as a nurse for the Soviet military. She became a physician after the war.
She married Sakharov, known for his work on the development of the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union, in 1972, according to the Andrei Sakharov Foundation website.
Following his work on the atomic bomb, Sakharov began publishing writings critical of Soviet politics.
Bonner followed Sakharov into exile in Gorky, in western Russia, in 1980. She was permitted to take trips to Moscow, which enabled her to smuggle Sakharov’s critical writings on the Soviet Union out of exile.
Bonner was convicted of “anti-Soviet agitation” in 1984 for smuggling Sakharov’s writings and lost her travel privileges to Moscow. She was confined to Gorky with her husband.
Mikhail Gorbachev ended Bonner and Sakharov’s exile in 1986 by inviting them to return to Moscow, according to the Andrei Sakharov Foundation.
Bonner, a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, received the Rafto Prize in 1991 for her promotion of human rights in the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia, according to the foundation.
What is said of her later years is either this:
She moved to the United States to be with her daughter after Sakharov’s death in 1989. She published at least four books on her life as a dissident, according to the Harvard website.
She never stopped speaking out about her country’s politics. In the 1990s, she sat on President Boris Yeltsin’s human rights commission until resigning to protest his military assault on Chechnya.
More recently, she challenged President Vladimir Putin’s human rights record. When a petition circulated in 2010 calling for Putin to step down, she was among the first to sign it.
Bonner was part Jewish, and kept her mother’s maiden name through her marriages. She embraced her Jewish and Armenian heritage and Russian culture. She identified with the Soviet refusnik movement of the 70s and 80s. In her late years Bonner was a staunch supporter of Israel. Here I turn to Israel Matzav:
Quoting Sakharov, Ms. Bonner reminded the 2009 Oslo Forum audience, “All wars that Israel has waged have been just, forced upon it by the irresponsibility of Arab leaders.” She expressed her “alarm because of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment growing throughout Europe.” Ms. Bonner also pleaded for the human rights movement to remember the plight of Gilad Shalit, asking her human rights colleagues why his fate doesn’t “trouble you in the same way as does the fate of the Guantanamo prisoners?…”
Were she a pro-Palestinian, Bonner would be the darling of Western intelligentsia. Bonner was on the side of freedom in the defining conflicts of her age: she fought against Nazism and Communism, and spoke out against radical Islam. A remarkable woman and a true hero, RIP.