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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In New York, Yelena Bonner Toasts 80 Years

For MTYelena Bonner attending an 80th birthday party in New York on Thursday. Among the well-wishers was Sergei Kovalyov, left.
NEW YORK -- Seventeen years ago, the husband-and-wife dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner were under house arrest, conversing via an Etch-a-Sketch to foil KGB eavesdroppers, and in the habit of drinking a nightly toast "to the success of our hopeless cause."

If those two could raise a glass in good humor back then -- back when Sakharov would be tied up and force-fed by a government exasperated with his hunger strikes, and Bonner, a medical doctor, would nurse him back to health -- there's little to stop their friends and family from doing so today.

Bonner celebrated her 80th birthday with well-wishers in New York on Thursday. It was the 13th birthday she's celebrated without her husband, who died in December 1989.

Actually Bonner's birthday is Feb. 15, a date she had marked five days earlier in Boston with family. The New York birthday was a larger public celebration, held in the bookshelf-lined Upper West Side apartment of Edward Kline, president of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation.

It was complete with reporters from NTV television and Kommersant newspaper, with caterers in white coats serving hors-d'oeuvres, with salutes and poetry read in Russian and English.

Bonner, with a laugh, suddenly realized she would be expected to give a speech; she said she had forgotten to prepare.

But she has lived a rich life, and so she reached back in memory -- skipping over the recent disappointments of the Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin years, over her and her husband's triumphant return under Mikhail Gorbachev from their six years in exile, back past her husband's Nobel Peace Prize; back past their endless travels into the provinces to bring attention to the most obscure Soviet dissidents, back past Sakharov's development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb.

As the glasses were handed out for a toast, Bonner spoke instead of World War II, and the day 61 years ago when she first drank champagne.

"I first drank champagne on my own birthday in 1942. I was fresh out of the hospital" -- she had just undergone training as a nurse and, at age 18, volunteered for the war effort -- "and we were in a medical train."

"Our train was headed for the front, so it had no wounded on it. And the few soldiers on the train, and the nurses, decided to celebrate my birthday."

Because food was being husbanded for the wounded, those on the train were on limited rations: Each had been issued three slices of dried hardened toast; some dried fish soup and a little cranberry syrup, "about the color of this glass of [red] wine," Bonner said, indicating a glass on a table.

Food was scarce everywhere, and at each train station stop, all across Russia, there was nothing for sale -- not eggs, not bread, not vegetables. Nothing except champagne. The young people headed to the front, with money in their pockets but nothing to spend it on, spent it on champagne.

"Even though I was in charge of a women's brigade of nurses, I was the youngest," Bonner remembered. "So perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because of family upbringing, I wasn't used to drinking. But I drank that champagne, and I drank it.

"For zakuski, we took our black bread toasts and sprinkled them with water, to soften them, and spread the [cranberry] syrup on top. And it turned out as -- well, we called it pastries.

"That was a different birthday from today's, but both were wonderful."

Bonner would be wounded twice during World War II, and her childhood sweetheart -- a boy who lived a few blocks away from her in Moscow -- would be killed at the front. Three years after that first glass of champagne, she would be honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant.

After the war, she enrolled in the First Leningrad Medical Institute, graduated and became a pediatrician. She married a classmate from medical school, and they had two children, Tatyana, born in 1950, and Alexei, born in 1956.

But if that was life after the war, she could not escape who she was and could not escape what had come before the war.

In 1937, at the height of Josef Stalin's purges of the party, Bonner was 14. That May, her father, a high-ranking party official, was arrested (he was shot a year later). Her mother, as the wife of a "traitor," soon followed him into the camps; after the war she was released.

From nurse to doctor, Bonner had made a life helping people. In the 1960s, in the thaw following Stalin's death, she began to help Stalin's victims -- those who had been, or who were still, in the camps, and their families. She and her first husband separated.

In 1970 she and Sakharov met, as they both were attending a trial of human rights activists in Kaluga. Two years later they were married.

When Sakharov's opposition to the Soviet war in Afghanistan infuriated the Soviet government, he was "exiled" in 1980 to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). Bonner was free to come and go, and was his link to Moscow and the outside world, until she too in 1984 was ordered not to leave Gorky.

The six years of exile ended in December 1986, when workmen showed up unexpectedly to install a telephone in their apartment. The next day it rang, and Gorbachev invited Sakharov and Bonner back to Moscow.

Soon Sakharov was elected to the perestroika-era Congress of People's Deputies, and when the assembly first met, Gorbachev called upon him to be the first speaker.

Sakharov was dead two years before Yeltsin climbed upon a tank to stare down the coup plotters, and it fell to his widow and colleague, Bonner, to continue the fight for democracy and human rights. She has been a harsh critic of the war in Chechnya and the anti-democratic tendencies of the Yeltsin-Putin years -- even if she is still willing to raise a glass to the success of the hopeless cause.