By JOHN MARTIN
Elena Bonner, former dissident, human rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, delivered a critical assessment of the state of human rights in the former Soviet Union at a speech at the Library on Oct. 22.
Despite the collapse of the police state and steps toward an open society, Ms. Bonner suggested that Russia has not made significant progress in important areas of human rights, and that, in some matters, its new democratic government has caused or tolerated abuses rivaling those of the Communist era.
Introducing Ms. Bonner, Dr. Billington recalled last seeing her in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He praised her as "a giant of the human rights movement, not just in Russia or the former Soviet Union, but around the world." Ms. Bonner's late husband, Russian physicist and fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov, was honored during a visit to the Library in 1989.
Ms. Bonner is the author of Alone Together (Knopf, 1986), about her exile with her husband in the closed city of Gorky, and Mothers and Daughters (Knopf, 1992). She has established several institutions to honor her late husband, particularly the Andrei Sakharov Foundation (Russia); the Andrei Sakharov Foundation (USA); the Sakharov Archives in Moscow and the Andrei Sakharov Archives and Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., established in 1993.
Speaking through her daughter and translator, Tatiana Davis, Ms. Bonner quoted Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, asking, "Which country is more unfortunate: one that has no heroes or one that needs heroes?" Russia under the Soviets needed heroes, she said. The Russian dissident movement -- an amalgam of religious leaders, ecological groups and international human rights activists formed a heroic opposition to political repression. Ms. Bonner described the traditional dissidents as liberal intellectuals, idealists opposed to the corruption and hypocrisy of one-party rule.
While their idealogies differed, the dissidents were united "by their rejection of the state and state propaganda" and by "their human defiance of an inhuman regime." In 1947, the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," an international convention, became the model for the human rights movement in the Soviet Union. Dissidents took as goals the declaration's central guarantees: freedom of conscience, information and movement. Their strategy was to report violations of human rights, through publications such as The Chronicle of Current Events and to defend prisoners of conscience. By 1988, these disparate groups became the basis of new electoral organizations under Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring).
Today, said Ms. Bonner, times are different. While Russian society enjoys new political freedoms, democratization and the dismantling of the state economy have produced problems the former champions of human rights never had to address. Glasnost (openness) and freedom of the press exist, but the newly powerful are often deaf to this public discourse. Freedom of movement, including the freedom to emigrate, is guaranteed, but curtailed in practice by economics. The 1993 Russian constitution, which Ms. Bonner called "a magnificent proclamation regarding human rights," protects freedom of conscience but provides no substantial mechanism for enforcement.
In this milieu, the question of whether Russians are better off remains difficult to answer, Ms. Bonner said. Substandard living conditions caused by poverty wages is just marginally better than the below-poverty level pensions one can expect at retirement. The education system, one of the few successes of state socialism, has decayed, and teachers often go unpaid. Courts and judges must also cope with "starvation diets" and low budgets, which harms their independence, she said.
The collapse of the health care system coincides with a disastrous increase in tuberculosis rates. The return of the once nearly conquered disease poses a major public health crisis. The threat of infection is especially high in Russia's densely overcrowded prisons, where innocent and guilty alike await trial for up to three years. In one prison, Ms. Bonner reported, "only 373 inmates in 1,000 survived."
Forced military conscription, the brutal hazing of recruits and Russia's bloody regional conflicts "continue to horrify every family with a son," she said, and the country has not made the transition to a professional volunteer army. Ms. Bonner served on President Yeltsin's Commission on Human Rights from 1993 until December 1994, when she resigned in protest over the war for independence in Chechnya.
Income disparities "make the concerns of the traditional dissidents appear trivial by comparison," Ms. Bonner said.
Although Russia today presents challenges worthy of new champions, relatively few intellectuals are active in the human rights arena now, said Ms. Bonner. Many of the old dissidents have emigrated or returned to careers interrupted by exile and persecution. These "heroes," moreover, have not been replaced by the next generation. "The intelligentsia seems to have abandoned its historic calling of compassion and assistance in favor of grabbing crumbs dropped by the corrupt and powerful," charged Mrs. Bonner.
In free Russia, she concluded, fighting for human rights has become inconspicuous, unheroic work. The country no longer demands heroes, she said, but remains an unfortunate place.