Human rights activist Yelena Bonner dies


(JTA) — Yelena Bonner, a Soviet human rights activist who was married to the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, has died.

Bonner, who smuggled her husband’s writings out of Siberia, died June 18 in Boston at the age of 88.

She already was active in the Soviet human rights movement when she married Sakharov, who worked on the development of the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union, in 1972.

The Soviet government, under international pressure, allowed Bonner to leave the Soviet Union on three occasions for treatment for an eye injury sustained while serving as a nurse in World War II. During one of those travels for treatment, Bonner went to Oslo, in 1975, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for her husband.

Bonner was born in in 1923 in Soviet Turkmenistan, where her parents were persecuted under Stalin. Bonner was kicked out of medical school for being Jewish. 

The American Jewish Committee, in a statement released Sunday, called Bonner a "human rights champion of extraordinary courage, valor, and determination."

"The world has lost a rare human being," said AJC Executive Director David Harris. "Yelena Bonner experienced the full force of Soviet totalitarianism over the span of decades. But her spirit could not be broken and her voice could never be silenced. She was a tower of strength, and history was made because of her lofty ideals and steely determination, together with her late husband. They are surely among the most remarkable human-rights couples in history."

Bonner’s human-rights activities brought her into close contact with AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, according to the statement. She established the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and the Sakharov Archives in Moscow following the death of her husband in 1989.

In recent years, according to AJC, Bonner devoted growing attention to what she viewed as increasing threats to Israel and a rise of anti-Semitism.

During a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009, Bonner said that she felt alarm "because of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment growing throughout Europe and even further afield. And yet, I hope that countries, their leaders, and people everywhere will recall and adopt Sakharov’s ethical code: In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice."

Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said in a statement that "The Jewish world and the State of Israel have lost one of their most passionate champions. At the same time, the global community of democratic dissidents, political prisoners and human rights activists has lost one of its greatest leaders and advocates. Whereas Andrei Sakharov was the heart of our struggle to defeat the great evil of the Soviet system, Yelena Bonner was the engine that encouraged us to act.

"On a personal level, my family and I lost a great friend today who stood with us in those most difficult days, and who never let us down. I shall cherish her memory always."

Bonner will be laid to rest next to Sakharov in a Moscow cemetery.

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