February 15th marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of Yelena Bonner, a legendary Russian human rights campaigner, co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and the wife and companion of Andrei Sakharov. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, who knew Bonner, recalls her life and notes the moral importance of her stances for present-day Russia.



“A typical Russian story,” Yelena Bonner used to say when asked about her family. Her father and uncle were shot in Stalin’s purges; her mother, arrested in 1937, survived 18 years of labor camps and internal exile. Eleven out of 23 of Bonner’s classmates in Leningrad had parents who were arrested. Lusya, as Bonner was known in her youth (she chose the name Yelena—after a character in Turgenev’s novel On the Eve—when she applied for her passport), sent parcels to the Gulag not only for her mother but also for other prisoners, claiming to be a relative of each one of them. Soon she became known in the camp as “everyone’s Lusya.”

Bonner went to the front in the early days of the Second World War, working as a medical instructor, as a nurse, and then as a senior nurse on ambulance trains, caring for the wounded. In the fall of 1941, she was seriously wounded herself—the consequences would stay with her for the rest of her life in the form of problems with her eyesight. She was near Innsbruck, Austria, on Victory Day. “The KGB, which was collecting compromising material on my wife everywhere, for several hours questioned the former commander of the ambulance train where Lusya had served,” recalled Andrei Sakharov. “But he could not say anything that was useful to them—‘We all loved her very much’.” After the war, having graduated from the Leningrad Medical Institute, Bonner worked as a district doctor and as a micropediatrician in a maternity hospital, caring for prematurely born babies.

Yelena Bonner would carry this vocation throughout her whole life. “[On] the day when the Supreme Soviet trampled on Andrei Dmitrievich [Sakharov] . . . you brought him [home] from the Kremlin. Yura Rost, myself, some others were there,” recalled playwright Vladimir Sinelnikov in his conversation with Bonner not long before her death. “You saw us and asked, ‘Why are you panicking, everything is OK, Andrei is fine.’ At that moment, there was a loud bang on the other side of the street—a truck had hit a small passenger car. A man emerged from the car, carrying a child who had blood coming out of her neck. You grabbed a first-aid kit, like an experienced war nurse, and ran across eight or ten lanes of the street, despite the traffic. Andrei Dmitrievich followed you, and I followed you both. Having crossed the street, you took the girl . . . poured iodine on cotton wool and put it on her neck, and she stopped crying. At that moment, Andrei Dmitrievich told me, ‘You know, it is enough for her to place her hand on a person, and they will calm down.’ And I saw the eyes of a schoolboy in love.”

Bonner’s civic activism began in the late 1960s. She attended the trials of dissidents, smuggled information from the famous “Leningrad hijacking trial” (having presented herself—just as she had with her mother’s fellow inmates—as a relative of one of the accused), and helped the families of political prisoners. In October 1970, at the trial of Revolt Pimenov and Boris Vail in Kaluga, she met Academician Andrei Sakharov. From the summer of 1971 up until Sakharov’s death in December 1989 they were always together—not only as husband and wife, but as comrades-in-arms who were dedicated to one another. “You are me,” Sakharov used to say to his wife. For nearly two decades, their fates were one—both in their common struggle for the rights of the persecuted and for human dignity in a totalitarian state and in the adversities they faced in the form of unrelenting harassment, first in Moscow, and then during their prolonged exile in the “closed” city of Gorky.

The KGB-led harassment—which ranged from organized letters of indignation from “common people” to death threats—was a constant backdrop to the life of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.

The KGB-led harassment—which ranged from organized letters of indignation from “common people” to death threats against Bonner’s children and baby grandson—was a constant backdrop to the life of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner. This harassment reached its peak during Sakharov’s unlawful—lacking even a formal Soviet court order—exile to Gorky, which lasted from January 1980 to December 1986. “We are being slowly killed,” Bonner said during this time. Other intimidation tactics included threatening letters (some of them openly anti-Semitic) and insults from “ordinary Soviet citizens.” This harassment was ever-present, occurring on the streets, in stores, in public transport. In one notable incident, Bonner recalled other passengers refusing to share a compartment with her on the train, insulting her and Sakharov. She remembered one passenger saying, “‘What kind of academician is he, he should have been expelled long ago! And as for you . . . ’ He did not say what ‘as for me’ [meant].” Then, she continues, “The shouting grew louder, people from other compartments joined in, they assembled in the corridor, demanding that the train be stopped and that I be thrown out. They were shouting something about the war and the Jews. I was totally calm, just like the window glass, on which, for some reason, I rested my left hand for the whole time. . . . The train conductor appeared again and took me into the corridor. We squeezed past the people, and I could sense the physical fluids of hatred.”

What was most frightening, however, was not this organized hatred, but the isolation—particularly the total isolation that the couple faced after 1984, when Bonner was sentenced under Article 190-1 of the RSRFR Penal Code (“dissemination of knowingly false fabrications that defame the Soviet state and social system”) and lost the right to leave Gorky. (Prior to that conviction, Bonner constantly shuttled between Gorky and Moscow, serving as Sakharov’s link with the outside world.) Notwithstanding the 24-hour police post outside the Sakharovs’ door and the inability of their Moscow friends to visit them in Gorky, they were prevented even from casual human contact. “Once my tire burst. It is physically hard for me to change it. I can do it—I completed taxi drivers’ courses, so I can do it all—but it is physically hard,” Yelena Bonner recalled a few years ago in an interview with the author of this article (this interview is included in the documentary They Chose Freedom.) “So I tried to hitch a truck driver to ask him to change my tire for three or five rubles. But they [the KGB surveillance officers] would not let me. Fine, I say, let us spend the night here. . . . They called somewhere, presumably, and said, ‘You may hitch someone.’ And so a [KGB] guy stood by and watched as this workman was changing my tire. After he changed the tire, I wanted to give him a three-ruble note, but he said, ‘Put your money away, lady, and this guy needs a lesson—can he not change a tire?’ He must have thought the [KGB] guy was my son. So I told him, ‘He is not mine, he is the KGB’s.” Needless to say, the Sakharovs had no telephone at home for the entire duration of their exile; even nearby payphones were switched off, so calling an ambulance was a challenge.


Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov during their exile in Gorky


The campaign against Yelena Bonner—a personal, insulting, and foul campaign—was also conducted in public. The official press actively promoted the myth of an honest Soviet academician who became a puppet in the hands of his Jewish wife. Particularly active in this field was “historian” Nikolai Yakovlev, who, it is said, was personally recruited by KGB chief Yuri Andropov. Yakovlev’s lampoons were published in Soviet magazines with print runs in the millions. (Interestingly, one of Yakovlev’s slanderous articles, “The Way Down”, can still be found on the official website of Smena magazine.) “For all the wrathful—and well-deserved—words about Sakharov, one pities him on the human level,” declared Yakovlev. “Not everything should be ascribed to his evil intent. . . . Sakharov is also a victim of the intrigues of Western secret services, who are using the circumstances of his private life.” Bonner was described as a “witch” and a “dissolute damsel” who had led a “gleeful life,” had “long cleaned up” all of Sakharov’s money, and had “taken up the habit of beating him with various objects.”

As Yelena Bonner admitted, Sakharov and she did not believe that much would change during their lifetimes—so much so that they selected a cemetery plot for themselves in Gorky. On the evening of December 15, 1986, a technician suddenly appeared on their doorstep to install a telephone. KGB officers who accompanied him told Sakharov to expect a call the following day. When the phone rang, the voice on the other end of the line was that of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who informed Sakharov that he and his wife could return to Moscow to take up “patriotic work.” In the early hours of December 23, 1986, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner arrived at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky railroad station.

Bonner always said that human rights work—not politics—was her life’s mission. She tried to dissuade Sakharov from running for the Soviet parliament in 1989 (“There are 2,500 deputies, but only one of you,” she used to tell him)—although she later admitted that his voice at the Congress of People’s Deputies, whose sessions were televised live across the country, had an important positive effect on a society traumatized by decades of totalitarianism. Bonner rejected the appeal of the Vorkuta coalminers to run for a parliamentary seat vacated upon the death of Revolt Pimenov (the same Pimenov at whose trial in 1970 she had met Sakharov). “This is not my path,” she said in the aforementioned interview. “My path was always different. . . . It was to send parcels, help mothers and children of prisoners. . . . Political life does not interest me. I am thoroughly convinced that politics demands compromises even of such people as Andrei.” Yelena Bonner rejected such a compromise herself when, at the start of the Chechen war in December 1994, she resigned from the Kremlin’s Human Rights Commission. “I no longer consider it possible to cooperate with your administration in any form,” she wrote President Boris Yeltsin, with whom she stood side by side on the Moscow White House balcony during the August 1991 democratic revolution.

Every new step toward dictatorship, every new turn of the “tightening screws” troubled Bonner deeply.

The final years of Yelena Bonner’s life coincided with a new authoritarian restoration in Russia, led by a former employee of the organization that was once responsible for “slowly killing” Sakharov and her in Gorky. Every new step toward dictatorship, every new turn of the “tightening screws” troubled Bonner deeply. She described the managed passage of power from Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999, as an “anti-constitutional, anti-democratic coup d’etat” and predicted that Putin’s regime would be akin to that of Mussolini. In the 2000 election campaign, she urged all those who valued Russian democracy to vote for Grigory Yavlinsky. “Prepare your simple tools, my dear old samizdat friends, and start preparing young replacements for yourselves,” Bonner wrote after the government takeover of NTV in April 2001. “In every era, someone must tell the truth.” After the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2003, Yelena Bonner stated that she considered him a political prisoner. In 2010, she was the first to sign the Russian opposition’s open appeal entitled Putin Must Go. In her last interview in 2011, Bonner urged all of the opposition to unite against Putin, regardless of ideological stripes, and called on Russian citizens not to become silent accomplices of the regime, affirming that “silence is becoming an act of foulness.”

Yelena Bonner died in Boston (where she spent her final years in order to be close to her children) on June 18, 2011. On October 18, 2011, in accordance with her wishes, she was buried at Moscow’s Vostryakovskoe cemetery, near her husband, mother, and brother.

She did not live to see the day when, in December 2011, tens of thousands of Russians—of different political persuasions but united by a common rejection of the regime’s lies and a common demand for dignity—came out to Bolotnaya Square and then, symbolically, to Andrei Sakharov Avenue. Bonner was skeptical about having anything named after her husband in today’s Russia, considering such a gesture hypocritical, but something makes me think that the movement that was born in December 2011—commonly known as the “Bolotnaya and Sakharov movement”—would have reconciled her with the avenue’s name. This movement would also have given her hope that a foul era is coming to an end because Russians are no longer willing to stay silent. And this would have pleased her most of all.