Boris Altshuler: On the centenary of Yelena Georgievna Bonner’s birth

15 February 2023

by Boris Altshuler, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

“Anyone who does not regret the breakup of the USSR has no heart,  and anyone who thinks we can go back has no mind.”

Yelena Bonner, early 1990s

Elena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov in 1979. Photo: HRW

15 February 2023 was the centenary of Yelena Georgievna Bonner’s birth. On that day, at the Sakharov Centre (the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Centre) in Moscow, the opening was held of an exhibit and evening dedicated to this significant date.

The evening was organized by the museum’s curator, Natalia Samover. The hall was overflowing, many were standing, and the evening was livestreamed. This was quite possibly the last event at the Sakharov Centre, which has become so familiar to us over the last quarter-century. Since, as we know, the Centre has received an eviction demand from the authorities.

First came a very powerful speech by Ye.G. Bonner’s daughter Tatiana Yankelevich. Following her was the Centre’s acting director, Sergei Lukashevsky, and then the Sakharov Centre’s chairman of the board, Vyacheslav Bakhmin. There were several important speeches, and in the middle of the evening Polina Osetinskaya performed the music of Bach.

Here I would note only that when the start of the evening was announced, Bela Koval, the director of the Sakharov Archive, suddenly appeared in the hall, having only just then, that same afternoon of 15 February, left the hospital after having suffered a heart attack. The hall greeted her with applause. Speaking about the fact that the very idea of creating the Sakharov Centre was Yelena Bonner’s, Leonid Litinsky at the end of his speech emphasized that the effectiveness of the Centre’s work is 95% determined by its acting director, and he reminded us that over the many years of its history the Centre has had two directors. The evening’s host, Natalia Samover, suggested that respect was due to the Sakharov Centre’s first acting director, Yury Samodurov, which was also met with applause. 

Aleksandr Daniel talked about a collection of operational and other documents recently published, in January 2023, Object under Observation: The KGB versus Sakharov, which was prepared by the Memorial collective.

Below is an account of my speech.

After thanking the Sakharov Centre’s collective for organizing the exhibit and this evening, I said that I had met Yelena Georgievna Bonner in late 1972, when Sakharov moved to the famous apartment No. 68, at 48B Chkalov Street (now Zemlyanoi Val). I recalled the sad day 43 years later, the day of her death, 18 May 2011. “Yih’e zikhra barukh!” — Blessed be her memory! — as an old comrade wrote me then from Jerusalem. Yelena Georgievna was active up to her last day on the public and even the political plane. Among other things, she spoke out several times in defence of Israel against the attacks of the “pseudoliberal West,” considering those attacks absolutely unjust. I would point out that Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky also talked about this that evening when he recounted a few key episodes in his human rights struggle together with Sakharov and Bonner.

I talked about the scale of Yelena Bonner’s personality, recalling as well her hours-long interview in Oslo in 1975—after she delivered Sakharov’s Novel lecture there—and her speech to the joint session of the U.S. Congress on 21 May 1986, the 65th anniversary of Sakharov’s birth (Tatiana Yankelevich delivered this speech in full two months ago, on 16 December 2022, at a Sakharov Centre evening). I emphasized that with all her ability to think globally, Yelena Georgievna never lost her simple human compassion, her desire to help anyone in trouble. Another manifestation of the scale of Yelena Bonner’s personality was her knowledge of great Russian poetry. She knew many poems and given the occasion would recite them from memory.

I cited two books that had come out in recent years: Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, and Friends: “Life Was Typical, Tragic, and Beautiful” (AST, Moscow, 2019), which was put together at the initiative of Leonid Litinsky, compiled by the two of us, and dedicated to Yelena Bonner; and my book, Sakharov and Power: “On the Other Side of the Window”: Lessons for the Present and the Future (Omega-L, Moscow, 2021), which also included quite a lot about Yelena Bonner. I read three vivid quotations.

Sofia Bogatyreva (daughter of the writer Aleksandr Ivich-Bernshtein, this family was friendly with Bonner’s family for several generations) recalls the evening of the day (16 October 1970) when Yelena Bonner came to see them immediately after the trial ended in Kaluga against Revolt Pimenov and Boris Vail where she met Sakharov for the first time: “She stopped in the doorway and didn’t say but exhaled ecstatically: “What an academician!” In hindsight one can say that this was love at first sight.”

Approximately two months later, Sakharov and Bonner together tried to save, and did save, two participants in the so-called “aircraft hijacking affair” from being sentenced to death. Here is one episode from those epochal days of December 1970 as described by Yelena Bonner (from her story “Before the Diaries,” Znamia, no. 11, 2005): “The sentence was issued on the trial’s tenth day. Apart from specially chosen people, they also let a few friends who were in the courthouse corridor into the courtroom for the reading. The sentence was read out by Judge Katukova: two death sentences, for Kuznetsov and Dymshits, and long sentences for all the other defendants except one. After it was read in the courtroom, where, besides relatives, there were more than 100 specially chosen people, applause broke out. It was as if some force hurled me into the aisle, and I shouted: “Only fascists can applaud death sentences.” Policemen rushed toward me and started dragging me toward the judge’s desk, while behind me Belka (here I pointed to Bela Koval sitting in the first row — B.A.) latched onto me, dragged me away from them, and shouted: “I won’t let you, I won’t let you.” Other relatives of the convicted men rushed toward us, and the policemen retreated. But when people left the courtroom, they recoiled from us, as if we had the plague.” 

December 1973. Sakharov and Bonner are in the Academy hospital. Also there at the time was astrophysicist Iosif Shklovsky, who recalls (in his collection, He Lived Among Us. Recollections of Sakharov, OTF FIAN – Praktika, Moscow, 1996): “The Academy couple had forgotten to bring their transistor radio to the hospital. For this reason, every evening after supper Andrei Dmitrievich alone, or with his wife, would come see me in my ward to listen to all kinds of voices. It was touching to watch them, sitting by my bed and listening to the radio, holding hands the whole time. Even newlyweds don’t sit like that. . . .”

And now a few words about the terrifying present. In a recent interview for the popular German television channel ZDF, for a programme on the liquidation of the Moscow Helsinki Group as a legal entity, I emphasized that the MHG was, is, and will be independent of any state registration, but I’m terrified for Russia! Russia is self-destructing right before our eyes, like in a bad dream. This is not the first time we have seen self-destruction like this, at the will of the country’s top leadership, in our history: the Red terror; the Bolshevik food appropriation of 1919-21, when all grain reserves were confiscated, including the seed fund for the next harvest; the subsequent terrible famine of the early 1920s (the film Famine about this disaster was banned from screening in Russia in December 2022); the physical extermination of 15 mllion of the most able-bodied rural population during the era of collectivization; the Great Terror, . . . and now once again we have bodies, dead bodies. And for what?

“Anyone who does not regret the breakup of the USSR has no heart, and anyone who thinks we can go back has no mind.”  Yelena Bonner said in an interview in the early 1990s. Now it is impossible to know whether it was she or someone else who was the author of this aphorism, which has long since become folklore, and according to the search engine has been repeated many times by the most varied people, including the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. “Has no mind” is exactly what can be said about today’s attempts to restore at least somewhat the geography of the USSR by biting off a certain number of square kilometres from Ukraine in favour of the Russian Federation. And at what cost!

I will repeat briefly what I said about this disaster on 15 December 2022 at Moscow’s House of Cinema upon accepting three prizes at once from the Stalker Human Rights Film Festival awarded to our documentary Andrei Sakharov: On the Other Side of the Window (director Dmitry Zavilgelsky). I would point out that there is quite a lot in this film about Yelena Bonner as well: the documentary filming of her delivering Sakharov’s Nobel lecture in Norway, on 10 December 1975; her reading out all the 127 names of Soviet prisoners of conscience he included in his lecture; and much else, including the final frames of the film, where the voices of Yelena Bonner and then of the speaker reading the concluding words of Sakharov’s Nobel lecture are heard on the backdrop of the Sakharov Gardens in Jerusalem.

On 15 December of last year, I, as coauthor of the screenplay, found myself at the House of Cinema the sole representative of the film’s team, so I accepted these awards three times. When I was invited on the House of Cinema stage to accept the first prize, in my acceptance I cited Sakharov’s precept about the infinite, universal scale, the scale of the universe, the value of each individual human life. And I added: “One can imagine the utterly unbearable pain Sakharov would have experienced in today’s tragic situation. Speaking of this is impossible, nor is it necessary. Everyone understands everything as it is.”

The third Stalker prize was awarded to me by Vadim Abdrashitov, president of the Stalker Film Festival, who announced that the festival jury had been unanimous in awarding this film the festival’s Best Documentary Prize. He spoke very accurate and, for us, the film’s creators, important words about the film. How terrible that now suddenly the best people have passed away. Vadim Abdrashitov died suddenly three days ago, on 12 February. In my acceptance I once again talked about how modern Sakharov is and quoted his words, “Our Homeland’s enormous crime,” referring to the Afghan war in June 1989 from the tribune of the First Congress of People’s Deputies. And I emphasized the contemporary importance of these words in the context of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine.

In conclusion I read Yelena Georgievna Bonner’s letter of thanks addressed to everyone who congratulated her on her 85th birthday, on 15 February 2008:

“Dear friends,

“I would very much like to write to each one of you, but I haven’t the strength. Forgive me. I ardently and sincerely thank everyone who congratulated me on my longevity. And although the burden of years is heavy, your good words have made it lighter. Thank you for this. And most of all for your memory of Andrei Dmitrievich. I am like a moon: reflected light.

“For some reason I remember Omar Khayyam. I would like to finish my thank you with his lines: “The burden of love is heavy, even if borne by two. Now I bear our love alone. But for who and why, I myself cannot say.

“Live! Believe! Hope! 

“Yelena Bonner”

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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