June 19, 2011 4:01 pm

Elena Bonner dies aged 88

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Elena Bonner, the prominent Russian human rights activist and widow of Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has died at the age of 88.

Together with her husband, Ms Bonner campaigned tirelessly for human rights during the Soviet era, becoming an inspiration for democratic movements across Russia and east Europe that hastened the end of communist rule.

She continued to campaign for democracy in post-communist Russia, accusing Vladimir Putin, then president, of using KGB-style tactics to stamp on individual freedoms.

The death of Ms Bonner was an “enormous loss, not only for the human rights movement,” said Lyudmila Alexeeva, the leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Ms Bonner was an “outstanding person and social activist,” who had “travelled a difficult, vivid and outstanding path,” said Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner. “Experience shows that such people can promote the transition from an old to a new epoch and here she played an exceptional role.”

Elena Georgievna Bonner was born in Turkmenistan on February 15 1923, the daughter of communist revolutionaries, and grew up during the great purges of Josef Stalin. Her father was executed in 1938 when she was 14 and her mother was sent to a labour camp for eight years.

At heart a patriot, she was wounded twice while serving as a nurse in the second world war and honorably discharged from the armed forces in 1946 as a disabled veteran. As a young adult she joined the communist party, but later regretted the decision as the “greatest mistake” of her life.

After the war Ms Bonner enrolled at the Leningrad medical institute, but was expelled during a Stalin-era campaign against Jews.

Ms Bonner was a human rights activist in her own right by 1972 when she married Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who pioneered the development of the Soviet atomic bomb and then used his prominence to speak out against the Kremlin.

Reviled by the Soviets, the couple became international symbols of the dissident movement that braved official repression to challenge communist rule.

When Mr Sakharov, who was barred from foreign travel by the Soviets, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, Ms Bonner represented him at the award ceremony in Oslo receiving a rapturous reception.

After publicly criticising the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Mr Sakharov was sent into internal exile in Gorky – now Nizhny Novgorod – then a closed city barred to foreigners. Ms Bonner accompanied her husband into exile, but was arrested five years later for helping him communicate with the west.

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