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Yelena Bonner: 'It Is Time To Say Goodbye'

  • Vladimir Tolz

We spent a week together in a little cottage on Cape Cod, where we spent our days on the veranda. We spent whole days remembering events from our past (mostly the funny ones) and reciting beloved poems.

We spent a week together in a little cottage on Cape Cod, where we spent our days on the veranda. We spent whole days remembering events from our past (mostly the funny ones) and reciting beloved poems.

It often happens that even when you try to prepare yourself for something tragic and inevitable, you find yourself completely unprepared when it actually occurs. That is what happened to me when I heard the news of the passing of Yelena Bonner. Forgive me, but I can't get used to calling her anything other than what I called her during the many years of our friendship -- Lusya.

I was awakened by the buzzing of my iPhone. One after another came e-mails from our friends in English and in Russian: "Yelena Georgiyevna is dead." "Lusya, may God protect you!" A friend called from Paris, crying, unable to speak. All I could make out was: "I feel so bad. They are all leaving. All the closest ones…." She hadn't cried so fiercely even when her mother died. And it kept on and on.

Of course, throughout the last few months, when Lusya was suffering in hospitals (undergoing yet another heart surgery), we understood that the end was near. Last autumn she called and said: "Fly out here. It is time to say goodbye."

But when I arrived, we spent a week together in a little cottage on Cape Cod, where we spent our days on the veranda. Our farewell somehow moved to the back burner. Instead, we spent whole days remembering events from our past (mostly the funny ones) and reciting beloved poems. Lusya remembered so much -- Pushkin, Baratynsky, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. She burst out laughing when I recalled these lines from Joseph Brodsky's "Cape Cod Lullaby":

Stuffiness. A person is on a veranda with a towel wrapped around
His throat. A night moth, with all its unenviable body,
Strikes the iron screen, and bounces away, just like a bullet
Sent by nature from an invisible bush
To hit nature itself, to strike one in a hundred
In the middle of July.

She said: "That's us. That's about me..."

'All This Will Go On'

Sometimes, when she felt up to it, we took her down to the ocean and had lunch in a little country restaurant. Once while she was waiting for her daughter, Tanya, to bring the car around, she looked out over the idyllic setting and said: "When I die, all this will go on. And that makes it easier."

But overall she passionately wanted to live. We returned to the veranda and continued to debate the problems of today and tomorrow. We talked about the Sakharov Fund, about our friends and fellow rights activists. Whenever I'd say something like: "You need to decide such-and-such urgent matter," she'd wave it off. She had her own priorities and eternity ahead of her. So a lot was left behind.

In order to get past disagreements, she again and again resorted to stories about her parents and her childhood, about various humorous episodes we'd shared together. I reminded her again of how I'd been evicted and how I settled in a communal apartment that Andrei Sakharov had acquired for Lusya's children and how I went from neighbor to neighbor with an official paper for them to sign saying they didn't object to the sale of this property. It was one of those times when Sakharov was being denounced in the Soviet press, and many of the neighbors looked at me in horror and signed the paper silently. But one of them said something that Sakharov and Lusya later found very funny: "Allow me to shake his hand through you...."

And how once she and Sakharov visited me in Botkinskaya Hospital after I'd been hit by a car. In fact, I owe Lusya and some other friends my life -- they were able to track down the woman who hit me (as the investigator told me, "a great friend of our country and personally of Minister Nikolai Shchelokov") and who sold Mercedes cars to the Soviet Interior Ministry, and get her to send me some urgently needed medicines that were not available in the Soviet Union at the time.

And how after Lusya and Sakharov had returned from internal exile in Gorki (now, Nizhny Novgorod), I called them (I was already working in Munich then) and she said: "Listen, while we were gone you left all your samizdat and copies of the 'Chronicle of Current Events' under our couch! What are we supposed to do? It is really uncomfortable when Andryusha wants to lie down." And in the background I could hear Sakharov laughing and brushing it off, saying it could wait.

Voice Of The Conscience Of Her Country

We were friends for half of my life. I can't imagine how my life would have turned out without that friendship. When I was leaving Cape Cod, I told her that. And Lusya unexpectedly responded with a quotation from the same Brodsky poem mentioned above that a few days ago she'd been unable to remember:

Loneliness teaches you the essence of things, since their essence is also

Much has been written of Yelena Bonner's public role, and I'm sure there is more to come. Back in the day, the Central Committee and the KGB (according to documents that I have now) artificially demonized both Bonner and her public role. Fragments of that remain in the popular mind to this day. And in the minds of today's authorities, whose world view is suffused with the Chekist mentality and for whom she was the main obstacle preventing them from "adapting" the memory of Sakharov in their image.

But for everyone who knew her -- despite all the arguments and disagreements with her -- she will always remain the voice of the conscience of the country in which she wanted to be buried. Ashes to ashes, Lusya. We will never forget you.

Vladimir Tolz is a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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