In Memory of Elena Georgievna Bonner

posted 20 Jun 2011, 04:15 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 20 Jun 2011, 07:02 ]
Source: (info), 19/06/11

· Human Rights Defenders

Elena Georgievna Bonner, human rights defender and civil society activist, wife of academician Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, died on 18 June in Boston. Elena Georgievna Bonner was 88 years old (15 February 1923 - 18 June 2011). A memorial service for her will be held in the United States. In accordance with Elena Georgievna’s will, the urn with her ashes will be buried at the Vostryakovskoe Cemetery in Moscow, alongside the graves of her husband, mother and father.

                                                                                   Photo gallery in memory of Elena Georgievna Bonner.

Elena Bonner’s voice was frequently heard on Radio Liberty. She last appeared on December 10, 2010 in the programme Time of Liberty. Final Broadcast, when she commented on decisions by Russia and China to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honouring Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo. Presenter Andrei Sharyi spoke with her in that broadcast about the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the end of December 2010, she left her last commentary on Radio Liberty’s website. It was about the 26 December demonstration in Moscow's Pushkin Square, “Moscow For All.” At the rally Viktor Shenderovich read out Elena Georgievna’s letter. She wrote:

"I am a Muscovite. I am a Jew of 'Caucasian nationality' [both groups that have experienced discrimination in Russia – her father was Armenian, her mother Jewish – ed.] In 1941, I defended my country and in 1945, I wept with joy. In 1953, I protested against the so-called Doctors' Plot. For many years, after the spring of 1937, I waited for my mother somehow, some time, to return from the Karaganda gulag camp. And when she returned and rang the doorbell, I didn't recognize her. I took her for a beggar. And all these years, my dreams have been filled with tears for my father, who was shot dead. My father had a stomach ulcer and I remember how in the evening he'd call me and say: 'Lusya-jan, make me a hot water bottle. My stomach hurts very much.' And I cried for my grandmother, who raised three children orphaned by the 1937 Great Terror and who took her last breath during the blockade of Leningrad. And all my life I tormented myself - was I to blame that my mother was arrested, that I didn't recognize her? Was I to blame that my father was shot, that the headstone for him in the Vostryakovskoye Cemetery marks an empty grave? Was I guilty for not remaining in blockaded Leningrad and dying together with my grandmother? But I had to go and save my motherland! The motherland. And now I have no strength left to save my motherland. I haven’t even enough strength to make a hot water bottle for myself. But how does one save one's motherland? I didn't know then and I don't know now. Count me among those who come to Pushkin Square on 26 December. Consider me one of those who came out to once again save the motherland - even though my legs no longer have the strength."

Elena Bonner was born on February 15, 1923, into a family of Communist Party activists in Turkmenia (now Turkmenistan). Her parents were caught up in the 1937 Stalinist Great Terror. At age 18, she went to the front in World War II and served as a nurse on a military hospital train. She was seriously injured. After the war, she graduated from the Leningrad Medical Institute. She was expelled from the institute for her statements against the so-called Doctors' Plot and was reinstated only after Stalin's death. In 1965, Elena Bonner joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which she later said was one of the most serious mistakes of her life. In 1972, she left the party and took up human rights activism.

Also in 1972, Elena Bonner married academician Andrei Sakharov. Much later, she said in an interview: "I don't like it when they call me Sakharov's wife or Sakharov's widow... I am my own person."

Elena Bonner was among those who helped smuggle the diaries of Eduard Kuznetsov to the West, and in 1973 she was repeatedly interrogated about this. She set up a fund for the children of Soviet political prisoners, using the money that Andrei Sakharov was given for winning the Prix Mondial Cina Del Duca.

Elena Bonner represented academician Sakharov at the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. On May 12, 1976, she signed the founding document of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Together with Sakharov, in 1980 she was sent into internal exile in the city of Gorky (now, Nizhny Novgorod). In 1984, Gorky regional court convicted her under Article 190 Section 1 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR ("slandering the Soviet social or state structure"). She served her sentence at her husband’s place of exile in Gorky. In December 1986, she and her husband returned to Moscow.

Until 28 December, 1994, she was a member of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights. She quit the commission on the grounds that she could not work with a political regime that had started the war in Chechnya. Elena Bonner headed the Sakharov Foundation and was chair of the international non-governmental organization “Public Commission for the Preservation of the Heritage of Academician Sakharov — Andrei Sakharov Foundation.

In the last years of her life, Elena Bonner lived in the United States.

On 10 March, 2010, she was the first person to sign the appeal by the Russian opposition to Russian citizens, "Putin Must Go."

Ludmila Alekseeva, current chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group and one of Russia's most senior and respected human rights activists, has paid tribute to Elena Bonner:
“She lived a long, vivid, and very productive life. We can only envy how much she managed to do and the happiness that she had in her life. Wonderful children and a beloved husband -- what a husband! And her public work, the wide circle of her friends, the people who knew her and respected her courage and her intellect, her readiness to work for the good of humanity. One can only envy such a person.”

Longtime activist Sergei Kovalyov, chairman of the NGO Memorial, called Bonner "a happy person":

“Elena Georgievna lived an uncommonly bright, uncommonly full, and therefore, I would say, happy life. She was the devoted and beloved wife of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. She was a passionate person, and that passion was felt equally by those whom she loved and those whom she did not love. She made mistakes, I think, in both her personal and her political judgments - but there was never falseness. There was always integrity, and she managed to accomplish a lot. But the main thing was her bright mutual love with Andrei Sakharov. On this topic there have been many false allegations and wrong hypotheses such as that, for instance, Bonner told Sakharov what to do, that she oppressed him with her temperament and forced him to do or not do certain things. But none of this is true. Andrei Sakharov was a person who was absolutely free from any kind of outside pressure. He was very attentive and willing to listen to various points of view, including first of all, Elena Bonner's. You could convince him. You could change his mind, but you could never have a decisive influence over him. Elena understood this very well and their life together was harmonious. I think this is far from her least important service in life. I'd even say, it was her greatest.”

Leader of the Movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev, remembers Elena Bonner:

"I worked closely with Elena Georgievna. I met her during the last two years of Andrei Sakharov's life, when he was running for the post of deputy in the Supreme Soviet and later when he was working in the so-called Interregional Group of Deputies. He was working on his own draft constitution and was fighting for various pieces of legislation at the Congress. He announced a national strike. These were all pretty intense moments in the political life of the country. There were a lot of meetings, discussions, and the first thing I remember about Elena Georgievna is that all the decisions Sakharov made, he made together with her. This was a union of people... not just a personal union (I saw how they loved one another), but it was also a union of like-minded people, a union of people who were jointly engaged in public and political activity. For me this was a surprising and impressive example that made a powerful impression on me for my whole life.

When Andrei Sakharov died, I remember, Elena Bonner and I jointly set up a public funeral commission that opposed the commission the government had set up for this purpose, because the government wanted to bury Andrei Sakharov quickly and quietly. But we had our own plan. And I remember that I was one of the first to arrive after Andrei Sakharov's death and I was struck by the courageous calm with which she accepted his death and how she took upon herself all the heavy responsibility of the funeral. She understood that we were not simply burying a person but a major public figure and that the funeral had to be a public event. She understood that and did everything to make that happen.

After Andrei Sakharov's death, Elena Bonner was very active as a human rights defender. The positions of the human rights community were worked out together with her. Perhaps I didn't always agree with her, but all of my interactions with her were interesting and necessary and useful. Together we created a union of human rights defenders that was called Common Action and, even when she left for the United States, and when she was already ill, she all the same always closely followed events in Russia and was part of the united human rights movement. And, of course, her death is a huge loss for all of us. In general, we must realize that the dissidents of the Soviet era are leaving us and this will likely have an impact on the strategy of our work in Russia. Something irreversible is happening and, of course, this weighs heavily on us. For us, this is an enormous loss.”

Courtesy of RFE/RL, translation is based on the text at: Russian Dissident Yelena Bonner Dies, RFE/RL, 19 June 2011.
Rights in Russia,
20 Jun 2011, 04:19