Yelena (Lusik) Bonner was born in Merv (now Mary), Turkmenistan, USSR to Ruth Bonner, a Jewish Communist activist. Her father was an Armenian Georgy Alikhanov (né Gevork Alikhanyan, who had fled the Armenian Genocide in 1915 to Tbilisi), a prominent Armenian Communist and a secretary of the Comintern. She had a younger brother, Igor, who became a career naval officer.
Her parents were both arrested in 1937 during Stalin's Great Purge; her father was executed and her mother served eight years term at a forced labor camp near Karaganda, Kazakhstan, followed by internal exile. Elena's 41-year-old uncle, Ruth's brother Matvei Bonner, was also executed during the Purge, and his wife internally exiled. All four were exonerated, following Stalin's death in 1953.
Serving as a nurse during World War II, Bonner was wounded twice, and in 1946 was honorably discharged as a disabled veteran. After the war she earned a degree in pediatrics from the First Leningrad Medical Institute. In 1965 she joined Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Her first husband was Ivan Semenov (or Semyonov), her classmate at medical school, by whom she had two children, Tatiana and Alexei, both of whom emigrated to the United States in 1977 and 1978, respectively, as a result of state pressure and KGB-style threats. Elena and Ivan eventually divorced.
Beginning in the 1940s, she helped political prisoners and their families, in the late 1960s, she became active in the Soviet human rights movement. In 1972 she married nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Under pressure from Sakharov, the regime permitted her to travel to the West in 1975, 1977, and 1979 for treatment of her wartime eye injury. When Sakharov, awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, was barred from travel by the Soviets, Bonner, in Italy for treatment, represented him at the ceremony in Oslo.
Bonner became a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976. When in January 1980 Sakharov was exiled to Gorky, a city closed to the foreigners, the harassed and publicly denounced Bonner became his lifeline traveling between Gorky and Moscow to bring out his writings. Her arrest in April 1984 for "anti-Soviet slander" and sentence to five years of exile in Gorky disrupted their lives again. Sakharov’s several long and painful hunger strikes forced the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev to let her travel to the U.S. in 1985 for sextuple bypass heart surgery. Prior to that, in 1981, Bonner and Sakharov went on a dangerous but ultimately successful hunger strike together to get Soviet officials to allow their daughter-in-law, Yelizaveta Konstantinovna ("Lisa") Alexeyeva, an exit visa to join her husband, Elena's son Alexey Semyonov, in the United States.
In December 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Sakharov and Bonner to return to Moscow. Following Sakharov's death December 14, 1989, she established the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, and the Sakharov Archives in Moscow. In 1993, she donated Sakharov papers in the West to Brandeis University in the U.S.; in 2004 they were turned over to Harvard University.
Bonner remains outspoken on democracy and human rights in Russia and worldwide. She joined the defenders of the Russian parliament during the August Coup and supported Boris Yeltsin during the constitutional crisis in early 1993.
In 1994, outraged by what she called “genocide of the Chechen people”, Bonner resigned from Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission and is an outspoken opponent to Russian armed involvement in Chechnya and critical of the Kremlin for allegedly returning to KGB-style authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. She is also critical of the European Union policy towards Israel.
Bonner is the author of Alone Together (Knopf 1987), and Mothers and Daughters (Knopf 1992), and writes frequently on Russia and human rights.
She is a recipient of many international human rights awards, including the Rafto Prize, the European Parliament’s Robert Schumann medal, the awards of International Humanist and Ethical Union, the World Women’s Alliance, the Adelaida Ristori Foundation, the US National Endowment for Democracy, the Lithuanian Commemorative Medal of 13 January, the Czech Republic Order of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and others.
In 2005 Bonner participated in "They Chose Freedom", a four-part television documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement.
Yelena (or Elena) Georgevna Bonner (Елена Георгиевна Боннэр), (born 1923-02-15) is a human rights activist in the former Soviet Union and widow of the late Andrei Sakharov.