Soviet dissident Yelena Bonner dies in US

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Soviet dissident Yelena Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov and tireless critic of Vladimir Putin, has died aged 88 in her new home in the United States.

A pediatrician by training but a historic figure in life, Bonner died on Saturday in Boston after undergoing heart surgery for a third time, her friend and fellow rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva told AFP.

After a Boston ceremony, Bonner will be laid to rest next to her husband at Moscow's Vostryakovo Cemetery, her daughter said in a statement.

A seminal figure in the rights movement, Bonner was remembered as a unbowed fighter for Soviet freedoms who became so disillusioned with the course taken by Russia that she spent her last years in the United States.

"I am still stunned that our youth do not remember who Sakharov is. Unfortunately, Bonner is even less known. It is sad, but she is not the figure here that she is in the United States," said the Moscow-based Alexeyeva.

There was no immediate reaction from President Dmitry Medvedev or his predecessor and current premier Putin, an ex-KGB man whose resignation Bonner demanded in a 2010 open letter titled simply "Putin Must Go".

Russia's human rights commissioner Vladimir Lukin noted that Bonner had made some "harsh pronouncements" during her four-decade career as a campaigner.

"But experience showed that only people like that could help us cross from an old era into a new one, and here she played an instrumental role," Interfax quoted the Russian rights chief as saying.

A daughter of Jewish community revolutionaries, Bonner served as the West's only link to her exiled husband and other dissidents in the 1980s, exposing rights abuses in Chechnya a decade later and demanding action over more recent Russian restrictions.

After marrying the nuclear scientist Sakharov in 1972, she accepted his Nobel Peace Prize at an Oslo awards ceremony three years later as the Cold War raged, her husband being barred from travelling abroad because of his activism.

Sakharov died aged 68 in 1989 in the closing years of the Soviet regime, becoming a public critic of Mikhail Gorbachev after being allowed to return to Moscow during the last Soviet leader's perestroika era.

With Russia in disarray after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, Bonner helped organise Russia's nascent rights movement and became a keeper of her husband's legacy, which carried great weight in the West.

She was also an early supporter of Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president and sworn foe of the Soviet regime who instilled hope of change in those who suffered from communist oppressions.

But she famously quit Yeltsin's rights commission for his 1994 decision to launch the first Chechen war, which killed tens of thousands in a Muslim region where violence festers to this day.

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

Bonner said little in public about Medvedev, who has promoted modernisation while coming under criticism for achieving few results.

Instead, she took pains to capture and relay to the world the great tragedy that the Soviet people suffered under communism.

Born in the Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, Bonner was raised during the bloodiest years of Joseph Stalin's atrocities, an era in which the lives of tens of millions were gripped in fear.

Her father, a leading Communist Party intellectual, was executed in 1938 when she was 14 and her mother was sent to a labour camp for eight years.

"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.

© 2011 AFP

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