No Comment — July 13, 2011, 7:29 am

Remembering Elena Bonner

Elena Bonner, the doyenne of Russia’s human rights and democracy movement, died in Boston on June 19. Her life was full of dramatic turns and twists that uncannily mirrored those of her country. Born Lusik Georgievna Alikhanova in 1923, Elena’s first recollections were of the ancient city of Merv, in Turkmenistan, where her mother, Ruf Bonner, had fled to escape the violence and uncertainty of the Russian civil war. Elena’s father, Gevork Alikhanyan, was a senior official in the Comintern, and she knew privilege as a result, sometimes enjoying, for instance, the small luxuries of the Hotel Luks on Moscow’s Gorky Street. But she also knew hardship, growing up in the remote Siberian city of Chita, and she came to know oppression. Her parents, both old Bolsheviks, suffered terribly as the Revolution began to devour its children: her father was executed in the purges of 1938, while her mother was dispatched to a labor camp in Kazakhstan for eight years. During the war, Elena served as a nurse on hospital trains, and was wounded twice. When it was over, she completed formal studies in medicine in Leningrad.

Scott Horton served as counsel to Elena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov, among other activists from the former Soviet Union. This post is based on remarks he delivered at Bonner’s funeral in Brookline, Massachusetts, on June 21, 2011.

Elena was a skillful raconteuse. Once, she was dispatched to Anna Akhmatova’s house to administer shots. You might imagine scintillating conversation passing between the two greatest women to come out of Leningrad during the twentieth century, but as Elena recalled the meeting, the renowned poet simply bared her fish-belly-white buttocks, received the shot, groaned with pain, and waited for the agent of her misery to disappear. (The incident never diminished Elena’s affection for Akhmatova’s poetry, but her true love was reserved for Pushkin.)

Other stories had a more serious purpose. In the late fifties, Elena served on a medical mission in Iraq, where she was called to the side of a senior Iraqi official who had been wounded during an attempted coup. She was cautioned not to offer medical assistance until Moscow could decide whether it wanted the victim to survive. The incident caused her to sharply question whether the Party was “always right,” given its frequently inhumane and unethical conduct.

During the Sixties, Elena’s criticism of the Communist state became progressively more vocal, and in 1970, she traveled to Kaluga, southwest of Moscow, to attend the trial of human-rights advocates Revol’t Pimenov and Boris Vail. There, she met the love of her life, Andrei Sakharov. Their magnificent partnership formed the central pillar of the movement for democracy and human rights in the Soviet Union, with Sakharov serving as the movement’s moral voice and Elena providing the energy and spunk that drove its major campaigns.

Some described Elena as stern, others as harsh in her judgments. In truth, she was compassionate toward those who had suffered or been wronged, especially by the Soviet state. Her concerns rarely went to questions of high politics, and never to matters of national prestige, honor, or pride; she cared about the ordinary person who was being trampled amid the glorifying of the state. She was bravely moved to speak and act against such abuse, inspiring thousands in the process.

As her influence grew, the Soviet state attacked her, vilifying her as a “witch” who had enchanted her husband and distanced him from his family, and summoned her for interrogations. Yet Elena was not a bitter person. She was a pillar of strength and comfort in her relationships with her husband, Andrei Dmitrievich; her children, Tanya and Alexey; her grandchildren; and countless others. She reminded us that the dignity of individuals, which lies at the root of our modern notion of human rights, starts in the quiet shelter of the home, with the recognition and love of those closest to us.

800px-bonnerandsakharovandkallistratova1986

Elena will be remembered by future generations for her flawless, meticulous dissection of the authoritarian state, for her intuitive understanding of the crimes such regimes undertake in the name of ideology, and for her bravery in speaking the truth about these crimes despite knowing the burdens of doing so. She taught us that a model citizen is not one who silently acquiesces in the face of power, but someone who insists on justice and truth as the twin pillars of the state. Elena Bonner showed us that small, determined steps in service of these principles can have an impact, even before a vast empire of seemingly boundless power.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us."
Photograph by Joe Raedle
Post
A Band of Her Own·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What in the poem is an unappealing display becomes, with the addition of the soul-influenced, flute-inflected background, funny, almost self-consciously so."
Photograph by AP/Bill Chaplis
Article
Cage Wars·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation."
Photograph by Adam Dickerson/Big Dutchman USA, courtesy Vande Bunte Farms
Article
Paradise Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men."
Illustration by Anthony Lister
Article
Off the Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Nearly half the reservation lives below the poverty line, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, little to no infrastructure, few entitlements, a safety net that never was, no industry to speak of, and a housing crisis that has been dire not for five years but since the reservation’s founding in 1855."
Illustration by Stan Fellows

Jobs created by every billion dollars of U.S. government defense spending:

21,000

Artists tend to have twice as many sexual partners as noncreative people.

Swiss retailer Migros cut off ties with a collectible-creamer company following the distribution of 2,000 creamers whose lids bore images of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “You cannot put Pol Pot or a terrorist on a milk creamer,” said a Migros spokesman.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today