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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Woman of Principle




For many years, Yelena Bonner, the widow of prominent Russian physicist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, has been an uncompromising "voice of conscience" for Russia. Ms. Bonner was forced to turn her family visit to the United States last summer into a protracted stay after suffering a full-blown heart attack in September. She is unsure whether she will be able to return to Russia in late March as planned, but she agreed to speak by phone with Natalia Yefimova to comment on Russia's latest political developments, the state of human rights and, of course, the war in Chechnya.


Q:


In a survey by Time magazine, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin named Andrei Sakharov "man of the century." How did you feel about this?


A:


Perhaps, [under different circumstances] I would have been happy about this, but in light of the war in Chechnya and Yeltsin's course of development - or, more precisely, degradation - toward an authoritarian-military position (when we expected him to bring the country closer to democracy), it strikes me as speculation. And I will stand for no speculation using the name of Andrei Dmitriyevich.


Q:


It's been over 10 years since Sakharov's death. Do you feel that Russia has made any progress in implementing the principles outlined in his draft of the Constitution?


A:


None at all. You see, although that constitution had been written for the Soviet Union, the Russia that remained after its disintegration was still an enormous, multi-ethnic state. One of the key principles of Sakharov's constitution was equal rights for all the country's ethnic groups, regardless of their administrative status - oblast, republic, what have you. He believed that if they truly had the right to self-determination, no one would want to break away. He included a provision that each of these administrative units would delegate whatever functions it deemed necessary to the center ... and each would decide its own fate based on the will of the people. Only after that did he propose there be a 10-year moratorium on all border changes. So that things could settle down and emotions could cool off before moving on to the next stage. Many people unfairly cite Sakharov, saying that he called for a ban on altering borders.


Q:


It's been said that many of the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s had never intended to get involved in politics, but after the fall of communism the burden of political leadership was thrust upon them "by default," so to speak ...


A:


People always ask, "Where have the dissidents gone?" Well, as for me, I'll be 77 in a few weeks; I just don't have the strength to do as much as I used to. Politics is far from everyone's calling in life. You can shower me with money, for instance, but I still won't like [politics]. ... I have a need - and have always had the need - to speak out on problems that concern me. ... Some dissidents have returned to their original professions. People choose what they want to do and, thank God, we live in a time when we can choose a field that fulfills our own needs, not only the needs of society. ... Many dissidents continue to be involved in human rights advocacy. But - for now - this does not involve the threat of arrest; so their work has lost its aura of romanticism. And that's why people ask, "Where have the dissidents gone?"


Q:


What should average citizens do to help build civil society in Russia? What's missing on their part?


A:


What's missing is independent thinking. As before, society succumbs to the most base forms of agitation by those with power and money. And the results are clear from the latest [Duma] elections. [There was] a lot of demagoguery that people took for the truth. ... I mean both Unity and, unfortunately, the Union of Right Forces [SPS], which, by supporting [acting President Vladimir] Putin's ideology, ceased to be liberal and democratic. Support for the idea of war rather than a peaceful solution in Chechnya should have completely pulled the veil of democracy and liberalism off SPS, but unfortunately people don't understand this.


Q:


What political alternative was there?


A:


Well, I can't force my views as a voter onto others, but I voted for Yabloko and will vote for Yavlinsky and certainly not for Putin. The military and police-like ideology preached by Putin does not suit me. Society longs for the creation of a truly strong state, but a strong state can have different ideologies. And I consider the ideology that comes with Putin - and is supported by SPS and Unity - a dangerous one.


Q:


Moving on to Chechnya ... You've proposed the idea of "internationalizing" the conflict ...


A:


I continue to support the idea of bringing in international experts and peace-keeping forces. The danger of this war's ideology lies precisely in the fact that [Putin and the military] have closed off this conflict not only to the international community but to Russia as well. This conflict has already produced so many lies! We don't know the death tolls. We don't know about the methods or weapons being used. We believe that certain methods prohibited by the Convention [on Human Rights] have been put into play. ... We still don't know who blew up those apartment buildings or how the investigation is being conducted. ... We only hear the lies of [General] Manilov and that created-specially-for-lying information center.


.. [The war] is horrible not only for Chechnya but for Russia as well. Because Russia, blinded by militarism, is becoming a fascist state. The methods being employed by the military are methods of genocide; the things happening in Chechnya today are crimes against humanity and they deserve their own Nuremburg.


Q:


How realistic do you think it is that the West would agree to provide the manpower and money needed to interfere in Chechnya?


A:


Even though I'm a pessimist, I can not abandon my point of view. I continue to insist that international experts and peace-keeping forces be allowed into Chechnya. The bombing must stop and the negotiations must begin.


And it's absolutely untrue that [Aslan] Maskhadov is not legitimate. He is legitimate and has been recognized as such. ... Maskhadov is effectively powerless because that lack of power was fostered and created by Moscow during the war-free years. All those horrid [local] groups started gathering momentum for their illicit activities on the groundwork laid through deception by Moscow. ... Instead of bombs, Chechnya needs the return of refugees and new elections.


Q:


Do you feel that the current military campaign may produce another generation of psychologically traumatized young men? I mean the soldiers who return from Chechnya. ...


A:


I think that since December 1979, all the Soviet and, later, the Russian government has done is breed people whose psychological condition is known in the West as the Vietnam complex. ... After all, the victims of war are not only those who come home in zinc coffins; those who return [alive] will also be victims. The only way to avoid this is not to fight. There are psychiatrists and international organizations that work on adaptation programs, but these are all just a drop in the ocean.


Q:


Your position on Putin is already quite clear. What was your opinion of him before he gained prominence?


A:


I had no opinion of him. I have always believed the organization from which he emerged [i.e. the KGB] to be "untransformable." Perhaps it must be the way that it is, but it should not be the organization to develop government strategy.


Q:


What is your opinion of the way the United States assesses the situation in Russia?


A:


America is a stable democracy with its own flaws, but despite these flaws, it will not suddenly go tumbling off a precipice, regardless of who gets elected. ... It seems to me that, over the last 10 years, the U.S. administration has constantly been wrong in its assessment of Russia. It constantly mistakes words for deeds. ... In part this happens because it makes it easier [for the United States] to defend its own political interests. ... The Clinton administration put its money on a democratic Russia and for Strobe Talbott to admit now that Russia is not [democratic] at all would be to make a fool of himself.


Q:


You wrote an unusual and touching account of your childhood and relationship with your family called "Daughters and Mothers" (Dochki-Materi). Is there anything you would add to that book if you could?


A:


That book was written while Andrei Dmitriyevich was still alive. I had a different sense of the world then. It was written for him. And I can not recapture the way I felt about life then, before his death.