Yelena Bonner dies; Russian rights activist and widow of Andrei Sakharov was 88

June 19, 2011

Yelena G. Bonner, a Russian human rights activist who, with her late husband, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei D. Sakharov, was one of the Soviet Union’s most outspoken political dissidents, died June 18 in Boston. She was 88.

She had been hospitalized since February, had heart surgery in March and since then had had several bouts with infection, said her daughter, Tatiana Yankelevich.

Ms. Bonner was a prominent activist even before she met Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, at the trial of a fellow dissident in 1970. The two married in 1972 and together became symbols of resistance against Soviet political repression.

Headstrong and sharp-tongued with a no-nonsense voice deepened by years of chain-smoking acrid Russian cigarettes, Ms. Bonner helped lead a group that monitored violations of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, in which the Soviet government had promised to respect human rights and uphold fundamental freedoms.

Ms. Bonner and her group were inundated by “the constant flood of people coming to our door, all sorts of people with all sorts of problems,” she once told The Washington Post. “There are so many phone calls — they would keep not just one wife busy, but a whole institute of wives.”


Dissident Yelena Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, speaks during the awards ceremony of the 2008 Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg. (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The work drew threats and harassment and landed many activists in jail — or, if they were lucky, in exile. In 1980, Sakharov was banished to Gorky, 250 miles from Moscow, after he publicly criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Ms. Bonner became her husband’s sole link to the West, ferrying his writings to Moscow and bringing him news of the outside world. State media called Ms. Bonner a CIA agent, a Zionist and a greedy schemer whose seductions had turned Sakharov against his own country.

In 1984, she too was exiled to Gorky after being convicted of slandering the Soviet state. Isolated from family and forbidden from communicating via telephone, the couple lived under constant KGB surveillance.

“Whenever the authorities did not like something, it was our car that suffered,” Ms. Bonner wrote in “Alone Together,” her 1986 memoir of their shared exile. “Either two tires would be punctured, or a window smashed or smeared with glue. This was how we knew that we had done something bad by their standards.”

Ms. Bonner’s memoir is, in part, a love story of mutual sacrifice. Sakharov, in an effort to persuade authorities to allow an ailing Ms. Bonner to travel overseas for medical care, mounted a series of hunger strikes totaling about 200 days and endured Orwellian force-feedings that left him depleted and ill.

Ms. Bonner was eventually granted a temporary visa to the United States, where she had coronary bypass surgery in the mid-1980s. She might have stayed in the United States — where her mother and two children had settled a decade before — but she gave up the freedoms of the West to go back to her husband and their tightly controlled life together.

While in the United States, she visited Washington, an experience she described as “phantasmagoric.” She was feted at the National Academy of Sciences, which she visited as a representative of her husband. She met actor Jason Robards, who played her husband in the 1984 TV movie “Sakharov.”

“And at the same time, in the back of my mind,” she told Robards, according to his 1989 account in The Post, “I am packing my bags to return to the Soviet Union in less than a month. I wonder why I am not crazy.”

In 1986, Ms. Bonner and her husband were allowed to return to Moscow during a period of reform under Mikhail Gorbachev. They revived their human rights monitoring committee and pressed on with their calls for greater freedom.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Ms. Bonner was exhilarated and astonished — not only by the political revolution in Germany but also by the fact that Soviet citizens were allowed to know about it.

“Our television showed all of this,” she said. “It was just like the rest of the world; we saw the same things you saw, those people on top of the wall.”

Yelena Georgievna Bonner was born born Feb. 15, 1923, in Turkmenistan.

She was a teenager when Stalin’s secret police arrested and shot her stepfather, an Armenian Bolshevik revolutionary. Her mother, the daughter of a Jewish family born into Siberian exile, spent 17 years in a slave labor camp as “the wife of an enemy of the people.”

Ms. Bonner lived with relatives and became a nurse during World War II. She was badly wounded during the siege of Leningrad and almost lost her eyesight when a German plane strafed a medical train on which she was tending wounded soldiers.

Her eyes gave her trouble for the rest of her life. When authorities did not allow Sakharov to leave the Soviet Union to accept the Nobel Prize in 1975, Ms. Bonner — who was in Italy for eye surgery — traveled to Oslo in his stead.

Ms. Bonner’s first marriage, to Ivan Seymonov, ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from that marriage, Tatiana Yankelevich of Boston and Alexey Semyonov of Springfield; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Sakharov died in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Even as Ms. Bonner’s health declined over the years, she continued to champion her husband’s memory, editing an eight-volume collection of his writings that was released by a Moscow publishing house in 2006.

She never stopped speaking out about her country’s politics. In the 1990s, she sat on President Boris Yeltsin’s human rights commission until resigning to protest his military assault on Chechnya.

More recently, she challenged President Vladimir Putin’s human rights record. When a petition circulated in 2010 calling for Putin to step down, she was among the first to sign it.

Klose is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.