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Bonner a Human Rights 'Heroine,' but Soviets See a Modern Mata Hari

April 27, 1986|MICHAEL BEZDEK | Associated Press

NEWTON, Mass. — In the West, Yelena Bonner has been cast almost exclusively in the role of dutiful, ailing wife of Andrei D. Sakharov, the Soviet Union's most prominent dissident.

But in Soviet newspapers and magazines, Yelena Bonner is portrayed as a modern-day Mata Hari whose seductions at the behest of Zionists and the CIA have turned men against their wives and against their country.

Her promised silence while here to get medical treatment for heart and eye problems keeps the picture incomplete, but new documents and interviews with those who know her indicate that the first characterization is inadequate and the second outrageous.

'One of the Heroines'

"She's certainly one of the heroines of the (human rights) movement. She's risked a lot," said Joshua Rubenstein, author of "Soviet Dissidents."

Her two children paint her as a warrior-intellectual--kind but almost always serious, independent but loyal, tolerant but capable of punching a KGB adversary, as she has done on at least two occasions.

"She always had compassion toward those who were suffering, no matter for what," said her daughter, Tatiana. "If you were standing on a conviction, even as a child, she would support you."

Yelena Georgievna Bonner was set apart even by name. As her son-in-law tells it, the name Bonner, of French origin while the family tree has all Asian roots, arose in the 1800s when an unknown ancestor traded papers with a fellow prisoner on the way to Siberia.

Bonner was on the run within hours after her birth in 1923 in the remote city of Merv. Her mother fled the hospital with newborn Yelena after being warned of an attack by Muslims hostile to the Communists.

Both Parents Taken Away

Political turmoil displaced her again in 1937, when her father, an Armenian and a member of the party elite, disappeared on his way to work in Moscow, the apparent victim of a Stalinist purge. Her mother, a Jew and a government health worker, was arrested shortly after that and spent the next 17 years in labor camps and exile.

Bonner and her younger brother, Alexei, went to Leningrad to live with relatives.

After high school, Bonner joined the army as a nurse. Though enraged over the fate of her parents, she volunteered "as a duty of the heart," according to an autobiography. At the Volkhov front in 1941, enemy shells gave her head injuries that triggered lifelong eye problems.

After the war, she studied medicine and married a fellow student, Ivan Semyonov. They had two children, Tatiana in 1950 and Alexei in 1956, but drew apart as she became more politically active. They were divorced in 1965.

In addition to her work as a pediatrician, she wrote for magazines, radio and medical journals. Her circle of friends, mainly Moscow intellectuals, continued to grow.

Reported Rights Violations

When the human rights movement in the Soviet Union gained momentum in the late 1960s, she was part of it, helping to produce "The Chronicle of Current Events," which reported rights violations.

She gained added recognition by gaining entry to the closed trial of people who had tried to hijack a plane to dramatize the plight of Soviet Jews, then distributing news of the trial in public pamphlets. She got into court by posing as the aunt of one defendant, whose diaries she later smuggled out of prison.

Her activities brought her into contact with Sakharov, who had helped develop the Soviet hydrogen bomb and whose first wife had died of cancer. The tough-talking Bonner and the shy physicist-philosopher were married in 1971.

"Here truly was a case of opposites attracting," wrote Kevin Klose, a U.S. reporter and author of "Russia and the Russians," published in 1984.

What the Sakharovs shared was a concern for the oppressed. The Bonner family's three-room apartment, where the Sakharovs lived in the kitchen, served as headquarters for the dissident movement. As their political activities increased, so did their troubles.

A Favorite Target

Bonner became a favorite target of journalist Nikolai Yakovlev, who has worked off a theme of Bonner as Zionist, paramour and CIA agent trying to undermine the Soviet system. Bonner brought what is essentially a libel suit against Yakovlev; her autobiographical sketch is included in court papers.

In an especially vicious 1983 article in the magazine Smena, Yakovlev accused her of imposing her sympathies on Sakharov, turning him against his children and his country and taking control of his finances.

He also contended that Bonner had seduced a childhood friend, the poet Vsevolod Bagritsky, who died in battle, away from a wartime bride. But in her suit Bonner cites a letter Bagritsky wrote to his mother in which he says he and his wife broke off their monthlong marriage by mutual consent.

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