Of all those whom we at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation have honored with the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom—and they include such famed defenders of freedom as Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Harry Wu—none surpasses the courage and commitment of Elena Bonner, who passed away last Saturday. Known best as the widow of Andrei Sakharov, the renowned Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize Peace Prize winner, Mrs. Bonner—despite serious health problems—became a tireless advocate of human rights and unflinching opponent of political oppression.
When Mikhail Gorbachev, still head of the Soviet Union, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, she asked the Nobel Committee to delete her husband’s name from the list of winners. She resigned from Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s human rights commission to protest his military action against Chechnya. She accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using KGB-like tactics to trample individual freedoms. When a petition was circulated asking Putin to step down, she was among the first to sign it.
In 1999, when we presented her with the very first Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom, Mrs. Bonner, whose mother was Jewish, said that she was familiar with Nazism and Communism and that both were evil in their objectives and practices.
Now Elena Bonner is gone, but the example of her unwavering commitment to the right of all peoples to live in freedom lives on.