Lusik Alikhanova (known to the world as Elena Bonner) was a well-known dissident and human rights activist and the wife of Andrei Sakharov. She was born in 1923 in Merv (now Mary, Turkmenistan). Elena's mother Rut (Ruth) Bonner was the niece of the Jewish editor and public figure Moisey Kleyman (? – 1931). Elena's father Levon Kacharov (Kacharyan), an Armenian, died when Elena was one year old, and her mother married Gevork Alikhanyan, an active member of the Communist Party. The family moved to Leningrad and, later, to Moscow, where Elena's stepfather worked for the executive committee of the Communist International (the Comintern).
In 1937 Elena's stepfather was arrested by the NKVD and shortly afterwards was shot. A few days after his arrest, Elena's mother was also arrested. She was sentenced to eight years in the GULAG in Kazakhstan, followed by nine years of exile. Elena's parents were rehabilitated following Stalin's death in 1953.
At the end of the 1930s, with her 10-year brother, Elena moved to live with her grandmother in Leningrad. Elena graduated from high school in 1940, and became a student at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute (now Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia). She studied in the evening department of the Faculty of Russian Language and Literature.
With the beginning of the Soviet-German war in June 1941, Elena Bonner was drafted into the Red Army. She had been a nurse before the war. Elena worked as a nurse on a hospital train that evacuated wounded soldiers from the Volkhov Front in the Leningrad area to the Soviet rear. Her train was regularly bombed. In one attack, in October 1941, Elena was seriously injured and, as a result, later suffered from problems with her eyes.
At the end of December 1941, after Elena was released from the hospital, she was again assigned to a medical train. There Bonner served as a nurse and, from 1943, as a senior nurse. In the meantime, Elena was promoted to the rank of junior lieutenant of the medical service and, in 1945, to the rank of lieutenant. She ended the war in Innsbruck in Austria. During the course of the war, Elena Bonner was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd Class, and several medals.
After returning from the front to Leningrad in May 1945, Bonner was appointed assistant head of the medical service of a separate engineering combat battalion in the Karelian-Finnish area. She was demobilized at the end of August 1945.
In 1947 Elena entered the First Pavlov Medical Institute of Leningrad. She was expelled from the Institute for her comments regarding the antisemitic "Doctors' Plot"(1953) and only after Stalin's death, in March of that year, was she able to resume her studies at the Institute. After graduation, she worked as a district doctor, then as a pediatrician. She also worked as a doctor in Iraq. In 1964, Bonner joined the Soviet Communist Party (later she described this as a serious mistake) but, in 1972, she resigned from the Party after becoming active in the Soviet human rights movement.
She married Andrei Sakharov at that time. When Sakharov was awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, but was prevented by the Soviet authorities from going to Oslo to receive the prize, Bonner (who was the receiving medical treatment in Italy) represented her husband at the Nobel-award ceremony. In 1976, she was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the leading human rights organizations in the USSR).
In 1980, when Andrei Sakharov was arrested and exiled to the city of Gorky (now Nizhnii Novgorod), following his public protest against the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Bonner joined him in Gorky. In 1984, she was arrested for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" and sentenced to five years of exile in the same city. After Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, he allowed Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner to return to Moscow in 1986. There Elena continued her social and public activity.
In 2006 Elena immigrated to United States. She died in Boston in 2011.
Interview with Elena Bonner
In her May 2010 interview with Masha Gessen, Elena Bonner described her Jewish experience during the war:
"On December 30, I was ordered to go to "the evacuation point," as people referred to it in Sverdlovsk. I arrived, presented my documents and then sat in the corridor and waited. And then I was approached by a very elderly man in military uniform who asked me what I was doing there. I replied, "I'm waiting to find out what they will say to me." He responded (in Latin)" Ex nostris?" ["Are you one of ours?" M.G.] I said, "What do you mean?" He said:"One of ours." I said:"Whose?" Then he said: Are you a Jew?",I replied: "Yes."
That was the only thing I understood.Then he took out a writing pad and said:"So, what is your last name."I told him. Then he asked me: "And where are you from?" I said:"From Leningrad." He said to me:"I have a daughter and son in Leningrad."He didn't tell me who or what he was. "And where are your parents?" I said :"I don't know about Dad, but Mom is in Algeria (in Russian: Alzhir)! He responded: "What Algeria are you talking about?" I replied "[that's the abbreviation for] Akmolinskii lager' zhen izmennikov rodiny" [i.e. the Almolinsk (prisoner) camp for wives of traitors to the homeland]. I remember very well how I looked at him very intently while wondering what he was going to say. Perhaps, he would have me shot right away, perhaps not. So I said to him as if I were delivering a report" "The Akmolinsk Camp" – For Wives of Traitors to the Motherland."He responded: "So that's how it is" and left. Then he returned, almost immediately and said :"Sit here and don't go anywhere." He returned in what must have been half an hour and said : "Now you are my subordinate, a nurse on Hospital Train Number 122. I am your commander, Vladimir Efremovich Dorfman. You will address me as "Comrade Commander," but sometimes you may call me Vladimir Efremovich. That's all."
From Elena Bonner's wartime memories
"There were such people then, but they are referred to only now when Europe has come to equate communism and fascism. It was only recently that various philosophers, although few people read [or heard] them, expressed that view in writing or speaking. All that was after the war. There was Hannah Arendt and [recently] Anne Appelbaum. And then…someone became a defector [that's how people referred to Elena Bonner herself], someone in any way he or she could, right or wrong, tried to get to the Urals or beyond. Not Jews at all – the Jews indeed rushed to fight because, in contrast to me, a fool then, they understood what "ex nostris" meant. Read about the evacuation of the members of the creative intelligentsia and their families to Tashkent and Ashkhabad [far from the frontlines] and you will see that Jews were relatively rare there. And the saying "the Jews fought in Tashkent" is one of the big lies [literally "injustices"] of the war."