Keeper of the Sakharov Flame
Elena Bonner fears for the future of Russia.
Jan 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 17 • By CATHY YOUNG
For one elderly woman in Massachusetts, events in Russia--where a brief experiment in freedom is foundering under a rising tide of authoritarianism--have both personal and political resonance. She is Elena Bonner, the 84-year-old widow of world-famous Russian nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, and a heroic figure in her own right.
In the twilight of her life, Bonner is watching developments in her native country--a country she still considers home--from afar. While she is still a Russian citizen, since 2002 she has lived in the United States, where her son and daughter from her first marriage emigrated in the 1970s. At first, she divided her time between Russia and America. Today, because of her heart condition, she no longer travels and seldom leaves the house.
Formerly chairman of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and co-chairman of the Commission on the Commemoration of the Legacy of Andrei Sakharov in Russia, Bonner has been in de facto retirement for several years. "I now divide my time between my balcony and the hospital," she said wryly in August as we had tea on the balcony of her one-bedroom apartment in Brookline. Yet her mind has lost none of its sharpness, and her opinions are as strong as ever. "I am a private person," she says. "But no one can deny me the right to speak out when something gets my goat." And that, she certainly does.
Bonner is one of a handful of Russians whose participation in public life spans both the dissident movement of the 1970s--the first significant challenge to the totalitarian Soviet regime--and the democratic movement in post-Communist Russia. Her life has been a hard one. In 1937, both her parents were arrested in Stalin's purges; her father was shot, her mother sent to the Gulag. Bonner served as a military nurse in World War II and was wounded twice, with permanent damage to her eyesight.
In 1970, as an activist in the nascent human rights movement, she met the widowed Sakharov. After their marriage in 1972, Bonner became a target of Soviet propagandists seeking to explain the scandalous fact that the leading Soviet scientist and a recipient of the highest state honors had turned against that state. They depicted Sakharov as a besotted man manipulated by a power-hungry, depraved seductress with Zionist ties (Bonner is partly of Jewish background). In 1980, Bonner shared her husband's internal exile in the city of Gorky, east of Moscow.
Everything changed when Gorbachev came to power and in 1986 recalled Sakharov from Gorky as one of his first gestures toward opening up the Soviet regime. In 1989, Sakharov was elected to the Soviet Union's first and last real parliament, the All-Union Congress of People's Deputies, and was one of the leaders of the democratic opposition bloc that included Boris Yeltsin. But in December that year, Sakharov died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 68--shortly after Gorbachev rudely berated him in a televised Congress session for pushing too quickly for a multiparty system. Sakharov's funeral drew a crowd a hundred-thousand strong, and the image of Bonner as the quietly grieving woman at his coffin was etched into the public mind.
Now, times have changed again. The liberal, pro-Western ideas championed by Sakharov are out of favor in Putin's Russia, and so is Bonner herself. In recent years, pro-government newspapers have once again started treating her as persona non grata, a sellout in the pocket of Uncle Sam. The tone taken toward her is typified by a sneering aside in a December interview by political analyst and television host Maksim Shevchenko: Arguing for an "authentically Russian" form of liberal democracy, Shevchenko commented that "it wasn't Dr. Sakharov who laid the foundations of Russian liberalism while battling for his wife's right to have her teeth done in Switzerland." (In fact, Sakharov had gone on several hunger strikes to secure permission for Bonner to travel abroad for life-saving heart surgery.)
Such attacks leave Bonner unfazed, even bitterly amused, but the bigger picture in Russia saddens her deeply. Bonner believes it is a mistake to see Russia as backsliding toward the Soviet era. "This is a completely different historical point. Analogies to the Stalin era or to the 1970s do not feel real to me," she said in a telephone interview days after Putin's United Russia party won the massively rigged parliamentary elections on December 2. "I am closer to the view that there are many parallels to Germany in the 1930s. The same decrease in unemployment, economic stabilization; people are living better. Putin, like Hitler, is seen as the man who brought Russia out of chaos, raised her from her knees. It is ridiculous and embarrassing when the leaders of United Russia refer to Putin as 'the national leader.' What's a leader? The Führer. It's a carbon copy of a word that inevitably evokes certain associations."
So far, of course, Russia has no state ideology similar to Nazism; however, Bonner cautions, "there is a very strong nationalist idea, as well as the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as a state church. Authoritarianism, Orthodoxy, populism--not even focused on 'the people,' but on ethnic Russians--this formula, which is being more and more broadly adopted by the powers that be, seems to me a very frightening direction for my country. A large part of the population is unhappy about this. But when push comes to shove, even most of those people will not vote for the opposition but for Putin and United Russia, because they've been persuaded that the rise in prosperity today is the merit of Putin and United Russia."
As much as Bonner loathes the Putin regime, she also has some harsh words for its predecessor, idealized by many Russian liberals today. (She broke with the new Russian government under Yeltsin, resigning from his Human Rights Commission in 1994 in protest against the first war in Chechnya.) It's worth remembering, she says, that the first "fake elections" in post-Soviet Russia took place in 1996.
"After Yeltsin died, there were many admiring comments about the transformation of state and society under his leadership," she says. "But nothing was said about the fact that the corruption-ridden, mafia-like nature of state power is also Yeltsin's legacy. Only now, it has become even more blatant. I think everything that has happened in Russia in the 21st century is, in a sense, on the one hand a continuation of Yeltsin's economic 'reform' and the looting of the country, which peaked under Yeltsin--but at the same time, we have lost all the gains in democratic development for which the foundations were also laid under Yeltsin."
Was there a turning point when the pro-democracy movement missed its chance? If there was, Bonner believes it came in 1992-93, when the democrats agreed to give up on the idea of a constitutional convention with popularly elected and accountable delegates, and to participate instead in a nonbinding "constitutional conference" that helped the government's experts craft Russia's constitution. "Formally the constitution was a good one, but it was tailored to one president," says Bonner, who refused to "play the game" and participate in the constitutional conference. "And most important, without enforcement mechanisms, that constitution set the stage for all the changes of the following years"--including the drastic centralization of power and the rewriting of election laws to systematically exclude the opposition.
Another fatal mistake, she believes, was allowing much of the Soviet-era Communist elite to seize power in the guise of newly minted "democrats": "I didn't think that the Communist elite needed to be tried on criminal charges and sent to Siberia. But they absolutely should have been removed from positions of power, and even from access to jobs in the administration of government." While she strongly disagrees with the notion that the Russian people are congenitally unfit for freedom, whether by their genes or their cultural history, she understands that building a free society in post-Communist Russia could not have been an easy task. But, in her eyes, that makes "the enlightened democrats who fell for the tricks of the old elite" even more guilty of failing their country.
Bonner's criticism is directed at the West as well. "The West has never truly understood what's going on, and it still doesn't. On the one hand, they are too optimistic; on the other hand, they are mired in an energy crisis, and right now it's very difficult for European leaders or even for Bush to have a principled position." She bristles, in particular, at the post-September 11 idea of Putin as a partner in the global War on Terror: "By passing off the tragedy of Chechnya as a part of the struggle against global terrorism, Russia has deceived the West and persistently pushed the Chechen population into the radical Islamist corner."
Bonner's disappointment with the West also has a more personal dimension: what she considers the shameful neglect of Sakharov's legacy. In 1993, she donated a large collection of Sakharov's papers that had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union--documents pertaining not only to Sakharov himself but also to the human rights movement--to Brandeis University, where a Sakharov Archive was established, run by émigré human rights activist Alexander Gribanov and Bonner's daughter, Tatiana Yankelevich. Several years later, private funding for the archive dried up, and by 2003 it was in danger of being shut down. In 2004, arrangements were made to transfer it to the Davis Center at Harvard, where Yankelevich currently oversees a small, financially strapped Sakharov Program on Human Rights. The program sponsors seminars on human rights in the Soviet Union.
To Bonner, all of this seems painfully inadequate. She has fond memories of Ronald Reagan, who mentioned Sakharov in several speeches in the 1980s, including his New Year's radio message to the Soviet people broadcast over the Voice of America on January 1, 1987. "Reagan had a soft spot for Sakharov and regarded him as a like-minded man," she says. Today, she detects among American public figures only "an insulting indifference."
The preservation of her late husband's legacy is the final task of Bonner's life--especially important, in her view, because she is concerned that the new regime in Russia may try to recast Sakharov as a Russian nationalist and statist in its own image. "I fear very much that this will start happening as soon as I leave this world," she says. Despite her failing health, Bonner worked for three years to prepare Sakharov's diaries, along with her own, for publication; a three-volume edition was published in Moscow in 2006. (Bonner is also the author of two memoirs which have been translated into English: Alone Together, the story of her and Sakharov's Gorky exile, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1986, and Mothers and Daughters, an account of growing up in Stalin's Russia, published in 1992.)
As Putin's presidency nears its end, Bonner hazards few guesses as to what the future will bring. She is not sure what relevance the legacy of the 1970s human rights movement of which she was a part may have for the opposition in today's Russia, operating in very different circumstances. If there is one element of the human rights movement that she would like to see the new generation preserve, it is its commitment to "moral principles."
For the near future, she sees no viable way for the opposition to challenge the new ruling clique's monopoly on power. Participation in the presidential elections can only "lend a veneer of legitimacy to what Putin is doing; on the other hand, nonparticipation suggests the lack of a platform."
In a New Year's greeting emailed to friends, reflecting on the state of her country, Bonner quoted some lines about Russia by the 19th-century poet Nikolai Nekrasov that capture the present commingling of hope and despair:
Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields, 1989).