Nadezhda Azhgikhina reviews ‘Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, and friends: Life was typical, tragic, and beautiful’

19 June 2020

By Nadezhda Azhgikhina

Nadezhda Azhgikhina reviews the Russian-language publication: Boris Altshuler, Leonoid Litinsky (eds.), Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, and friends: Life was typical, tragic, and beautiful, AST, Moscow, 2020 [Борис Альтшулер, Леонид Литинский (Авт.-Сост.), Андрей Сахаров, Елена Боннэр и друзья: Жизнь была типична, трагична и прекрасна, Издательство АСТ, 2020, 704 с. ISBN 978-5-17-110852-6]

Nine Years Without Elena Bonner: 18 June marked the ninth anniversary of her death

This book about Elena Georgievna Bonner edited by physicist and human rights activist Boris Altshuler and mathematician Leonid Litinsky does not fit the usual notions of format. Presented here is biographical information about her family and relatives, reminiscences, speeches and texts by Bonner herself, and a mini-tale by her daughter, Tatyana Yankelevich — the logical continuation of Elena Georgievna’s own book Mothers and Daughters. Here we have her favorite poems, also selected by her daughter — Pushkin, Mandelshtam, Lermontov, Bagritsky, Esenin, Kornilov. . . . A bibliography and name index of contemporaries mentioned in the collection. Reminiscences by colleagues and relatives and responses to her publications and to her death. Pavel Litvinov and Sergei Grigoryants, Vera Lashkova and Grigory Yavlinsky, Elena Gessen and Liudmila Alekseeva, Svetlana Gannushkina and Viktor Shenderovich — more than sixty names. I felt somewhat embarrassed when Boris Altshuler proposed including my comment from Business Tuesday in the collection. But once I saw the book I realized the editor was right, that it was important to have the most diverse voices, remarks, and details, which together would shape an overall picture of a reality that is rapidly slipping away.

Taken together, the book’s materials, stylistically and rhythmically very different, create an amazing, multidimensional panorama of a bygone era — and inevitably give rise to thoughts of the present day. Moreover, the book, while seemingly devoted to events now far from contemporary practice and little known to young people, seems to be joining in the most intense and relevant of discussions and offering answers to the most sensitive issues now disturbing, among others, those born much later than the topics described. It also shows most conspicuously that we today have not only not distanced ourselves from the events being talked about — the Great Patriotic War, the fight against cosmopolitanism, the XX Party Congress, the suppression of the uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the fall of Khrushchev, and the Brezhnev stagnation — they resonate inside us, they continue to sound, like a Mandelshtamian “fly in amber,” they penetrate our pores and don’t let us look around with a clouded eye.

In his preface, the editor quotes Elena Bonner: “Anyone who does not regret the breakup of the USSR has no heart, and anyone who thinks we can go back has no mind.” This sentence could well serve as the epigraph to the entire collection.

Sergei Kovalev, Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner and Larisa Bogoraz. 14 January 1987. Photo:  Tatiana Yankelevich

Elena Georgievna’s life and fate, the events of her life, conveyed in the lines of dry references and sixty very different voices — these are not simply flesh of the flesh of the era, they are run through by its lines of force, they convince us that the significance of personal choice and each person’s positions are also a part of history and can have a decisive influence on the development of events, both private and public. How a person can be transformed from history’s victim and witness into its accomplice. It is the history of personally overcoming dogma, of inner liberation, and of deciding to devote one’s strengths and talents to the defence of human rights that is the crux of the book. In this sense, it is closest of all to Liudmila Alekseeva’s Thaw Generation. And harks back to Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts. The book’s stylistic polyphony and extensive apparatus make it a priceless source for researchers and unsophisticated readers both.

But not only. This is entertaining reading that absorbs, or rather, hooks the reader from its very first lines into the incredible reality of the country’s life, an encyclopedia of the movement of history and the movement of the individual. This reality rises up in the dozens of voices of the most various people, documents and unique photographs that undercut the stereotypical, one-sided notions about the era, about the people, and, of course, about the main heroine herself.

Elena Bonner was a participant in the most important events of the twentieth century, and without her voice the course of events of the final third of the century would undoubtedly have been different, and not only in the USSR. The image that arises on the book’s pages has no superfluous gloss or gilding. It attests above all to the insatiable search for truth, the search for moral bearings — and helps us understand more fully not only the logic of an individual’s development but also the main vector of development of the heterogeneous dissident movement in the USSR, whose main anchoring force — whose pledge of success in the end and of international significance — was precisely its attention to and assertion of ethical principles in politics, in life as a whole.

Politics has to be guided by moral principles, not by geopolitical or other interests — this slogan, proclaimed by Andrei Sakharov in his famous Nobel speech, resonated with the expectations of millions of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It expresses the confidence that moral law is above political interests and ideologies that gave strength to those few who consciously accepted the risk and participated in the movement, who supported the belief in the victory of good. It also educated a huge number of those who were not fighters and not prepared to sacrifice but who could not agree with the hypocrisy and stifling atmosphere of total lie and terror. Today, when many of the movement’s participants are gone, the memory of the movement itself is being wiped away, and propaganda is trying to blacken the dissidents’ very memory and practice, presenting them as either psychopaths or agents of hostile special services, so it is especially important to trace the birth and consolidation of this confidence in the inevitable victory of the moral principle over the pragmatic principle.

The book provides an opportunity to see from various perspectives and in the wealth of its details the process of gradual insight, the liberation from stereotypes, from personal errors and doubts. The path of renouncing temptations, the path of unqualified love for people, the path of service.

Some researchers believe that at the base of dissident ethics lay Christian foundations, although far from all the leaders considered themselves believers, Sakharov and Bonner for an absolute fact. The moral imperative and courage to accept responsibility for what was happening was for them instead the pinnacle of civilization’s entire development, inseparable from technical progress. We must still study closely this era and these people, without whom there would have been no changes or hopes for future democratic development: Sakharov and Bonner. People whose love and mutual support became a universal legacy, a hope and example, for a great many people. This book in memory of Elena Bonner is about that, too.

 The twenty-first century is an era of the triumph of documentary genres in literature. Their impact on minds is incredible and well described. It is a well-known fact that generations have grown up “on Herzen,” and not only in Russia. A few years ago, my student at Columbia University, who has no connections to Russia whatsoever, after reading Alekseeva’s Thaw Generation in English, decided to start studying Russian and devote herself to working at Amnesty International. There is no doubt that this book about Elena Bonner will have a long life.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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