When I asked Natan Sharansky to explain how Yelena Bonner complemented the work of her husband, Nobel Prize-winning Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, Sharansky said he could do so quite simply. “Let’s take the example of the Carter letter,” he told me.
In the first days of 1977, an American visitor to Moscow arrived at Sakharov’s apartment and offered to deliver to incoming president Jimmy Carter, a message from this renowned nuclear-physicist-turned-thorn-in-the-side-of-the-Communist-regime. They had only half an hour before the tourist — actually Martin Garbus, who was then assistant director of the ACLU — had to leave to catch his plane. So Sakharov got to work, writing in Russian, and Sharansky, his regular translator, copied the letter into English. In the meantime, Bonner, a pediatrician by training, insisted on preparing Garbus an omelet.
Before the rushed missive was complete, 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. And with that, Garbus left.
To Sakharov’s astonishment, Carter actually wrote back, effectively opening, as Sharansky put it, “diplomatic relations with the dissident world.”
But what struck Sharansky most was Bonner’s gesture, which was typical of her. “You see, the philosophy was Andrei’s,” he said, “but the names came from her, the constant worry about these individuals. He was the spirit, but she was the energy and the warmth.”
The death of Bonner, on June 18 at the age of 88, is a chance to remember this formidable woman and the unique role she played, along with her husband, in leading the often lonely and frustrating resistance against the Soviet Union. The two of them — deeply in love, by all accounts — became the sun around which the dissident movement orbited. Andrei Gromyko, longtime member of the Soviet Politburo, put it slightly differently in 1980, when he voiced support for sending them into exile in the closed city of Gorky. “All this anti-Soviet scum, all this rabble, revolves around Sakharov,” Gromyko said. “It’s impossible to ignore this situation much longer.” They then spent an agonizing six years isolated and “alone together” (the title of her memoir), until the day that Mikhail Gorbachev personally called Sakharov and asked him to return to Moscow.
When I heard that Bonner had died, my first thought was to call Sharansky. As a young dissident and refusenik activist in the 1970s, he had become intimately acquainted with Sakharov and Bonner (to whom he referred by her nickname, Lucia). Sharansky’s life, through his activism and his later imprisonment, became intertwined with theirs, so I knew he would want to talk about his friend. But I also wanted to hear about Bonner’s Jewish identity. She had never hidden her ethnic identity, and often told stories about her Jewish mother, Ruth Bonner, an active member of the Communist Party who was sent to the Gulag when Bonner was 14 (Bonner’s father was Armenian). And in her later years, Bonner became an increasingly more vociferous defender of Israel, a position sometimes lost to her friends on the left.
I reached Sharansky in Jerusalem, via cell phone. He reminisced about Bonner’s warmth, but he also told me, “She was not an easy person to be friends with.” She demanded a lot of backbone from those around her. Especially in the pressure cooker of the dissident world, she would be the first to dismiss any activist whose hesitation or fear might compromise everyone else. At the same time, she was, without a doubt, a “yidishe mame,” he said.
“So many times I would be rushing over with an urgent letter or petition,” Sharansky told me. “My KGB tail would be waiting in the stairwell outside their apartment, and my taxi would be downstairs, and she would just say, ‘First, have you eaten anything?’” Edward Kline, also a longtime friend of the couple and now a director of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, shared this view of Bonner: “She just had a good way with people and could reach them in a way that Sakharov couldn’t. She had known poverty and persecution. And Sakharov had always led a privileged life. So she had helped educate him on the needs of ordinary people.” As for Jews and Israel, Sharansky reminded me that Sakharov and Bonner first met in December 1970, outside a Leningrad courthouse where a desperate group of Jews was being tried for attempting to hijack a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union. It was a brave move for both of them to be there, associating themselves with citizens accused of criminal acts, but they wanted to offer support to those who were engaged in the then hopeless struggle to emigrate. Bonner even went so far as to claim that she was the aunt of Eduard Kuznetsov, one of the hijackers, so that she could get in to see him.
By 1972 they were married. And it was significant that this first meeting had a Jewish tinge to it, Sharansky said, because they always expressed their solidarity for the Jewish movement. The reasons were philosophical first. Sakharov saw the treatment of Jews, and of Israel by extension, as, he said, “a special test case of the sincerity of the free world.” Sakharov argued strongly in favor of the freedom to emigrate, often against other Russian dissidents who didn’t understand all the emphasis he was putting on Jews. If the tight restrictions on emigration eased, though, he believed that the level of fear inside the Soviet Union would immediately go down.
The couple also supported Sharansky and his family through his own tribulations, which began when he was accused in the spring of 1976 of being a CIA agent. Bonner even offered to take Sharansky into their apartment to offer some protection. After Sharansky was arrested, they sent a coat to Lefortovo prison so that he could stay warm within its cold walls. And during his trial they stood outside the courtroom with Sharansky’s mother, Ida Milgrom, day after day, and disseminated information to journalists and Western observers about what was happening inside. So indebted was Milgrom to Sakharov and Bonner that when she got permission to leave the Soviet Union in 1986, she insisted on seeing them one last time, even though they were then in exile. She got aboard a tourist boat that made stops along the Volga River and would dock at Gorky. At the appointed time, she searched for them, only to see a few hundred meters away that KGB agents prevented them from approaching the boat. Sakharov died in 1989, following a vigorous debate in the new Congress of People’s Deputies on whether to abolish one-party rule. He never got to witness the demise of the Soviet Union, but Bonner did. This great achievement, for which she is owed no small measure of credit, did not free her up to stop fighting — she just chose new targets. Vladimir Putin’s regime filled her with disgust and sadness.
She had also become an even more ardent supporter of Israel. In a speech two years ago at the Oslo Freedom Forum, in the heart of leftist Europe, she offered a tour de force defense of Israel, denouncing the Palestinian right of return and accusing Europe of ignoring the plight of Gilad Shalit because of anti-Semitism.
Sharansky described his last visit in 2010 to Bonner’s home in Boston, where she had been living for the past few years. She had grown sicker and continued — despite her daughter’s entreaties — to smoke. As soon as Sharansky arrived, she insisted they sit down and have a long talk, like they used to around the kitchen table in the old Moscow apartment she had shared with Sakharov. But all she could speak about for an hour, Sharansky said, was her anger over the free world’s double standard when it came to Israel.
Sharansky was surprised that she didn’t want to discuss Russia, but Bonner said her deeper concern was for the Jewish state. “Russian people have to decide in what kind of society they want to live,” Sharansky remembers Bonner telling him. “Israelis have already decided. And they are fighting, they are fighting for all of us. And the free world doesn’t support them. I don’t understand.”
That was the last time Sharansky saw Bonner. Upon her death, Sharansky recalled a woman who was an uncompromising fighter and who was unsparingly truthful about herself and others.
“She was never satisfied,” Sharansky said. “I can’t imagine her looking back and saying: ‘Oh, that was a good life. Enough.’ She was always in the struggle, the fight. But that is the passion that permits one to change the world, isn’t it?”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman