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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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.