MOSCOW (AFP) – Soviet dissident Yelena Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov and tireless critic of Vladimir Putin, has died aged 88 in her adopted home in the United States.
A pediatrician by training but a historic figure in life, Bonner died on Saturday in Boston after undergoing heart surgery for a third time, her friend and fellow rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva told AFP.
After a suburban Boston ceremony, Bonner’s ashes will be interred next to her husband’s remains at Moscow’s Vostryakovo Cemetery, her daughter said in a statement released Sunday.
A seminal figure in the rights movement, Bonner was remembered as an unbowed fighter for Soviet freedoms who became so disillusioned with the course taken by modern Russia that she spent her last years in the United States.
“I am still stunned that our youth do not remember who Sakharov is. Unfortunately, Bonner is even less known. It is sad, but she is not the figure here that she is in the United States,” said the Moscow-based Alexeyeva.
There was no immediate reaction from President Dmitry Medvedev or his predecessor and current premier Putin, an ex-KGB man whose resignation Bonner demanded in a 2010 open letter titled simply “Putin Must Go”.
The Rossiyskaya Gazeta government daily called Bonner “a real citizen, a talented doctor, and veteran of the Great Patriotic War (World War II),” while making no mention of her years in exile or rights campaigns.
As was the case throughout most of her life, Bonner’s name was remembered most fondly in the West, with former Polish premier Jerzy Buzek saying “the world has lost one of the most inspiring and dedicated human rights defenders.”
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso for his part noted “the courage she showed in standing up for fundamental freedoms and human dignity that people worldwide demand.”
And Lithuanian Foreign Minister Andronius Azubalis whose country currently chairs the OSCE, Europe’s top security body, also paid tribute to Bonner, hailing her as “a true activist and defender of human rights”.
A daughter of Jewish revolutionaries, Bonner served as the West’s only link to her exiled husband and other dissidents in the 1980s, exposing abuses in Chechnya a decade later and demanding action over recent media restrictions.
After marrying the nuclear scientist Sakharov in 1972, she accepted his Nobel Peace Prize at an Oslo awards ceremony three years later as the Cold War raged, her husband being barred from travelling abroad because of his activism.
Sakharov died aged 68 in 1989 in the closing years of the Soviet regime, becoming a public critic of Mikhail Gorbachev after being allowed to return to Moscow together with Bonner during the last Soviet leader’s perestroika era.
With the country in disarray after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, Bonner helped organise Russia’s nascent human rights movement and backed its first president Boris Yeltsin, who brought hope to those who suffered from oppression.
But she famously quit Yeltsin’s rights commission for his 1994 decision to launch the first Chechen war, which killed tens of thousands in a Muslim region where violence festers to this day.
She spent her last years in the United States after expressing dismay with Russia’s course under Putin, an era that saw the state win back control of major television stations and rights groups com under a new wave of pressure.
Bonner said little in public about Medvedev, who has promoted modernisation while coming under criticism for achieving few results.
Instead, she took pains to capture and relay to the world the great tragedy that the Soviet people suffered under communism.
Born in the Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, Bonner was raised during the bloodiest years of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, an era in which the lives of tens of millions were gripped in fear.
Her father, a leading Communist Party intellectual, was executed in 1938 when she was 14 and her mother was sent to a labour camp for eight years.
“Today, summing up my life … I can do so in three words. My life was typical, tragic and beautiful,” Bonner told the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009.
She called herself one of “the strange orphans of 1937”, the worst year of Stalin’s purges.