Yelena Georgievna Bonner, a human rights activist and an outspoken critic of the former Soviet Union, died in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 88.
She was born Lusik Georgievna Alikhanova in what is today Turkmenistan, to a prominent Communist functionary and a Jewish, Communist activist mother. Both of her parents got caught up in the Great Purge of 1937. Her father was executed and her mother spent eight years in a labor camp.
It is therefore no surprise that, beginning in the 1940s, Yelena Bonner began helping political prisoners and their families. In the late 1960s, she became active in the Soviet human rights movement. She married nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov in 1972, and in 1976, the two became founding members of the Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest and most influential non-governmental human rights watch group.
Life was difficult and risky for human rights activists in the Soviet Union, and for anyone who dared to publicly criticize the system. A dissident in the Soviet Union was always just one step away from prison, or worse. For nearly 20 years, Bonner and Sakharov were part of a small group of people who publicly rejected the Soviet system. The KGB harassed and spied upon them. Many were imprisoned, or forced to emigrate. In 1984, Bonner was found guilty of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" and sentence to five years of internal exile in the city of Gorki, where she joined her husband, himself exiled in 1980.
They were permitted to return to Moscow in late 1986, but just three years later, Sakharov died.
Yelena Bonner lived to see a dramatic transformation of her native Russia, but continued to fight for greater political openness and human rights. In 2003 she moved to the United States, but to the very end, she maintained her principled opposition to the Kremlin, becoming an outspoken critic of the conflict in Chechnya.
With profound sadness, we note the death of Yelena Bonner, an extraordinary voice among human rights defenders in the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Bonner's history is an important part of the human rights community in Russia and around the world today.