In praise of… Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner
Together they endured exile, arrest, hunger strike, harassment, humiliation, ill health and enormous personal loss – but their memory will surely endure
As a couple, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner achieved more for human rights in their country than any other. He, one of the greatest Soviet physicists and the youngest member of its Academy of Sciences, became the politburo's most implacable opponent. Introducing him to the wider dissident movement, she became his ferocious gatekeeper. Together they endured exile, arrest, hunger strike, harassment, humiliation, ill health and enormous personal loss – but their memory will surely endure Bonner's death last week. Brought back from Gorky by Mikhail Gorbachev, courted by Boris Yeltsin, she retained an instinctive distrust of opportunists who conscripted the memory of her husband for their cause. Post-communism was to rob the final decades of Bonner's life of a redemptive ending. By 1996, she had fallen out with Yeltsin so badly over Chechnya and the grand theft of the oligarchs that she said democracy had turned into "dermocratia" (shitocracy). Under Putin, she spent more and more of her time with her family in Boston, but lacerated him for human rights violations. In a letter read out to a rally against racism and ethnic violence in Moscow last year, Bonner described herself as a Moscovite, Jew and Caucasus national. "Consider that I have come, again to save my homeland, although my legs cannot carry me." She had cried once for her father, who was shot in 1937, cried again for her mother, who spent 17 years in the labour camps, but had never, it seemed, stopped crying for her country.
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