Monday, June 20, 2011

Remarkable Lives

The death of Yelena Bonner at 88 is a reminder of the extraordinary courage that those who opposed the Soviet system needed to show in order to survive. Dr. Bonner- she was a paediatrician- formed part of a remarkable pairing with Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet Hydrogen bomb, but above all the man who became the conscience of the Russian people.

Sakharov was in many ways the Mandela who never was. He become the voice of moral integrity in the Soviet society which had very little of any integrity. His harassment by the Soviet authorities became a cause celebre in the West, but it also underlined the moral crisis inside the Soviet system. Yelena Bonner became the vital lifeline between the closed city of Gorki (now, once again, Nizhni Novgorod) where Sakharov was exiled and the outside world. Inevitably she too was harassed and denied medical treatment for a heart condition and for a serious eye injury (she had been nearly blinded during the siege of Leningrad), and latterly it was the ill treatment of his wife that cause the most vehement protests from Sakharov himself. Alas, at just the point when Russia needed the strongest moral compass, the crisis of the dissolution of the USSR, Sakharov himself died, aged a relatively youthful 68. Had he lived to the great age of Mandela, perhaps Russia would have evolved in a far better way than the criminal society it latterly became. Sakharov had already become a member of the Parliament, indeed the leader of one of its largest fractions, the opposition Inter-Regional Deputies group. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could have become President- the first genuinely non Communist President, which is a luxury that Post-Soviet Russia has yet to enjoy.

Yelena Bonner, despite the infirmity which forced her to live with her children in the US, remained committed to her homeland, and her passing reminds us of the need for moral integrity- especially in the weakened ethical world of Putin's Russia. Her era may have passed, but her message remains the same as it ever was.

Another death this week was of Sir Patrick Leigh-Fermor whose passing marks the end of an even older era, not merely that of an astonishing Second World War hero, but also of a certain kind of European civilization that was probably lost even before the rise of Hitler. At once glamorous and brave, nevertheless Leigh-Fermor did not escape the suspicion of dilettantism that more rightly belongs to his fellow writer and friend, Bruce Chatwin. Yet unlike Chatwin, Leigh-Fermor's intellectual foundations were more solid and as a result his learning carried a less pretentious air than his younger friend.

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