Elena Bonner’s Rich Legacy

Remembering the life and accomplishments of a Soviet dissident

Cathy Young
Reason Magazine

There was a time when moral giants walked the earth. One of them, Soviet dissident Elena Bonner—widow of the great physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov—left us on Sunday at the age of 88. A model of courage and principle, Bonner was one of my heroes from the days when I was a teenager in the Soviet Union and my parents listened to news of Sakharov and Bonner on banned foreign radio broadcasts. She was also a personal hero I had the privilege to meet: Four years ago, we had a long talk at Bonner’s apartment in Brookline, Mass., when I interviewed her for a feature for The Weekly Standard.

A devoted partner to her husband, Bonner was much more than his helpmate. A former World War II army nurse, the daughter of a father executed in Stalin’s purges and a mother who endured 10 years in the Gulag camps, Bonner was already active in Soviet Russia’s budding human rights movement when she met Sakharov in 1970. Her influence likely helped radicalize his opposition to the Soviet regime.

After their marriage in 1972, Bonner became the Kremlin propaganda machine’s scapegoat for Sakharov’s scandalous fall from grace as a top Soviet scientist. She was attacked, with blatantly anti-Semitic and misogynist overtones, as a wily Zionist and a gold-digging seductress. Bonner remained unbowed. In the 1980s, she served as her husband’s link to the world during his exile in the town of Gorky, until she herself was forced to share that exile.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms brought the couple back to Moscow. Sakharov died of a heart attack three years later at 68—leaving Bonner to fight the good fight for both of them. And that she did, to the very last…

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