Bonner: Soviet dissident who fought Putin

19th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Yelena Bonner, who died in Boston aged 88, was a Soviet voice of conscience who fought alongside her husband Andrei Sakharov before leaving Russia years later decrying Vladimir Putin's rule.

After the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Sakharov died in 1989, Bonner helped organise Russia's nascent rights movement and became a keeper of her husband's legacy which carried great weight in the West.

But she eventually lost her faith in modern Russia, horrified first by the brutality of the 1994-96 war in Chechnya and later by vanishing freedoms under ex-KGB man and former president Putin, Russia's current premier.

Last year, hers was the first signature under an open letter titled simply "Putin Must Go."

A pediatrician by training, Bonner was raised during the bloodiest years of Joseph Stalin's atrocities, an era when the lives of tens of millions were gripped in fear.

She was born into a family of leading communist revolutionaries, with the future Yugoslav statesman Marshal Tito and Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov among visitors to her family's Moscow apartment when she was young.

But like other prominent intellectuals around him, her father was executed in 1938 when she was 14. Her mother was sent to a labour camp for eight years, and Bonner and her younger brother were raised by their grandmother.

"Today, summing up my life ... I can do so in three words. My life was typical, tragic and beautiful," Bonner told the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009.

She called herself one of "the strange orphans of 1937," the worst year of Stalin's purges.

As a young adult, Bonner became a doctor in World War II and joined the Communist Party after Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev introduced a thaw that erased the worst excesses of the dictator's cult of personality.

But after Soviet tanks rumbled into the then Czechoslovakia in 1968, she took the unprecedented step of giving up her party membership, later calling her decision to join the greatest mistake of her life.

She met Sakharov in 1970 when they were both attending the trial of two Soviet dissidents in Kaluga, a small town outside Moscow. They married two years later.

Sakharov was by then known not only as the father of the hydrogen bomb but also a dissident who was feared and respected by the Soviet authorities as much as the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Bonner accepted her husband's Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf in Oslo in 1975, Sakharov by then being stripped of his Soviet titles and barred from travelling abroad.

She joined her husband when he was exiled to Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, in 1980 for condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was herself arrested in 1984 for speaking to US reporters.

With Sakharov's name respected worldwide, the Soviet authorities often made Bonner their main target of persecution, hinting of her Jewish roots and alleged Western ties in the Soviet press.

Bonner was pardoned by Mikhail Gorbachev and returned to Moscow in 1987 as the Soviet system began to crack.

An early supporter of Boris Yeltsin, she later quit his rights commission because of the Chechen offensive, which killed tens of thousands in a region where violence festers to this day.

Bonner spent her last years in the United States after expressing dismay with Russia's course under Putin, a period that has seen the state win back control of major television stations and rights groups face a new wave of restrictions.

But she also voiced repeated anger with what she perceived as the West's tacit acceptance of Putin's policies.

"The West is not very interested in Russia, a country that no longer has real elections, independent courts or freedom of the press," she lamented in her 2009 Oslo address.

© 2011 AFP

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