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03/13/2008

Elena Bonner

I subscribe to about 25 publications and rip out articles I may
want to read later, placing them in a pile. Such was a piece in the
Jan. 14, 2008, issue of The Weekly Standard by Cathy Young on
Elena Bonner, the 84-year-old widow of Russian nuclear
physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Since 2002, Bonner has lived in the United States (Brookline,
Mass.) and with her declining health she doesn’t travel to Russia
anymore.

Bonner’s public life spans the time of Stalin’s purges, through
the dissident movement of the 1970s, the democratic movement
in post-Communist Russia, on up to today. Her life hasn’t been
an easy one. As Young writes, “In 1937, both her parents were
arrested in Stalin’s purges; her father was shot, her mother sent
to the Gulag. Bonner served as a military nurse in World War II
and was wounded twice, with permanent damage to her
eyesight.”

Bonner met Sakharov in 1970 and the two were married in ’72.
She then became a target of Soviet propagandists, who described
Sakharov, the leading scientist, as being manipulated “by a
power-hungry, depraved seductress with Zionist ties (Bonner is
partly of Jewish background).”

But then Gorbachev came to power and in 1986, Sakharov and
Bonner were released from exile in Gorky as a first gesture
towards opening up the regime. By 1989, Sakharov was a
member of parliament and leader of an opposition bloc that
included Boris Yeltsin. He died, though, of a heart attack in Dec.
of that year. 100,000 attended his funeral.

Today, Bonner is the subject of attacks again as Putin’s
‘theorists’ argue that “it wasn’t Dr. Sakharov who laid the
foundations of Russian liberalism while battling for his wife’s
right to have her teeth done in Switzerland,” so spoke political
analyst and television host Maksim Shevchenko. [For the record,
as Cathy Young writes, “Sakharov had gone on several hunger
strikes to secure permission for Bonner to travel abroad for life-
saving heart surgery.”]

Bonner told Young that it is a mistake to see Russia as
backsliding toward the Soviet era. “This is a completely
different historical point. Analogies to the Stalin era or to the
1970s do not feel real to me,” she said last December. “I am
closer to the view that there are many parallels to Germany in the
1930s. The same decrease in unemployment, economic
stabilization; people are living better. Putin, like Hitler, is seen
as the man who brought Russia out of chaos, raised her from her
knees. It is ridiculous and embarrassing when the leaders of
United Russia [Putin’s party] refer to Putin as ‘the national
leader.’ What’s a leader? The Fuhrer. It’s a carbon copy of a
word that inevitably evokes certain associations.”

But while Russia doesn’t have a state ideology like Nazism,
Bonner cautions, “there is a very strong nationalist idea, as well
as the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as a state church.
Authoritarianism, Orthodoxy, populism – not even focused on
‘the people,’ but on ethnic Russians – this formula, which is
being more and more broadly adopted by the powers that be,
seems to be a very frightening direction for my country. A large
part of the population is unhappy about this. But when push
comes to shove, even most of those people will not vote for the
opposition but for Putin and United Russia, because they’ve been
persuaded that the rise in prosperity today is the merit of Putin
and United Russia.”

Bonner also levied criticism at the West. “The West has never
truly understood what’s going on, and it still doesn’t. On the one
hand, they are too optimistic; on the other hand, they are mired in
an energy crisis, and right now it’s very difficult for European
leaders or even for Bush to have a principled position.” Bonner,
for example, doesn’t see Putin as a partner in the global War on
Terror as President Bush puts forward from time to time. “By
passing off the tragedy of Chechnya as a part of the struggle
against global terrorism, Russia has deceived the West and
persistently pushed the Chechen population into the radical
Islamist corner.”

Hot Spots returns next week with more on Russia.

Brian Trumbore


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Hot Spots

03/13/2008

Elena Bonner

I subscribe to about 25 publications and rip out articles I may
want to read later, placing them in a pile. Such was a piece in the
Jan. 14, 2008, issue of The Weekly Standard by Cathy Young on
Elena Bonner, the 84-year-old widow of Russian nuclear
physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Since 2002, Bonner has lived in the United States (Brookline,
Mass.) and with her declining health she doesn’t travel to Russia
anymore.

Bonner’s public life spans the time of Stalin’s purges, through
the dissident movement of the 1970s, the democratic movement
in post-Communist Russia, on up to today. Her life hasn’t been
an easy one. As Young writes, “In 1937, both her parents were
arrested in Stalin’s purges; her father was shot, her mother sent
to the Gulag. Bonner served as a military nurse in World War II
and was wounded twice, with permanent damage to her
eyesight.”

Bonner met Sakharov in 1970 and the two were married in ’72.
She then became a target of Soviet propagandists, who described
Sakharov, the leading scientist, as being manipulated “by a
power-hungry, depraved seductress with Zionist ties (Bonner is
partly of Jewish background).”

But then Gorbachev came to power and in 1986, Sakharov and
Bonner were released from exile in Gorky as a first gesture
towards opening up the regime. By 1989, Sakharov was a
member of parliament and leader of an opposition bloc that
included Boris Yeltsin. He died, though, of a heart attack in Dec.
of that year. 100,000 attended his funeral.

Today, Bonner is the subject of attacks again as Putin’s
‘theorists’ argue that “it wasn’t Dr. Sakharov who laid the
foundations of Russian liberalism while battling for his wife’s
right to have her teeth done in Switzerland,” so spoke political
analyst and television host Maksim Shevchenko. [For the record,
as Cathy Young writes, “Sakharov had gone on several hunger
strikes to secure permission for Bonner to travel abroad for life-
saving heart surgery.”]

Bonner told Young that it is a mistake to see Russia as
backsliding toward the Soviet era. “This is a completely
different historical point. Analogies to the Stalin era or to the
1970s do not feel real to me,” she said last December. “I am
closer to the view that there are many parallels to Germany in the
1930s. The same decrease in unemployment, economic
stabilization; people are living better. Putin, like Hitler, is seen
as the man who brought Russia out of chaos, raised her from her
knees. It is ridiculous and embarrassing when the leaders of
United Russia [Putin’s party] refer to Putin as ‘the national
leader.’ What’s a leader? The Fuhrer. It’s a carbon copy of a
word that inevitably evokes certain associations.”

But while Russia doesn’t have a state ideology like Nazism,
Bonner cautions, “there is a very strong nationalist idea, as well
as the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as a state church.
Authoritarianism, Orthodoxy, populism – not even focused on
‘the people,’ but on ethnic Russians – this formula, which is
being more and more broadly adopted by the powers that be,
seems to be a very frightening direction for my country. A large
part of the population is unhappy about this. But when push
comes to shove, even most of those people will not vote for the
opposition but for Putin and United Russia, because they’ve been
persuaded that the rise in prosperity today is the merit of Putin
and United Russia.”

Bonner also levied criticism at the West. “The West has never
truly understood what’s going on, and it still doesn’t. On the one
hand, they are too optimistic; on the other hand, they are mired in
an energy crisis, and right now it’s very difficult for European
leaders or even for Bush to have a principled position.” Bonner,
for example, doesn’t see Putin as a partner in the global War on
Terror as President Bush puts forward from time to time. “By
passing off the tragedy of Chechnya as a part of the struggle
against global terrorism, Russia has deceived the West and
persistently pushed the Chechen population into the radical
Islamist corner.”

Hot Spots returns next week with more on Russia.

Brian Trumbore