Speech Before the Congress of the United States, (21 May 1986) Washington, D.C.


Elena Giorgiovna Bonner, also referred to as Yelena, was a human rights activist. Although journalists often referred to her as the wife of the renowned scientist and Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, Bonner’s commitment to activism did not begin with their marriage. From her service in World War II until her death in 2011, Bonner was a tireless advocate for human rights.1 Later in her life, Bonner would suggest that her father’s commitment to the Communist Party and his death motivated her lifelong activism.2

During World War II, she joined the Soviet army as a nurse to fight against Nazi Germany. She suffered serious injuries during her service, including a head injury that left her partially blind. Following the war, she attended medical school and worked as a district doctor and a pediatrician. She also served in the USSR’s Ministry of Health in Iraq.3 In the late 1960s, Bonner began writing for The Chronicle of Current Events, a publication that reported on rights violations committed by the Soviet government.4 Despite her conflicted opinion on the Communist Party, Bonner officially joined the party in 1965.5 Her membership would not last, however. In 1972, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, and in protest, Bonner left the party.6

That same year she married Sakharov. They met in 1970 outside a courthouse in Leningrad while protesting the trial of Jewish dissidents.7 Sakharov was also an outspoken critic of the Soviet government despite having helped design a hydrogen bomb for the Soviets in the 1940s. He began to question the ethical implications of nuclear weapons and other political actions in the 1960s and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his efforts on behalf of human rights. The Soviet government prohibited Bonner from traveling to the award ceremony, but he traveled to Oslo and read his acceptance speech to the Nobel committee.

Both Sakharov and Bonner were subsequently persecuted in the decade following Sakharov’s receipt of the Nobel Peace prize. Even though the couple was under increased scrutiny, Bonner helped found the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, an organization that monitored the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords.8 In 1980, Sakharov publicly denounced the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and in response, the government banished him to Gorky, a city approximately 400 kilometers east of Moscow that foreigners were prohibited from visiting. Following Sakharov’s exile, Bonner served as his conduit to the outside world until she too was banished in 1984. Her crime was allegedly seeking asylum in the United States, which the Soviet government considered treason.9 While in Gorky, both Sakharov and Bonner experienced deteriorating health conditions.

Starting in 1984, Sakharov undertook three hunger strikes to pressure the government to allow Bonner to travel to the United States for medical treatment.10 She was eventually allowed to make the trip in December of 1985, and before she left the United States, she delivered this speech before members of the U.S. Congress on May 21, 1986—Sakharov’s 65th birthday.

As Bonner spoke, international leaders around the world honored Sakharov’s birthday with appeals to Mikhail Gorbachev to end the couple’s internal exile in Gorky.11 While in the United States, she also requested a meeting with President Ronald Reagan to address rights violations in the Soviet Union. Yet, several publications in the United States reported that Ronald Reagan refused to meet with Bonner in person.12 Instead, he sent a letter. When a journalist asked her if a meeting with Reagan would help, Bonner responded, “Of course. You can’t be for human rights and be secretive.”13 Following Bonner’s speech, Senator Malcolm Wallop (R-WY) remarked, “I just came from the celebration in the House of Representatives honoring the 65th birthday of Dr. Sakharov. I heard a speech by his wife, Dr. Bonner, which I think may well risk her life.”14

Even though a meeting with Reagan never happened, Gorbachev lifted the exile for Bonner and Sakharov in December of 1986.15 Following Sakharov’s death in December of 1989, Bonner continued to work on behalf of human rights. When Gorbachev was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, she wrote a letter to the committee asking for Sakharov’s name to be deleted from the list of winners. She was angered because she believed that Gorbachev was responsible for bloodshed in multiple cities and states across the Soviet Union, including Karabakh, Tbilisi, Baku, Ferghana, Uzen, and Osh.16 The Nobel committee declined to remove Sakharov’s name.17 Starting in the late 1990s, Bonner brought international attention to Russia’s invasion of Chechnya.18 And, until her death in 2011, she was an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, warning that “excessive trust in Putin may be dangerous for democratic countries.”19 For her life’s work, she received international recognition, including the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom, which is awarded to individuals who “have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to freedom and democracy and opposition to communism and all other forms of tyranny.”20


  1. Alessandra Stanley and Michael Schwirtz, “Elena Bonner, Widow of Sakharov, Dies at 88,” New York Times, June 19, 2011, U.S. News & World Report, February 24, 1986, Nexis Uni; “Yelena Bonner,” The Telegraph, June 19, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/.
  2. “Personality Spotlight; Yelena Bonner: Human Rights Activist,” United Press International, October 29, 1985, Nexis Uni.
  3. Yelena Bonner, Alone Together (New York: A.A Knopf, 1986), 33-34.
  4. “Personality Spotlight; Yelena Bonner: Human Rights Activist,” United Press International, December 23, 1986, Nexis Uni.
  5. Bonner, Alone Together, 35.
  6. “Yelena Bonner,” The Telegraph; Bonner, Alone Together, 35.
  7. Gal Beckerman, “Remembering Yelena Bonner—Natan Sharansky Reminisces About His Ally and Friend,” The Jewish Daily Forward, June 22, 2011, https://www.webcitation.org/5zggFEyD8.
  8. “Yelena Bonner,” The Telegraph.
  9. “Personality Spotlight; Yelena Bonner: Human Rights Activist,” United Press International, December 23, 1986, Nexis Uni.
  10. Alison Smale, “Yelena Bonner Leaving For Gorky Tonight,” Associated Press, June 3, 1986, Nexis Uni.
  11. “West Europeans Mark Sakharov’s Birthday,” New York Times, May 22, 1986, A8, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  12. “Reagan Cool to Talk With Yelena Bonner,” New York Times, April 24, 1986, Nexis Uni.
  13. Mary McGrory, “Bonner’s Habit of Free Speech,” Washington Post, May 22, 1986, A2.
  14. Senator Malcolm Wallop, “Speech on Dr. Sakharov and Dr. Bonner,” May 21, 1986, 99th Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record, 132, no. 69:S6281, https://congressional.proquest.com/congressional/docview/
  15. “Gorbachev’s New Broom Keeps on Sweeping / The Release of Soviet Dissidents Andre Sakharov and Yelena Bonner,” The Guardian, December 20, 1986.
  16. “Yelena Bonner’s Letter to the Head of the Nobel Committee,” Russian Press Digest, January 15, 1991, Nexis Uni.
  17. Stanley and Schwirtz, “Elena Bonner, Widow of Sakharov, Dies at 88”; “Yelena Bonner’s Letter to the Head of the Nobel Committee,” Russian Press Digest, January 15, 1991, Nexis Uni.
  18. “Yelena Bonner seeks Boutros-Ghali mediation on Chechnya,” Agence France Presse, March 27, 1996, Nexis Uni; “Yelena Bonner demands peace talks in Chechnya,” Agence France Presse, September 27, 2001, Nexis Uni.
  19. “Yelena Bonner Awarded With Masaryk Order,” CTK National News Wire, October 1, 2003, Nexis Uni.
  20. “Yelena Bonner to be Decorated with Estonia’s Terra Mariana Cross,” Baltic News Service, February 6, 2008, Nexis Uni; “Yelena Bonner Awarded With Masaryk Order,” CTK National News Wire; Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, “Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom,” https://www.victimsofcommunism.org/medaloffreedom.