Accessibility links

Breaking News

Yelena Bonner In Her Own Right

Yelena Bonner helped create institutions that will survive her and her peers.
Yelena Bonner helped create institutions that will survive her and her peers.
At the 90th anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s birth in Moscow on May 21 this year, the ranks of Sakharov’s cohorts were already thinner. Figures like veteran rights campaigner Larissa Bogoraz and scientist Valentin Turchin had died in recent years, and people felt that if they didn’t get to the 90th, they might not see people who wouldn’t live until the 100th.

Yelena Georgiyevna Bonner, Sakharov's widow, who died on June 18 at the age of 88, had strongly guided the May event to preserve her husband's legacy -- with the kind of strength that was needed in a climate of indifference, if not hostility, to the ideals of moral politics. While it was encouraging to see some younger people in the audience alongside old stalwarts like Sergei Kovalyov and Pavel Litvinov, no government official higher than the human rights commissioner, Vladimir Lukin, was present. No great scientist of innovation or famous performer was there to commemorate Russia's greatest Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

And now Sakharov's fiercest protector is gone.

Nowadays, human rights is a job, not the vocation that the Soviet dissidents made of their cause -- or even the avocation that made them willing to suffer even the loss of their professions. This special calling was dictated by a conscience somehow formed in the Russian intelligentsia, despite decades of state terror and civil wars, inspiring courageous individuals to risk exile or jail for principles or for other people. That's uncommon today, when it’s easier to work on fashionable themes like "corruption" than to stand up for people like jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as Bonner did. It is a world of nongovernmental organizations rather than committees of conscience, grant proposals and seminars instead of petitions and pickets.

It was this deep sense of vocation that kept Bonner persevering through enormous hardships and struggles (even for the simple request of permission to go abroad for medical care) and through the deluge of hate mail and press orchestrated by the Kremlin -- a practice that shamefully continues today in the routine vilification of rights advocates as "marginals."

Making The Political Personal

Bonner -- and her mother, Ruf, before her -- opened their home to endless streams of activists and supplicants, helping countless people from Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ukrainians, and Jews to persecuted writers and artists. Bonner's life was all about the willingness to make the political personal and to back up ideals with the small, practical actions that constitute a movement -- a package for a labor-camp inmate, signing an appeal, arranging a meeting with a foreign correspondent. She was never reticent about speaking straight to the powers that be at home or abroad because she felt a human responsibility for all those petitioners, not just for abstract truths.
Today’s people of conscience find themselves in a very changed setting.

Not a single news article about Bonner during her lifetime -- and now since her death -- has seemed to go by without the patronizing phrase "in her own right," as if she were overshadowed by her more famous husband. Interestingly, after a relatively brief period when he formed the Committee for Human Rights with several close colleagues, Sakharov generally avoided civic organizations. By contrast, Bonner helped create institutions that will survive her and her peers, chiefly the Sakharov Foundation, with its research and advocacy programs, museum, and archives.

She was also among the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, led by physicist Yury Orlov, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary and has served as an inspiration for scores of similar groups in the former Soviet bloc and, of course, the U.S. Helsinki Watch (later named Human Rights Watch, or HRW), with offices all over the world. Characteristically, Bonner later joined the board of Advancing Human Rights, an organization critical of HRW that was founded by her longtime friend and publisher, Robert Bernstein. Bonner also served as adviser to the International League for Human Rights and was among the founders of Common Action. Her manifestos -- whether against Russian President Boris Yeltsin for the war in Chechnya or Vladimir Putin for "managed democracy," or in support of Israel -- shaped the post-Soviet political and moral landscape.

The purpose of many dissident movements around the world seems to be to come to power. While some of the Soviet rights advocates became parliamentarians, many kept a justified wariness of the Russian government. Bonner served for a time on Yeltsin's human rights commission but quit in protest over the Chechen war. She was always taking up causes, gathering signatures, and most of all, gaining glasnost -- publicity -- for them. She and Sakharov used that term ages before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ever did. Among her last statements this year was a message to an Article 31 demonstration about the right to demonstrate.

'Formula For Opposition'

In an e-mail to colleagues early this year, Bonner was critically pondering the U.S.-Russian "reset" and all of today's problems, from NGO restrictions to ethnic relations. And she recalled Sakharov's last speech about "a formula for opposition," in which he urged the radicalization of perestroika and the abolition of the Communist Party's monopoly (Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution). For her, the meaning of Sakharov’s life did not only involve cooperation with the authorities for a just case when such a course seemed feasible, but also asking the question whether you can morally justify collaboration with any regime after a certain point.

Today's people of conscience find themselves in a very changed setting. Soviet secret police at least took dissidents seriously. They read the books of the protesters they arrested and kept them in the KGB's internal library. And, after Stalin at least, they stopped executing them. Today's Kremlin leaders foster the impunity of those who break the arms of journalists or kill rights activists. But perhaps their ultimate cruelty is that they simply ignore them, regarding their chattering on blogs in a country with only 43 percent Internet penetration as irrelevant.

Oleg Melnikov, an activist with the Youth (Molodyozh) and Anti-Seliger civic and environmental movement, who suffered a broken jaw when local security broke up an attempt to protect the Khimki Forest outside of Moscow, has concluded that "demonstrations are 19th century," "Russia Profile" reported recently. Are they? People don't think so in Cairo. Or is the young generation unwilling to suffer five or 10 years of labor camp or exile as Yelena and her fellow dissidents were?

Bonner seemed most proud of her role as an author. Her books were written under terrible circumstances -- time snatched while abroad getting medical treatment or under the watchful eye of KGB guards when in Gorki. While "Alone, Together" and "Mothers And Daughters" are personal chronicles, she consciously speaks for many voiceless people in the era of Stalinist repression in Moscow and the Soviet republics that took away her father, consigned her mother to years in the gulag, and whose effects lingered throughout her lifetime. Her chronicles are a validation of the individual's narrative of history, so crushed by the state, and follows the tradition of Anna Akhmatova's poem "Requiem," in which a woman asks the poet, "Can you describe all this?" An epitaph in Bonner's book continues the eternal Russian conversation: "Did it happen?" "I don't know." "Is it true?" "Yes."

"It is a penchant of oppressive regimes to decorate themselves with fake attributes of democracy -- sham elections, a servile judiciary, manipulated media," Bonner wrote for "The Wall Street Journal" in 2003. "To have the West call a surrogate the real thing is a particular ambition of such regimes," she added, explaining that the motive for the West's appeasement of Russia is to keep an ally in the "war on terror."

"Legitimizing false democracy, false justice, and a make-believe war on terror casts doubt on the real things, particularly for those who, like myself, continue to value them," she explained.

And she could be speaking for any of us, anywhere. But how few of us have her courage of convictions.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer on Eurasian affairs, who maintains the blog Minding Russia. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL