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The Lessons of Yelena Bonner

Ours is a time when many Americans are starting to act as if what goes on in the world beyond our borders is none of our business. But the death this past weekend of Yelena Bonner at 88 is a reminder the fight against tyranny knows no borders.

As the wife of nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, Bonner played as large a role in the toppling of the “evil empire” as any individual. Along with her husband, she was a courageous advocate for freedom who helped him in his great work of speaking out against the Kremlin’s repression. They defended Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union for freedom in Israel as well as those Russians who wished to stay and live in a free country. They were harassed by the KGB and sent into internal exile, but the iron-willed Bonner would not break. Indeed, after the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, she refused to see this communist “reformer” as anything but a milder version of the old bad system.

Nor did Bonner fade quietly into the night after her husband’s death and the collapse of communism. In her later years, she denounced Russia’s slide back into authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin, the war in Chechnya, the efforts of the international quartet to pressure Israel to make concessions to terrorists and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Bonner’s example is a reminder of how fragile the fight for freedom can be. It sometimes hangs on the courage of just a few individuals and their ability to inspire countless more elsewhere. In the 1970s, when Sakharov and Bonner and other dissidents were fighting their lonely battles against the KGB, there were many here who said it was none of our business and détente with the Soviets was more important than human rights. Others say the same thing now about China or act as if the need to prevent dictators from committing mass murder is something Americans should ignore. But the moral dimension of foreign policy is an issue Americans cannot escape.

Yelena Bonner’s struggles deserve to be treated as more than a distant chapter of history. Her memory is a standing rebuke to those who counsel isolationism or a “realist” indifference to human rights violations abroad. May it always be for a blessing.



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