Elena Bonner, Widow of Sakharov, Dies At 88


By Alessandra Stanley and Michael Schwirtz

Elena Bonner, right, with her husband, Andrei Sakharov, in 1988
Elena Bonner, right, with her husband, Andrei Sakharov, in 1988

BOSTON (New York Times) — Elena G. Bonner, the Soviet dissident and human-rights campaigner who endured banishment and exile along with her husband, the dissident nuclear physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, died here on Saturday. She was 88.

The cause was heart failure, said Edward Kline, a director of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation. He said Bonner had been in the hospital since February.

Maligned by the government and, for much of her life, cast aside by society, Bonner and her husband were considered royalty among the tight-knit and embattled community of dissidents who challenged Soviet authority.

Before and after exile, their modest Moscow apartment was a command center of sorts from which a seemingly quixotic, but in many ways successful, war against Soviet authoritarianism was waged.

Though Sakharov was better known, Bonner became a force in her own right, waging a tireless campaign to improve the lives of her people long after her husband’s death in 1989.

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It is a role she accepted out of necessity, she would say. A pediatrician by training, whose family suffered greatly during the Stalinist purges, Bonner longed for a simpler life.

Rather than being “the heroic woman,” she once said, she would vastly prefer to be a “babushka,” using the Russian word for grandmother.

“I would much rather be a simple woman, mother and daughter,” she said Elena Georgievna Bonner, whose first name is often spelled Yelena, was born in Merv (now Mary) in Turkmenistan on February 15, 1923.

As a child, she saw her parents’ lives stamped by Soviet totalitarianism.

Her father, Gevork Alikhanov, was an Armenian who founded the Soviet Armenian Communist Party. He was arrested and disappeared into Stalin’s prisons in 1937.

Her mother, Ruth Bonner, was Jewish and originally from Siberia. She was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulag. Bonner, who was then 15 and already a worker in a Communist Party archive, later told a biographer that she remembered helping her mother pack and consoling her younger brother, Igor.

Bonner recalled years later that her background had given her “deep respect toward all beliefs, all religions.”

“The most deplorable teaching,” she said, “is the superiority of any nation over another.”

Bonner confronted that teaching head-on in World War II, joining the front lines as a nurse in the fight against the invading Nazis. She was repeatedly wounded and received top Soviet honors for her contributions.

After the war, she studied medicine in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. She became a pediatrician (though she did not achieve the title of doctor) and, despite what had happened to her parents, joined the Communist Party.

She married a medical school classmate, Ivan Semyonov, and had two children.

But by the 1960s, a brief political thaw had created fissures in Soviet society, and Bonner became swept up in a movement against the government. She eventually divorced her husband, quit the Communist Party and gave up her medical practice to become a full-time member of the sometimes shadowy world of Soviet dissidents.

It was at this time that she met Sakharov, a widower and a renowned nuclear physicist.

By then, Sakharov was already famous in the Soviet Union for his work developing the country’s first hydrogen bomb. His break with officialdom for the sake of his principles had made him infamous among the authorities and an idol among dissidents.

They were married in 1972, and almost immediately became targets of the KGB. Bonner was hauled in for interrogations, where she was told she was mentally ill and threatened with detention. Secret police officials even threatened retaliation against her children.

But Sakharov was the main target and Bonner was at times permitted to leave the country. In 1975, she traveled to Oslo to accept her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize, after the Soviet authorities had refused him permission to make the trip.

Strong-jawed, bespectacled and austere in dress, Bonner was something of a symbol of dignified protest within the Soviet Union. Half- Jewish, she was a target of anti-Semitism. Tough-minded and uncompromising, she was fiercely protective of her husband; indeed, she was caricatured as a Lady Macbeth by both the KGB and the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose own dissident views were based more upon traditional Russian nationalism.

In 1984, after she was prosecuted on charges of anti-Soviet slander, Bonner joined her husband in exile in Gorky, on the Volga River, 250 miles east of Moscow, a once-closed military city that has since reclaimed its prerevolutionary name of Nizhny Novgorod. Sakharov had been banished to Gorky in 1980 after he protested the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The spare apartment they lived in there — and in which they were spied upon — has since been turned into a museum. But Bonner never went back, telling friends that the mere mention of the place made her ill.

In 1986, workmen unexpectedly appeared at the Gorky apartment and installed a telephone. Shortly after, Sakharov received a call from Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. Just beginning to push the reforms that would become glasnost, Gorbachev wanted Sakharov and his wife back in Moscow.

Sakharov accepted and immediately lobbied the Soviet leader to release other jailed dissidents.

Sakharov was later elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies, and Bonner continued her human-rights work and writings. She became an ardent critic of Gorbachev, even as her husband tried to work with him.

When Gorbachev was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, she asked the Nobel Committee to delete Sakharov’s name from the list of winners. The committee declined.

At the funeral of her husband in December 1989, a frail and visibly devastated Bonner wore her husband’s gray fur hat as she greeted thousands of mourners. She lost her composure only once, at the wake the night before, when she suddenly stepped into the corridor outside their apartment and glared teary-eyed at waiting journalists.

“You worked hard to see that Andrei died sooner by calling us from morning to night, and never leaving us to our life and work!” she shouted. “Be human beings. Leave us!”

Bonner wrote two memoirs: Alone Together (1986) and Mothers and Daughters (1992).

She is survived by two children from her first marriage, Tatiana I. Yankelevich of Boston and Alexey I. Semyonov of Springfield, Va.; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

While she maintained an apartment in Moscow, Bonner had been living primarily in the United States for the last five years, mostly in Brookline, Mass., Kline said. She continued her fight for human rights, publishing articles in the Russian and American press until a few months before her death, he said.

“She felt that Russia was backsliding,” he added, “and she campaigned vigorously to improve justice and the rule of law in Russia and the democratization of the political system.”

For all her stern rectitude, Bonner would sometimes exhibit a more lighthearted side. While in the United States for medical treatment in 1985, Bonner attended a dinner in her honor in connection with the docudrama “Sakharov,” which came out the year before. When a screenwriter asked her over cocktails if she and her husband got to the movies much in Gorky, Bonner replied that they seldom had the chance, but added that they had recently seen and enjoyed one: “What was the name of it? Oh, yes, ‘Tootsie.’”

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