Is there such a thing as a dissident personality? Certainly there are people who seem almost genetically programmed to oppose the ruling order of whichever nation they happen to inhabit. It is no insult to Elena Bonner to describe her as one such person. Bonner died on June 18, at the age of 88, having spent most of her adult life battling the Russian ruling order of the day. She first fought communism. Then she fought Putinism. In between, she was a loud and passionate critic of both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Some of the time she fought in partnership with her late husband, the nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. The rest of the time she fought alone.
In her autobiographical writings, Alone Together (1987) and Mothers and Daughters (1992), Bonner writes of feeling as if she had been born defiant. A stubborn and lonely child, she had chilly relations with her parents, both ardent communists. She obstinately refused adult supervision and frequently played by herself. The Soviet system may have encouraged her oppositional streak as well. Her father was one of the founders of the Armenian Communist Party. Her mother was Jewish, from Siberia. Both parents were arrested in the purge years of 1937–38. In the suspicious, paranoid and deeply chauvinist culture of the Soviet Union, Bonner thus carried three stigmas: She was Armenian, she was Jewish, and she was the daughter of “enemies of the people.” Any one of these attributes would have made her life complicated—people like her were often refused jobs, refused university admission, refused membership in the party—but to be all three at once was a liberating kind of curse, for her situation was irredeemably hopeless.
Bonner did not buckle under pressure but remained defiant, growing from a very difficult child into an extremely difficult adult. This helped her become an ideal dissident. Human rights work is persistent and repetitive, and Bonner could be both. She lobbied, wrote articles, staged protests and generally made herself so obnoxious to the authorities that they arrested her. In prison, she refused to cooperate. Once released, she started up again. The woman who once said that “fear gives bad advice” seemed fearless herself.1
Later in life she used the same tactics of defiance on others, not always to good effect. After she fell out with Gorbachev, whose reforms were not radical enough for her, she asked the Nobel Prize Committee to remove Sakharov’s name from the list of previous winners. After Sakharov’s funeral, she berated journalists for “calling us from morning to night” and thus driving her husband to an early death. Yet it had been Gorbachev who ended Sakharov’s internal exile in 1986 and brought him back to Moscow. And it was the media that finally helped Sakharov publicize his ideas about democracy and human rights, thus convincing ordinary Russians that he was not the captive instrument of his “evil” wife, as the Soviet press had declared.
Of course it isn’t easy, in retrospect, to separate the real Elena Bonner from the Elena Bonner created by KGB propaganda. She may have started out as a loner, but even if she hadn’t, the Soviet state would have made her into one. From the time of her marriage to Sakharov, her second, she was portrayed as a “foreign” Jewish temptress who had lured the eminent Russian physicist into her oppositional clique. Her evil influence was alleged to have turned Sakharov against Soviet communism, a narrative that, aside from its rank anti-Semitism, thoroughly insulted both of them. This propaganda did taint the views of many around Bonner, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who disliked her supposedly “un-Russian” influence over Sakharov. Others grumbled that she distracted Sakharov. Allegedly, she dragged him down into her own domestic affairs and encouraged him to stage hunger strikes in order to get medical treatment or exit visas for her children.
All of this, in retrospect, seems petty and unimportant. Look at the record: Elena Bonner overcame personal tragedy to become one of the most effective spokesmen for the Russian human rights movement. She helped create the Moscow Helsinki group, an institution that was copied and imitated by others around the world, as well as the Sakharov Institute in Moscow, which continues to maintain a superb archive, a museum and educational programs. While all of this was going on, she successfully raised two children and wrote two books as well as dozens of articles and speeches.
To be “difficult” is not, it seems, a bar to achievement. On the contrary, in some circumstances it might even be a necessary ingredient of success.