The Magazine

Keeper of the Sakharov Flame

Elena Bonner fears for the future of Russia.

Jan 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 17 • By CATHY YOUNG
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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."