LONDON, England / The Economist / Obituary / June 23, 2011
Yelena Bonner, fighter for human rights, died on June 18, aged 88
Yelena Bonner married the nuclear scientist and fellow human rights activist Andrei Sakharov
AS A child, Yelena Bonner loved to be alone. As soon as she could walk she wandered away, preferably into warm spring rain. At the family’s summer dacha at Sestroretsk she strayed deep into the forest. When they moved to Moscow, she was out roaming the streets. Adult supervision infuriated her. Alone, she would secretly practise the things she was afraid of doing—climbing trees, going high on swings. She revelled in “a special state of separateness from everyone and everything”.
Strange, then, that her later life was given up totally to others. She became a wartime nurse on troop trains, dealing with crowds of refugees as well as soldiers, falling asleep exhausted in waiting rooms with the cries of new babies in her ears. In the post-war Soviet Union she sent food parcels to political prisoners and attended their trials, until her first marriage collapsed in the chaos of caring for them. In the 1970s she called the smoke-filled kitchen of her tiny flat in Moscow “the inn of merry beggars” after the dissident writers and intellectuals who crammed into it, seeking her help. She debated, typed, petitioned, monitored Soviet violations of the Helsinki accords on human rights, recorded those abuses for the Chronicle of Current Events, until her heart hurt, or her war-damaged eyes could scarcely see. Human rights were not a vague or general ideal as far as she was concerned. Promoting them meant defending each individual victim.
One man in particular she persuaded of this. In 1970 she fell intensely in love with an eminent physicist, Andrei Sakharov, creator of Russia’s hydrogen bomb. He too had dissident leanings; they met while picketing a trial. And he too was compulsively solitary: as well as genius, she recognised “extreme loneliness” in him. From that moment, though she fiercely insisted that she was her own person, theirs was a joint cause. They were a unit, he radiating quiet composure, she nervy, passionate, sucking on cigarettes while she talked; he abstracted, lost in his writing, while she made jam, stewed chicken, washed floors and organised dissent, a “doer” always.
He went on hunger strike for her, at last persuading the authorities to let her go abroad for medical treatment. While there, in 1975, she collected his Nobel peace prize and delivered his speech for him. When he was sentenced to internal exile in Gorky in 1980 she was his connection to the world, ferrying him books and news, sending his writings abroad. Single-handed, she reminded the West that he was working and alive. At one point she was exiled too for anti-Soviet agitation. They were “alone together” in Gorky then, and deeply happy in their aloneness, though “people” still moved their glasses and toothbrushes round in the flat, and slashed the tyres on their ancient car.
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