Human Rights Defender Elena Bonner Dies at 88

Elena Bonner

BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From the Armenian Weekly

For decades, Elena Bonner stood tall in the way of injustice, dedicating her life to a struggle against authoritarianism and human rights abuses. She battled Soviet-era persecutions, becoming a leading dissident. She spoke on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the Soviet Union and directed the eyes of the world to the darkest of places, where blood and agony pervaded. Her voice could not be easily ignored, and she used it relentlessly. On June 18, we all lost an irreplaceable human being. Bonner passed away in Boston, at the age of 88, due to heart failure. Many dispossessed and disenfranchised people, among them Armenians, remain grateful to her.

“Practically from the very beginning of the national liberation movement in Karabakh, Elena Bonner had been actively protecting the right of our nation to self-determination. She visited our country and together with us fought for restoration of historical justice and from the highest platforms demanded a stop to human rights violation pursued by Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh,” wrote the president of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Bako Sahakyan, in a letter addressed to the family of the activist. “Accept my deep and sincere condolences. In this difficult hour the people and authorities of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic share with you the whole pain and sorrow of this irretrievable loss. We shall always keep in mind the bright memory of Elena Bonner.”

In compliance with her wishes, Bonner will be cremated. The urn containing her ashes will be flown to Russia to be buried alongside her husband, Andrei Sakharov, mother, and brother.

Born on Feb. 15, 1923, in Merv, Turkmenistan, to Gevork Alikhanov, a prominent Armenian Communist and a secretary of the Comintern, and Ruth Bonner, a Jewish woman born in Siberia, Elena spent her childhood in Chita, a city in southeast Russia. In 1937, her life changed drastically when her father was arrested. Elena moved to her grandmother’s residence in Leningrad with her mother and younger brother, Igor. A year later, her mother was sent to hard labor in a gulag. They would lose contact until the early 1950’s. In 1954, her parents were exonerated. More than half a century after her father’s arrest, Elena learned that her father was executed in 1938.

Elena graduated from a Leningrad high school, became a nurse, and volunteered in the Red Army’s hospital trains in 1941. After being wounded, she was discharged in 1945, and soon enrolled in the First Leningrad Medical Institute. She married her classmate Ivan Semyonov and, in 1950, gave birth to a daughter, Tatiana, and a son, Alexey, in 1956. Nine years later the couple separated.

Andrei Sakharov and Bonner met outside a courtroom in Kaluga while protesting the trials of human rights advocates in 1970. They married in 1972, the year she renounced her Communist Party membership, partly affected by the state’s response to the 1968 uprising in Prague, and partly due to what befell her parents and friends.

The couple spent the following two decades—until Sakharov’s death in 1989—rushing to the defense of the oppressed in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, despite arrests and harassment. Both were internationally known figures, a fact that shielded them to some degree from severe Soviet repercussions. Sakharov, a Russian nuclear physicist and human rights activist, was on the team that built the Soviet Union’s first hydrogen bomb, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

Bonner and Sakharov were at the center of the dissident movement, monitoring human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities, and persecutions of political dissenters. Years of harassment by the KGB, as well as arrests—Sakharov was arrested after he called for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and Bonner for slandering the Soviet state—did not silence the persistent duo. Both were exiled to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), which culminated in a memoir, Alone Together, published in 1987. In 1985, after three hunger strikes by Sakharov, Bonner was allowed to travel to the U.S. for open heart surgery. Their exile ended suddenly when they received a call from Mikhail Gorbachev a day after a telephone was installed in their apartment.

Even after Sakharov’s death in 1989, Bonner continued her crusade for justice in Russia. She championed human rights above all else. In 1995, she resigned from the Presidential Human Rights Commission to protest the war in Chechnya, and ceased to support Boris Yeltsin. She later voiced her opposition to his successor, Vladimir Putin.

Staunch supporter of Karabakh
Bonner was an outspoken supporter of the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh. She visited the region a number of times as a member of Helsinki Watch (which later evolved to Human Rights Watch), and with Sakharov. She testified before the U.S. Congress and at the UN on the situation in Karabakh, condemning the massacres carried out by Azerbaijan against the Armenians. She wrote essays on the subject, focusing international attention on human rights abuses against Armenians in Azerbaijan and the assaults against the people of Karabakh.

In May 1990, Bonner received the “Woman of the Year” award from the National Representative Assembly (NRA) of the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In 1991, Bonner co-authored a letter with Yuri Orlov, a prominent nuclear physicist and human rights advocate, addressed to two U.S. Congressmen, urging them to consider the plight of Armenians in the Soviet Union who were forcefully deported, tortured, and killed in Azeri controlled regions.

The “Soviet army and special troops have been systematically deporting thousands of Armenians, even entire villages, from Azerbaijan to Armenia, according to a group of participants in the first Sakharov Human Rights Congress who visited the region last week,” they wrote. “Soviet tanks and helicopters surround the villages. The men are separated from their wives and children; they are often beaten and tortured, sometimes killed. The fate of most is unknown. The women and children are evacuated by helicopter to Armenia. By giving this kind of support to the Azerbaijanis, the Soviet central government is not only flagrantly violating the human rights of thousands of Armenians, but intensifying the instabilities of this volatile region.”

Bonner’s activism impacted numerous lives, as she became a beacon of hope for the oppressed. On June 21, four Armenian men—“Armenian political prisoners of the Soviet period”—sent their condolences to the Russian branch of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation. “She was one of the most prominent Soviet human rights activists, a firm and resolute person,” they wrote. “At the time, each of us felt her support and protection. Her experience in an uncompromising struggle is still relevant today. We grieve with the family.”

Note: The biographical data above is based on Elena Bonner’s biography as presented by the Andrei Sakharov Foundation.

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