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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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:

She will survive it all, and pave

A wider road, a better way;

A pity neither you nor I

Will live to see that wondrous day.

Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields, 1989).