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Elena Georgievna Bonner


BONNER, ELENA GEORGIEVNA (1923–2011), Russian physician and human rights activist; second wife of Soviet physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, Bonner was born in Merv (Mary) in Turkmenia. Her mother, Ruth Bonner, came from an assimilated Jewish family in Siberia. Her father and stepfather (who raised her) were both Armenians. Her parents, who were active in the Communist Party, were arrested in 1937. Her stepfather was executed, while her mother spent 17 years in labor camps and internal exile before her release and rehabilitation in 1954.

Bonner volunteered as a nurse after the German invasion of Soviet territory in 1941. She was wounded twice before her honorable discharge in 1945 as a lieutenant and a disabled veteran. After two years of intensive treatment of her wartime injury, she enrolled in the First Leningrad Medical Institute, graduated in 1953, worked as a pediatrician, a district doctor, and a freelance writer, and in the smallpox vaccination campaign for the World Health Organization in Iraq in 1959.

She began to help political prisoners and their families in the 1940s. In the late 1960s, she became active in the Soviet human rights movement. Bonner knew Eduard Kuznetsov, a Jewish refusenik, who helped plan an attempt to hijack an airplane from Leningrad in June 1970. She campaigned for commutation of his and another defendant's death sentence, visited Kuznetsov in prison, and smuggled to safety the manuscript of his prison diaries, which were published in English in 1975.

Bonner met Andrei Sakharov at a trial of political prisoners in Kaluga in 1970; they married in 1972. Under pressure from Sakharov, the regime permitted her to travel to the West in 1975, 1977, and 1979 for treatment of her wartime injury. In 1975, Sakharov, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was barred from travel by the Soviet regime. Bonner was already in Italy for medical treatment and was able to represent her husband at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo.

She joined the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group in 1976. Sakharov was exiled to Gorky in January 1980. In spite of harassment and public denunciation, Bonner became his lifeline, traveling between Gorky and Moscow to bring out his writings. Her arrest in April 1984 for "anti-Soviet slander" and subsequent sentence of five years of exile in Gorky disrupted their lives again. Sakharov's long and painful hunger strikes forced Mikhail Gorbachev to let Bonner travel to the United States in 1985 for sextuple bypass heart surgery.

Gorbachev allowed Sakharov and Bonner to return to Moscow in December 1986. Following Sakharov's death three years later, Bonner remained outspoken. She joined the defenders of the Russian parliament during the attempted coup in August 1991 and supported Boris Yeltsin during the constitutional crisis in early 1993. She soon established the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, and separate Sakharov Archives in Moscow and the United States. Outraged by genocidal attacks on the Chechen people, Bonner resigned from Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission in 1994. She remained critical of the Kremlin for its ongoing policies in Chechnya and the increasingly authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin. A genuine internationalist, Bonner regarded herself as a Jew in the face of antisemitism; an Armenian when Armenians were threatened; and a Kurd when Kurds were under assault. She is the author of Alone Together (1987) and Mothers and Daughters (1992), along with numerous articles.  She died on June 18 2011 of heart failure in Boston, Massachusetts.  She had been hospitalized since February. 

[Joshua Rubenstein (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.