Remembering Yelena Bonner

Understanding the influence of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.

The wife of former Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov was a formidable activist herself

Yelena Bonner in December 2008 at the European Parliament as it awarded its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

The death of former Soviet dissident Yelena Bonner on June 18, at 88, made headlines around the world. Journalists and world leaders remembered a complex and charismatic woman who, together with her husband, the Nobel prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov, led the long and lonely crusade for a more humane and democratic Russia.

They were titans of their time who defied a brutal and repressive regime and suffered terribly for it. When Sakharov died in 1989, there was an outpouring of national mourning. The country had lost a man regarded as its moral conscience.

His widow, Yelena Bonner, was less loved because she was, to be frank, very cranky, but was nevertheless admired for her clear-sighted critiques of the regime on difficult issues, including the growing authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin.

This week The New York Times cited a recent poll showing that an alarming number of Russian young people don't recognize the significance or even the name of Andrei Sakharov. That memory, though, is protected  by a generation of Soviet liberal thinkers, among them, Alexandra Sviridova, who wrote this reminder for young Russians, for CBC News.

Understanding the influence of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner can depend on who you are and where you were at the time of their political activism.

In 1972, I was a girl from a small Ukrainian town and new to Moscow, having gone there to study film. I was 21 years old and up to that point I had experienced no conflict with Soviet authorities.

At the same time, I had difficult questions for which no one had ready answers. For example: Why were there no films about the Jewish ghetto? Why were there no films about Stalin's prison camps?

I started to write about these things but I was told by my teachers that there were forbidden subjects. I asked for a list of these subjects, but they laughed at me.

The author, Alexandra Sviridova, as a young woman in 1989. (Courtesy Alexandra Sviridova)

Alexandra Sviridova is a Russian-born writer, journalist and filmmaker. She has been living in the U.S. since 1993 and settled in New York City, where she wrote several screenplays for film and television as well as essays. She worked for several years as an interviewer with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, founded by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg.

All that was forbidden interested me: Israel, repression, the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilov and Josef Brodsky, Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and emigration.

In the Soviet Union, the 1970s were a time of banned books and secret archives. Our teachers explained that unless I joined the Communist Party, I would not be published. That's how they defined the boundaries in which we had to live.

The Voice of America

I first heard Sakharov on the Voice of America in the early 1970s. He was speaking out on behalf of Vladimir Bukovsky and other political prisoners.

The Soviet press attacked both him and the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

As students of the film school, we asked our teachers if we could read the writings of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn and judge them for ourselves. They said no, and threatened to expel us from school.

We read their works clandestinely anyway, and could have gone to prison had we been discovered.

My interest in Sakharov grew after the Soviet leaders kicked Solzhenitsyn out of the country in 1974.

From the government's perspective, Sakharov, one of the country's leading nuclear physicists, had honours and privileges, but he chose to criticize Soviet power. What more did he need?

I recall him stating at the time in a Voice of America broadcast that if he were killed, we should understand that it was politically motivated.

The implication was terrifying. If someone of his stature could be eliminated, then what about the rest of us? We were dirt.

When Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, it gave us hope that he would be protected.


Yelena Bonner first came to my attention in 1979 when she and Sakharov, who she married in 1972, together protested against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

For this they were exiled from Moscow and put under house arrest. I remember how Sakharov was stripped of his government awards and titles.

The origins for Sakharov's opposition to Soviet power were not then clear to me. But it did set an important precedent — that a lone individual could protest against a huge government machine.

Like others of this brave minority, they chose a dangerous existence and gave up their comforts.

The amazing rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 and his policy of perestroika brought change to the Soviet Union.

People asked me what Gorbachev's priorities should be. Without thinking, I answered: Get the army out of Afghanistan, bring Sakharov back to Moscow and open the borders.

But when Gorbachev phoned Sakharov and Bonner in 1986 at their exile home in the city of Gorky and suggested that they would be permitted to return to Moscow, Sakharov refused and set conditions.

He wanted the freedom of other political prisoners, some of whom were my former classmates. It is impressive that, in that moment, Sakharov and Bonner thought about other people besides themselves.

They weren't my relations, but when they did eventually return to Moscow by train I cried out of happiness that they were free.

Worth dying for

Later, Sakharov signed a petition to form a non-governmental organization that would commemorate victims of the gulag. The group was to be called Memorial and there was a public meeting to lobby for the organization.

Andrei Sakharov at Paris's Orly airport in December 1988 for a UN anniversary. (Reuters)

It was the first unofficial political meeting out in the open since the 1917 Revolution.

Sakharov showed up to endorse it and spoke to the crowd in his quiet and humble way. I was there and worried that he could be a target.

I stood in front of him as a kind of shield and I remember thinking that there were few people in this world that I would die for. He was one of them.

That period of excitement and hope soon died. In the spring of 1989, Gorbachev famously turned off Sakharov's microphone in the Congress of People's Deputies, to silence him from further criticizing the government.

What was surprising was that Sakharov wouldn't be shut up. He continued talking without the microphone. His was a quiet, lonely voice, but one of a man sure of his rights. That will always remain in my memory.

Then in December came Sakharov's death. Muscovites gathered around his coffin. There was the hope that people finally understood that freedom depends upon those who fight for it.

Yet Sakharov died perhaps not fully comprehending how dear and important he was to so many.

For a time, then, Yelena Bonner disappeared from public view. She reappeared in full form in 1991 during the attempted putsch against Gorbachev.

She came to Russia's Parliament and stood at the microphone, addressing the pro-democracy crowds in a calm and steady voice. She said that Gorbachev should be freed; that the architects of the putsch shouldn't decide his fate, but that the people should.

I recall how she was embraced by the crowds in the square. For 20 years her voice had stood out alone, expressing her simple, direct, and clear-sighted views.

Bonner never tried to play to Soviet authorities in power. She was always ready to make her opinions known. She wasn't scared of anything.

She was, I believe, the only mirror through which the concerns and the people of the Soviet Union appeared as they actually were.

I have one other memory of her that stands out. When I was helping her write a congratulatory letter to young scientists for a Russian newspaper, I asked her how she wanted to sign her note. "President of the Sakharov Fund? Another title?"

"Nothing" she responded. "Simply Yelena Bonner." For all her historical contributions and significance, she remained a straight shooter. Her name said it all: Yelena Bonner.