Yelena Bonner (Russian: Елена Георгиевна Боннэр; 15 February 1923 – 18 June 2011) was a human rights activist in the former Soviet Union and wife of the noted physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. During her decades as a dissident, Bonner was noted for her characteristic blunt honesty and courage.
Bonner was born Lusik Georgievna Alikhanova in Merv, Turkmen SSR, USSR (now Mary, Turkmenistan). Her father, Georgy Alikhanov (Armenian name Gevork Alikhanyan),  was an Armenian who founded the Soviet Armenian Communist Party, and was a highly placed member of the Comintern; her mother, Ruf, (Ruth Bonner), was a Jewish Communist activist. She had a younger brother, Igor, who became a career naval officer. Her family had a summer dacha in Sestroretsk and Bonner had fond memories there.
In 1937, Bonner's father was arrested by the NKVD and executed as part of Stalin's Great Purge; her mother was arrested a few days later, and served eight years in a forced labor camp near Karaganda, Kazakhstan, followed by nine years of internal exile. Bonner's 41-year-old maternal uncle, Matvei Bonner, was also executed during the purge, and his wife internally exiled. All four were exonerated (rehabilitated) following Stalin's death in 1953. Serving as a nurse during World War II, Bonner was wounded twice, and in 1946 was honorably discharged as a disabled veteran. After the war she earned a degree in pediatrics from the First Leningrad Medical Institute.
Marriage and Children
In medical school she met her first husband, Ivan Semyonov. They had a daughter, Tatiana, in 1950, and a son, Alexey, in 1956. Her children emigrated to the United States in 1977 and 1978, respectively.
Bonner and Semyonov separated in 1965, and eventually divorced. In October 1970, while attending the trial of human rights activists Revol't (Ivanovich) Pimenov and Boris Vail in Kaluga, Bonner met Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and human rights activist. The previous year, 1969, Sakharov had been widowed from his wife, Klavdia Alekseyevna Vikhireva, with whom he had two daughters and a son.
Beginning as early as the 1940s, Bonner had helped political prisoners and their families. Although Bonner had joined the Soviet Communist Party in 1964 while she was working as a medical doctor, only a few years later she was becoming active in the Soviet human rights movement. Her resolve towards dissidence was strengthened in August 1968 after Soviet bloc tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in order to crush the Prague Spring movement. That event strengthened her belief that the system could not be reformed from within. At the Kaluga trial in 1970, Bonner and Sakharov met Natan Sharansky and began working together to defend Jews sentenced to death for attempting an escape from the USSR in a hijacked plane. Under pressure from Sakharov, the Soviet regime permitted Yelena Bonner to travel to the West in 1975, 1977 and 1979 for treatment of her wartime eye injury. When Sakharov, awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, was barred from travel by the Soviet authorities, Bonner, in Italy for treatment, represented him at the ceremony in Oslo.
Bonner became a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976. When in January 1980 Sakharov was exiled to Gorky, a city closed to foreigners, the harassed and publicly denounced Bonner became his lifeline, traveling between Gorky and Moscow to bring out his writings. Her arrest in April 1984 for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" and sentence to five years of exile in Gorky disrupted their lives again. Sakharov’s several long and painful hunger strikes forced the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev to let her travel to the U.S. in 1985 for sextuple bypass heart surgery. Prior to that, in 1981, Bonner and Sakharov went on a dangerous but ultimately successful hunger strike to get Soviet officials to allow their daughter-in-law, Yelizaveta Konstantinovna ("Lisa") Alexeyeva, an exit visa to join her husband, Bonner's son Alexei Semyonov, in the United States.
In December 1986, Gorbachev allowed Sakharov and Bonner to return to Moscow. Following Sakharov's death on 14 December 1989, she established the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, and the Sakharov Archives in Moscow. In 1993, she donated Sakharov papers in the West to Brandeis University in the U.S.; in 2004 they were turned over to Harvard University. Bonner remained outspoken on democracy and human rights in Russia and worldwide. She joined the defenders of the Russian parliament during the August Coup and supported Boris Yeltsin during the constitutional crisis in early 1993.
In 1994, outraged by what she called “genocide of the Chechen people”, Bonner resigned from Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission and was an outspoken opponent to Russian armed involvement in Chechnya and critical of the Kremlin for allegedly returning to KGB-style authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. She was also critical of the international "quartet" two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and has expressed fears about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe. In 1999, Yelena Bonner received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom.
Bonner was among the 34 first signatories of the online anti-Putin manifesto "Putin must go", published 10 March 2010. Her signature was the first.
She divided her time between Moscow and the United States, home to her two children, five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, and one great-grandson.
Bonner died 18 June 2011 of heart failure in Boston, Massachusetts, aged 88, according to her daughter, Tatiana Yankelevich. She had been hospitalized since 21 February.
Works and awards
Bonner was the author of Alone Together (Knopf 1987), and Mothers and Daughters (Knopf 1992), and wrote frequently on Russia and human rights. She was a recipient of many international human rights awards, including the Rafto Prize, the European Parliament’s Robert Schumann medal, the awards of International Humanist and Ethical Union, the World Women’s Alliance, the Adelaida Ristori Foundation, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, the Lithuanian Commemorative Medal of 13 January, the Czech Republic Order of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and others.
- The Sunday Times Magazine, The Sunday Times, 18 December 2011, page 64
- Sakharov's widow Yelena Bonner dies at 88 in U.S. – media, RIA Novosti, 19 June 2011.
- Stanley, Alessandra. Schwirtz, Michael (19 June 2011). "Yelena Bonner, Russian Rights Activist, Dies at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
- Beckerman, Gal (22 June 2011). "Remembering Yelena Bonner – Natan Sharansky Reminisces About His Ally and Friend". The Jewish Daily Forward (issue of 1 July 2011). Archived from the original on 24 June 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2011. "[...] Bonner suggested that, in addition to Sakharov’s assessment of the Soviet Union and the state of the dissident movement, they provide the new president with a list of political prisoners. By memory, she then wrote out the names of the 16 most difficult cases."
- Schmemann, Serge (2011=6–19). "Elena Georgievna Bonner, A True Human Rights Activist for 40 Years". “The New York Times”. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
- Bonner, Elena (1992). Description of Bonner found in Antonina W. Bouis, 'Translator's Introduction' in Bonner's memoir Mothers and Daughters (2nd ed.). New York: Vintage. ISBN 0-679-74335-9.
- Yelena Bonner biography (In Russian)
- Official site of Moscow Helsinki Group(In Russian)
- "Yelena Bonner". The Economist. 23 June 2011. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
- Drell, Sidney D., and Sergei P. Kapitsa (eds.), Sakharov Remembered, pgs. 3, 92. New York: Springer, 1991.
- The Gulag Survivor: Beyond the Soviet System, p. 212
- One Woman Army, Jewish Ideas Daily.
- "On Israel and The World", Address by Bonner at the Freedom Forum in Oslo.
- http://motta.gidd.eu.org/#!medal-winners-2004/cqa4 Giuseppe Motta Medal Website
- Robert Bernstein "Why We Need A New Human Rights Organization", 24 February 2011.
- Russia and the Russians – Inside the Closed Society by Kevin Klose, pp. 161–98 (ISBN 0393017869).
- An appeal to the world regarding suicide terrorism (12 April 2002)
- An Open Letter to President Bush by Bonner and Vladimir Bukovsky (10 March 2003)