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Elena Bonner

Elena Bonner

[Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images]

The extraordinary human rights activist Elena Bonner died on Saturday. Today’s NYT obituary is well worth reading, as is David Remnick’s remembrance at the New Yorker blog. As the obit explains,

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 Saturday in Boston. She was 88.

The cause was heart failure, said Edward Kline, a director of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation. He said Ms. Bonner had been in the hospital since February.
Maligned by the government and, for much of her life, cast aside by society, Ms. 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, Ms. 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.

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

Remnick observes that

Unlike many dissidents and democrats of the era, Yelena Bonner did not fade away. She did not pursue fortune or self-aggrandizement. She was always present. She was there, in August 1991, defending Moscow’s White House against a K.G.B.-led coup. In the two decades left to her, shuttling between her children in Boston and her apartment in Moscow, she took it upon herself to continue the battle for human rights, liberal values, and democratic norms. She spoke out on human-rights questions around the world and, above all, the betrayals of the Putin era in Russia. She wrote two brilliant memoirs—“Alone Together” and “Mothers and Daughters”—and seemed ready to assist any human-rights group that needed her. As ever, she was incapable of fear, incapable of selling out.

I had, as it turns out, an unexpected connection to Bonner: I became her son’s Master’s advisor when he emigrated to the US. This was back in the late 1970s, when I was still a fresh Ph.D., on the faculty at Brandeis. Alexey arrived in Boston wanting to complete the work he was doing in the USSR. I’m unusually hazy on the details, but arrangements were made so that he could matriculate at Brandeis without delay, and somehow it was proposed that he talk to me about his work. I don’t even remember if he finished his Master’s with me or with someone else. What I do remember is a series of meetings in my office.

The NYT obit excerpt above speaks of Bonner and Sakharov as royalty. What I remember amidst the haze is the special respect accorded Alexey within the local emigré community, and my utter cluelessness about why until some time late in the process, when I learned the identity of his step-father. Sakharov would have been at the peak of his fame at the time, what with his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize only a couple of years before and his moniker as the “father” of the Russian hydrogen bomb.

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