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.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
A woman places flowers underneath a portrait of soviet dissident Yelena Bonner at the Sakharov museum in Moscow on June 19. Yelena Bonner, a relentless critic of human rights abuses by Soviet-era authorities and the widow of Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov, has died in Boston over the weekend.

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.

Life in Russia remains risky and immensely frustrating for those who choose the path blazed by Ms. Bonner and her husband, the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Soviet critic Andrei Sakharov.

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.

Still, he says, "I hope that our personal risk is not as tough as it was in Bonner's days, even though we sometimes face death.... In some regions of Russia, particularly the north Caucasus, to be a human rights champion is a death sentence. These people are real dissidents," he adds.

Bonner remained a strong critic of the Kremlin

Though Bonner lived permanently in the US from 2003 until her death, she remained a strong critic of the Kremlin, particularly the authoritarian regime created by Vladimir Putin, which cracked down on independent media, curbed civil society activism and imposed a straitjacket on electoral choice.

"Yelena Bonner watched what was going on in Russia very attentively, and did not change her views," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation and longtime friend of Bonner.

He says she did not trust Russian authorities to defend human rights. "She saw the authorities as the natural enemies of human rights, and didn't agree with becoming involved with them," he says. "But Russia today is not the Soviet Union, though it looks like we're backsliding in some ways."

Sergei Kovalyov, a prominent Soviet-era dissident who became Russia's official human rights commissioner under former Soviet President Boris Yeltsin, says, however, that Russia increasingly resembles the Soviet Union.

"The authorities are not legitimate, because there are no real elections," he says. "The constitution is violated at every step, there is no division of powers, we have no independent courts that could limit the authorities' powers. This is what it was like in Soviet times, though we called it the Soviet dictatorship then."

Bonner's group gets modest legal victories

Russia's oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) was founded by 11 leading dissidents, including Bonner and Sakharov, in 1976 to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Final Act, signed by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, which recognized the universal obligation of states to protect basic human rights.

"Many leaders of the group were arrested, and after Sakharov was sent into exile (in Gorky), Bonner was the one who kept him in touch with the world by delivering his articles and meeting people," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, another MHG founder who now heads the group.

"Then she was accused of blackmail and exiled. It was done to make their isolation complete. The Soviet press attacked her even more than him," she remembers.

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he ordered Sakharov and Bonner released from Gorky exile. In the final years of the USSR, both played an increasingly public role, with Sakharov being elected to the first Soviet parliament in 1989. He died a few months later.

In post-Soviet years, Bonner kept up her criticism of Kremlin policies and played a key role in establishing Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum – still the only institution in Russia devoted to exposing the crimes of Communism.

"Life has changed," says Ms. Alexeyeva. "When you became a dissident in Soviet times, you became an outcast. Now we are working [within the system], trying to obtain some practical results.

"The system resists our efforts, and we only win about three in 10 court cases, but I like that kind of work. I like getting some results," she says.

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