One Woman Army

By Daniel Johnson
Monday, June 27, 2011

Andrei Sakharov, the great nuclear physicist and human-rights campaigner, had been dead for two years by the time I came to his Moscow apartment in the early summer of 1991. Elena Bonner, his widow, was there, still defiantly at war with the faceless foe that had slaughtered her family, exiled her and her husband, slandered her Jewish name, and lied about it all. Now that she has died at eighty-eight, a dissident to the end, I find the memory of my brief encounter with her almost unbearably poignant.

A memorial to Sakharov had been erected outside their apartment on Chkalov Street, only to be immediately smothered in red paint by KGB vandals.  That had not deterred admirers from leaving flowers. Yuri Andropov, their KGB persecutor, had once lived nearby—the proximity a reminder that Sakharov, though designated by Andropov as "Public Enemy No. 1," had once belonged to the Soviet elite.

Bonner had come from more humble beginnings.  She was the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Armenian father; both were arrested  at the height of Stalin's purges in 1937.  Her father was executed; her mother endured 18 years in the gulag.  A pediatrician by training, Bonner served as a military nurse in World War II.  She met Sakharov in 1970, when she had quit the Communist party and became involved in the battle against Soviet totalitarianism.  By the time I met her, she was nearly blind and suffering from heart disease.  She greeted me matter-of-factly, in her heavy smoker's voice: "You have 25 minutes!" But she softened when I presented her a bottle of perfume. "I will put it under the Christmas tree on Human Rights Day."

Our interview focused on the plight of Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. She was fierce in defense of the Armenians against the ethnic cleansing being carried out by Azerbaijan with the help of Soviet forces. A few days earlier, she had organized a memorial congress for Sakharov, a gathering which Gorbachev, then still head of state, had unexpectedly attended. Bonner ignored his presence until she called for a moment's silence to honor the Armenian dead. Everybody rose except Gorbachev. "Won't you stand too, Mikhail Sergeyevich?" demanded Bonner. And he did. The second most powerful man in the world obeyed the little old lady on the stage. Such was the force of her personality.

What incensed Bonner was not merely the fact that the troops killing and deporting Armenians were acting on Gorbachev's orders. It was also the fact that, like her late husband, he had recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. According to writer Jay Nordlinger, in later years she forgave Gorbachev and even respected him. Not then. When I asked Bonner to compare the two Nobel laureates, her eyes flashed. "There is no comparison," she rasped. "This prize is not supposed to be awarded for specific things, but is intended to recognize the moral standing of a personality. It is difficult to understand how such an historic mistake could occur."

Then she launched into a warning not to underestimate the dying Soviet menace, nor to engage in "grand bargains" with its leaders, however seductive: "The West should understand that a totalitarian state cannot be destroyed by one figure. The only thing that can accomplish this would be the newly independent republics: fifteen or more of them. Gorbachev represents the old unitary state."

My time was up and the interview ended. Looking back, she was clearly right that the future lay not with the Soviet Union (which collapsed after the failed KGB coup a few weeks after our interview), but with the new Russian Republic. Like the rest of the democratic opposition, in the absence of Sakharov, she put her faith in Boris Yeltsin, a brave but deeply flawed figure who eventually handed over power to the former KGB elite, in the person of Vladimir Putin. These were the very people whom Bonner had fought all her life.

How different history would have been if Sakharov had lived to become the first democratically elected president in Russian history. In May 1989, at the First Congress of People's Deputies, the parliament created by Gorbachev in a last, doomed attempt to revive the dying Soviet state, Sakharov stood head and shoulders above the other, mainly Communist deputies. On the opening day of the Second Congress, December 12, 1989, with Gorbachev as usual in the chair, Sakharov gave a speech demanding the repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet constitution, which guaranteed the "leading role" of the Communist party.  He was carrying a sack of mail in support of his campaign to abolish the one-party state. As Sakharov struggled to make himself heard above the barracking and heckling of the majority, Gorbachev told him: "Amedeo Dmitrievich, time has run out." When Sakharov continued to speak, Gorbachev angrily rang his bell and then cut off the microphone, warning him to desist from "manipulating" the people. In his memoirs, Gorbachev accused Sakharov of putting on "a well played act . . . which I attribute to the insidious influence of certain people from his entourage." He does not name this "insidious influence," but it is clear that he had in mind above all Elena Bonner. Two days later, Sakharov was dead. His spirit was unbroken but his heart was weakened by decades of hunger strikes and harassment by the KGB.

Gorbachev's conviction that Bonner was controlling Sakharov was shared by the entire nomenklatura.  The dominant personality in the Soviet leadership until his death in 1984 was Andropov. As head of the KGB, 1967-82, he was primarily responsible for the persecution of Jewish "refuseniks" and it was he who staged the 1978 show trial of Natan Sharansky on the capital charge of espionage. Sharansky had been Sakharov's English translator, but he was especially close to Bonner, who treated him like a son, feeding him and even sending him a coat to keep him warm in the notorious Lefortovo prison. Throughout his trial and imprisonment Sharansky's most loyal supporters, along with his mother Ida Milgrom, were Sakharov and Bonner. This only strengthened Andropov's paranoia. He told the East German spymaster Markus Wolf: "Sharansky will carry a flag for all the Jews. Stalin's anti-Semitic excesses have left these people with a big grievance against the Soviet state and they have powerful friends abroad. We cannot allow [his release] at the moment."

Sakharov and Bonner had supported the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel from the first. But they paid a heavy price for this support. The Soviet leadership could not accept that one of their own—academician Sakharov, the creator of the Soviet H-bomb, no less—had turned irrevocably against their ideology. Anti-Semitism provided the framework within which this betrayal could be rationalized. After Sakharov supported the U.S. Congress's Jackson Amendment, which linked trade to unrestricted emigration for Soviets, including Jews, the Kremlin even floated rumors that Sakharov himself was a Jew who had changed his name from Zuckerman (zucker and sakhar both mean sugar).

Usually, however, the party line was that this politically naive Russian scientist was under the thumb of the "evil genius," Elena Bonner, and the abuse that she had to endure was vile. She was, however, made of tougher stuff even than her husband. According to Sakharov's excellent biography by Richard Lourie, she gave KGB men any number of slaps. Insults, even anti-Semitic ones, she learned to endure, and they were compared to the arrests, assaults, thefts, interrogations, house searches, force-feeding and other ordeals. The KGB tried to use the couple's children to undermine their resolve, while on one occasion their grandchild was threatened by Arab Black September terrorists working for the KGB. Even their fellow dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago they were among the first to read in manuscript, shared the Kremlin view that Bonner was domineering.  She was furious when his wife Natalia told her she should worry more about the Russian people than her children's desire to emigrate. "You make breakfast for your own children, not the whole Russian people!" was Bonner's response. 

Family, in the end, was what kept her going. In old age, she invested more energy in protests on behalf of Israel and her Judaism came to matter most to her. "Russian people have to decide what kind of society they want to live in," she told Sharansky in 2010. "Israelis have already decided. And they are fighting, they are fighting for all of us. And the free world doesn't support them." The world will recall her if nothing else for the magnificent moment when she came to Oslo to deliver the exiled Sakharov's Nobel lecture. She fought his battles for him, but her defense of the Jewish people was something more personal. They both saw the Russian Jews as a "test case of the sincerity of the free world," but she went on testing that sincerity long after both Sakharov and the Soviet Union were gone. Her love was for the Jewish people, but her legacy is for everyone.

Daniel Johnson is the editor of Standpoint.

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