Yelena Bonner: Are there any dissidents like her in Russia today?
Friends and colleagues of Soviet dissident Yelena Bonner, who died in Boston over the weekend, say today it's possible to work within the system – meaning true dissidents are rare.
Yelena Bonner, the Soviet-era human rights pioneer and political dissident who died in Boston over the weekend, lived to see a genuine – if incomplete –transformation in her native Russia even though she maintained her principled opposition to the Kremlin until the end, several of her former friends and colleagues in Moscow said Monday.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But being a human rights activist or political opponent of the Kremlin no longer dooms a person to be a "dissident," or a social outcast treated by the authorities as the "enemy within," they say.
"A dissident in Soviet times was someone who thought differently and dared to say so out loud. To take this step was to risk prison, and so it entailed an act of extreme personal courage," says Lev Ponomaryov, a former Soviet dissident who now heads For Human Rights, a Moscow-based coalition of activist groups.
"When our state ceased to be totalitarian (with the USSR's collapse nearly 20 years ago), we human rights defenders turned to defense of ordinary peoples' rights," he says.
"For this we must maintain a dialogue with the authorities, and have certain types of relations with officials. I've become expert at this," says Mr. Ponomaryov, who participates in several official forums. "I wish I could be called a dissident today, but I can't."
Changed political landscape
Bonner and Mr. Sakharov were subjected to constant harassment and KGB surveillance during nearly two decades they were at the center of a small, mainly Moscow-oriented band of people who rejected the Soviet system. Many were imprisoned, or forced to emigrate. Sakharov, later followed by Bonner, was subjected to six years of internal exile and enforced isolation from the world, in the Volga city of Gorky, during the early 1980s.
Ponomaryov says the political landscape is different in Russia today. There are avenues for working within the system, via the courts and official forums set up by authorities, that never existed in Soviet times, he says.
But gone, too, is the predictability of the Soviet system, in which the KGB kept dissidents effectively under glass. Today an independent journalist or human rights monitor who falls afoul of local authorities can end up viciously beaten or even murdered, as happened to investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, Chechen human rights monitor Natalya Estimirova and several journalists who tried to cover ecologists' attempts to stop highway construction through a forest in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
Two years ago Ponomaryov was attacked by thugs and brutally beaten in a Moscow street, in a case that has never been solved.