Elena Bonner was born on February 15, 1923, in Merv, Turkmenistan. She grew up in the restless, cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Hotel Luxe on Gorky Street, which lodged important foreign communists working in Moscow. Her father, Gevork Alikhanov, was a prominent Armenian communist and a secretary of the Comintern, the “general staff of the world revolution.” Her mother, Ruth Bonner, was born in Siberia in 1900, joined the Communist Party in 1924, and was dedicated to bringing culture to the masses and saving children made homeless by the upheavals of 1917 and the Civil War.
Elena’s life as a Moscow schoolgirl ended abruptly when her father was arrested in May 1937. Ruth moved with her two children to her mother’s apartment in Leningrad but did not escape her fate. She was arrested later that year and sentenced to hard labor as the wife of a traitor.
Elena became a proficient survivor. She finished high school in Leningrad, volunteered as a nurse when war broke out, was wounded twice, and honorably discharged in 1945 as a lieutenant and a disabled veteran. After two years of intensive treatment, the loss of vision caused by her wartime injury was brought under control, and she enrolled in the First Leningrad Medical Institute. Upon graduation, she worked as a pediatrician, a district doctor, and a free lance author and editor. She married Ivan Semyonov, a classmate from the medical school, and, ignoring warnings that childbearing could endanger her life, gave birth to a daughter, Tatiana, in 1950, and a son, Alexei, in 1956. (Elena and Ivan separated in 1965.)
She succeeded in reestablishing contact with her mother as the war was drawing to a close. It was only in 1954, however, that Ruth was exonerated, granted a special pension, and informed that her husband died in confinement sometime in 1939. (It took another 52 years for the truth to be revealed – four years after Ruth passed away, Elena gained access to the KGB files and learned that her father was executed in 1938.) Ruth was also assigned an apartment in Moscow, on Zemlyanoi Val, comfortable by Soviet standards. This apartment became Elena’s home and in 1971 it was here that Andrei Sakharov moved in.
She mingled with the generation of writers and artists who had been inspired by the post Stalin thaw, but she also helped prisoners and their families. Elena met Andrei Sakharov in October 1970 when both were attending the trial of human rights activists in Kaluga. They got to know each other better in December while defending Jews sentenced to death for attempting an escape from the USSR in a hijacked plane. By August 1971 friendship turned into love, and in January 1972 they formally registered their marriage. Theirs was an unlikely match between a reserved Russian physicist and a scrappy, streetwise Armenian Jewish physician. But it endured.
Her marriage to Sakharov changed Elena’s life. She took early retirement as a disabled war veteran and devoted herself to Sakharov, serving as his chief of staff and secretary as well as cook and bottle washer. She also became Sakharov’s ambassador to the world at large. She represented him at the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo; reported on her visits to Italy, France, and America; and after his January 1980 exile, served as his sole link with Moscow and the West until May 1984, when she too was barred from leaving Gorky. In August 1984, she was tried by a Gorky court, found guilty of “anti Soviet agitation,” and sentenced to exile. By then, she already had a serious heart condition and was in urgent need of surgery.
In 1981 Elena and Andrei went on a successful hunger strike to secure the right for their daughter in law to join her husband, Elena’s son Alexei, in the United States. But it took three hunger strikes by Sakharov, totaling almost 200 days, for Elena to gain permission to travel to the US in December, 1985 for open-heart surgery. In June 1986, after sextuple bypass operation, she returned to Gorky to Andrei and to what they thought would be an exile for life. On December 15, 1986, a telephone was installed in their Gorky apartment and the next day Mikhail Gorbachev personally asked the Sakharovs to return to Moscow. They arrived at Zemlyanoi Val apartment on December 23, 1986. The curtain was raised for the next act.
After Andrei Sakharov’s death in December 1989, Elena Bonner continued the campaign for democracy and human rights in Russia. She joined the defenders of the Russian parliament during the attempted coup of August 1991, and lent her support to Boris Yeltsin at the time of constitutional crisis of 1993. She has campaigned tirelessly in defense of self determination for the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh and for all the peoples of the former Soviet Union. In 1995 she resigned from the Presidential Human Rights Commission in protest against the war in Chechnya, and withdrew her support for President Yeltsin in the following years, insisting that he compromised himself as a democratically elected president having started and condoned the war.
She was the driving force behind the creation of the International Andrei Sakharov Foundation, created in 1990, and its honorary chair. Her impassioned commentary on current Russian politics and human rights issues appeared frequently in Russian and international press.
Over the years, Elena’s age and health condition made it increasingly difficult for her to be far away from her children who live in the US; since 2004 she resided in Boston, Massachusetts, while remaining a citizen of Russian Federation.
In February 2011, she was hospitalized with an acute episode of congestive heart failure, underwent a complex mitral valve replacement surgery in March, and was slowly recovering, when series of infections and multiple organ failure could no longer be overcome. She passed away on June 18, 2011. Elena’s remains were cremated and in October 2011 the urn will be interred in the grave of her husband Andrei Sakharov in Vostryakovo Cemetery in Moscow, next to her mother Ruth Bonner and brother Igor Alikhanov.
- Dr. Bonner has two children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren all of whom live in the United States.
- Dr. Bonner has published a number of books (Books by E.G.Bonner) in the United States and in Russia.
- Andrei Sakharov