Bonner, Elena (1923—)

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Bonner, Elena (1923—)

Daughter of high-ranking Soviet officials, victims of Stalin's purges, who became a physician, a civil-rights activist in the Soviet Union, and a spokeswoman and representative for her husband Andrei Sakharov. Name variations: Luisa (childhood name still used by her family). Pronunciation: Ye-LAY-na BAH-ner. Born on February 15, 1923, in Merv in Soviet Turkestan; daughter of Levon Sarkisovich Kocharov (occupation unknown) and Ruth Grigorievna Bonner (subsequently Communist Party official); stepdaughter of Gevork Sarkisovich Alikhanov (Communist Party official); attended Herzen Teachers Institute, 1940–41, and First Leningrad Medical Institute, 1947–53; married Ivan Vasilyevich Semyonov, in 1950 (separated 1965); married Andrei Sakharov, in1971 (died 1989); children (first marriage): Tatyiana (b. 1950), Alexei (b. 1956).

Parents arrested (1937); joined Communist Party youth group (1938); served as nurse in World War II (1941–45) and wounded in action (1941); mother rearrested (1950); attended medical school (1947–53); mother released from imprisonment (1954); separated from first husband, joined Communist Party (1965); Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968); met Sakharov (1970); left Communist Party (1972); received medical treatment in Italy, accepted Nobel Prize for Sakharov (1975); Helsinki Accords Watch Group founded (1976); received medical treatment in Italy (1979); accompanied Sakharov into exile (1980); arrested and sentenced to exile in Gorky (1984); medical treatment in Italy and the U.S. (1985–86); Sakharov released from exile (1986); death of Sakharov (1989); collapse of the Soviet Union (1991); established Sakharov memorial library in Moscow (1994).


Alone Together (1986); Mothers and Daughters (1992).

During the decades following the Russian Revolution of November 1917, a new ruling elite emerged out of the ranks of the victorious Communist Party. In local party organizations, in positions in the central apparatus at Moscow, and in international communist organizations like the Comintern, numerous members of Soviet society with roots in revolutionary circles now found themselves governing officials. Individuals linked to high-ranking Communist leaders like Sergei Kirov, rose and fell with the fortunes of their mentors.

For tens of thousands of such individuals, the transformation of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin made their prominence a source of peril. Following the relatively quiet years of the 1920s, Stalin plunged the USSR into a turbulent era. The government directed a rapid and brutal program of forced industrialization. At the same time, the mass of the population, which still consisted of peasants in rural villages, was forced into collective farms. Stalin tightened his grip on the political system, relying increasingly upon the secret police. By the closing years of that decade, members of the upper ranks of the Communist Party were often the victims of the dictator's suspicions. Families whose members had basked in privileges saw many of their members imprisoned, exiled, and murdered. The children of such families had to find a new role in Soviet society.

As such a child of members of the Communist elite and through her adult years, Elena Bonner was a participant, both willing and unwilling, in many of the dramatic events that affected the life of the Soviet Union over a period of six decades. As a witness to the purges of the 1930s, as a member of the armed forces during World War II, and as a leading dissident in the era following the death of dictator Joseph Stalin, she observed and helped to shape the course of her country's history.

Elena Bonner is the daughter of a Russian-Jewish mother, Ruth Bonner , and an Armenian father. She has never been forthcoming about the role of her natural father, Levon Kocharov, other than to record occasional meetings with him before and during World War II. But her stepfather, Gevork Alikhanov, was an important figure in the Communist Party. Her mother, who joined the party the year after Elena's birth, likewise rose in the political hierarchy.

The girl's first 14 years saw her family move frequently in response to her parents' shifting political fortunes. Elena was born in Central Asia in 1923, but her mother and stepfather soon returned to Moscow. Conflict between Alikhanov and Gregory Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, sent the family back to Central Asia. On the other hand, the rising fortunes of Sergei Kirov, a mentor for her parents, gave her family the opportunity to return to the country's great urban centers. They lived in Leningrad and then Moscow from 1926 to 1937.

As a prominent party family—her stepfather was a leading figure in the Comintern, the international organization of Communist parties—Bonner's mother and stepfather enjoyed a special supply of food, dachas in the countryside, and superior educational opportunities for Elena and her younger brother. Elena's playmates were the children of other party leaders, and she had lifelong memories of party figures like Kirov patting her on the head while she was a youngster.

But the signs of gathering danger became evident. In 1934, her stepfather's patron Sergei Kirov was murdered in mysterious circumstances. The event, carried out under Stalin's direction, was the signal for a spreading purge of Soviet society. Tension grew in the privileged circles around her family as it became evident that the purge was spreading to include ranking members of the Communist Party.

As Elena passed into her teenage years—with a love of reading and a growing interest in boys—the fathers of her friends began to disappear. In her parents' apartment building, reserved for the Soviet elite, wax seals appeared on the doors of families that had been arrested the night before by the secret police. "The taking away of people," she later wrote, "became an ordinary, commonplace event."

In May 1937, Bonner returned from taking her school exams one day to find that her stepfather had been arrested at work. Soldiers were in the midst of searching the family apartment. Her stepfather's arrest was followed at the end of the year by the arrest of her mother. Elena and her brother were now what the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg described as the era's "strange orphans." Searching for relatives willing to take them in, the children went to live with their grandmother in Leningrad. The young girl, still in her late teens, worked as a cleaning woman in order to finish her education, and she battled officials of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth organization, when they tried to expel her.

The war years brought another series of dramatic changes to Bonner's life. One childhood comrade after another, including her teenage sweetheart, became a fatal victim of the conflict. She herself was permanently disabled by a bomb blast in 1941 although she continued to see service as a nurse throughout World War II. Her wounds virtually destroyed her sight in one eye and led to a progressive weakening of vision in the other.

Following her wartime service, Elena Bonner was educated as a physician, married and had two children. Her work as a pediatrician included a period of service abroad in Iraq. In 1965, she separated from her first husband. By the close of the 1960s and the early 1970s, she became a leading member in the Soviet dissident community. Her disillusion with the Communist Party, which she had joined in 1965 and left only in 1972, stemmed from a variety of causes. There were events of national weight such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There were personal traumas like the conviction of her nephew, the Jewish dissident Eduard Kuznetsov, for attempting to hijack an airplane in 1970.

In late 1970, Bonner met Andrei Sakharov at a protest demonstration. The following year, the two were married. She was now linked personally to one of the nation's greatest scientists and by then an internationally renowned critic of Soviet political life. As his professional partner, she took on an increasingly significant role in Soviet life. When Sakharov could not leave the Soviet Union to receive the Nobel Prize awarded him in 1975, she received it in his place. When dissidents formed watch committees to assure that the Helsinki Accords guaranteeing civil rights to the population of signatories like the Soviet Union were honored, she joined as a representative of her family.

Bonner's life, along with that of her husband, took a dramatic turn in 1980. Sakharov, a vocal critic of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was sentenced to exile in Gorky, an industrial city closed to foreigners and located 250 miles east of Moscow. Bonner became his chief spokesperson and link to the outside world. The perils of such a role became evident in 1984 when she was arrested for anti-Soviet activities and, like her husband, put in internal exile in Gorky.

In late 1985, following a hunger strike in which both Bonner and Sakharov participated, she received permission to travel abroad for medical treatment. By then, Bonner's children and her mother were already in the United States, thanks in part to earlier hunger strikes by which the two dissidents had managed to put pressure on the Soviet government. Bonner's health was now seriously endangered: her persistent eye problems were accompanied by a dangerous heart condition. Her stay in the U.S. included multiple bypass surgery in Boston and a trip to the White House. In the end, however, she returned to the Soviet Union. In the book Alone Together, which she wrote during her trip abroad, she noted the strains of reentering Soviet life: "It takes incredible will power to force yourself to learn once again how to breathe without air."

By 1986, however, the Soviet Union was in the midst of a growing wave of political reform directed by the new leader of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. A crucial event at the close of the year was Gorbachev's sudden decision to free the Sakharovs from their confinement in Gorky. It was a sign to the Soviet Union and the entire world that the process of reform, to which the Sakharovs had contributed, was now moving forward irreversibly. Sakharov went on to play a prominent role in Soviet political life until his death in December 1989.

What is happening now would have seemed like a Christmas fairy tale a few years ago.

—Elena Bonner (1994)

Unlike her late husband, Bonner was present as the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. She continued the family tradition both as a spokeswoman for reform and as the custodian of her husband's legacy. In 1992, she warned publicly about the role that the forces of the former Soviet military system were taking in bullying former non-Russian Soviet republics to come back under Russian domination. In 1994, using a financial grant from the U.S. Congress, she inaugurated a library in Sakharov's honor in Moscow. Ironically, the library collection includes documents that the Soviet secret police (KGB) had once seized from Sakharov and now returned to her possession. Bonner took the occasion to announce her plans to open a human-rights museum in honor of Sakharov in Moscow during 1996.

Apart from her role as a political activist, Bonner has become an important contributor to the historical record of her nation's recent past. Her book Mothers and Daughters, published in 1992, has as its centerpiece an extraordinary eyewitness account of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s by the daughter of purge victims. Andrea Lee , reviewing the book in The New York Times, places it in the same category as The Diary of Anne Frank as an example of historical horror seen in personalized form through the eyes of a young girl.


Bonner, Elena. Alone Together. Translated by Alexander Cook. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

——. Mothers and Daughters. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

——. "Red Army Redux," in Wall Street Journal. April 7, 1992.

Boudreau, Richard. "Soviet Dissident Sakharov's Widow Inaugurates Library," in Los Angeles Times. May 22, 1994.

Lee, Andrea. "The Adults Were Disappearing," in The New York Times Book Review. March 22, 1992.

Tokes, Rudolph L., ed. Dissent in the USSR: Politics, Ideology, and People. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

suggested reading:

Bouis, Antonina W., and Jean-Claude. "An Evening with the Sakharovs," in Life. July 1989.

Goldberg, Paul. The Final Act: The Dramatic, Revealing Story of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. NY: William Morrow, 1988.

Rubinstein, Joshua. Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985.


Diaries, letters, and secret police files located in Andrei Sakharov Library, Moscow; diaries located in Brandeis University Library, Waltham, Massachusetts.

related media:

Sakharov (118 min), starring Jason Robards, Jr. and Glenda Jackson , directed by Jack Gold, produced by HBO, 1984.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Bonner, Elena (1923—)

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