You have remained far away from Russia for all these years, yet your voice is still heard. You left because you found it difficult to live there. In your opinion, what has changed in Russia over these years?
I would like to make a few corrections to your introductory statement right away. I left not because things were difficult for me psychologically or in a political sense, but because the years have taken their toll and without the help of my children I would simply be unable to exist physically. And it would have been impossible to interrupt Tanya’s life once again and drag her and her husband back to Russia. You know? I don’t feel at home here, although I am absolutely independent of America. I have my own apartment, I pay for my treatment myself and I’m not one of those people who came to live off America. I am not dependent on America or Russia. I receive a pension for disabled war veterans in Russia. A huge income, you know. On the whole, it’s difficult to survive. Like everyone else, I could receive all the benefits that elderly people get when they come to America, but that would tie me down internally. In that case, I don’t think I would have the right to say what I think about America, Russia and the whole world in general. Dependents don’t have the right to say a word.
…Despite all the time that has passed since Andrei left this world, I am all the while guided by him, knowing full well what he thought about every issue. I am always working with documents. You probably know that an eight-volume edition was published two years ago… There were two volumes of essays, many of which hadn’t been published in Russia, as they were collected from the Western press. There were also three volumes of diaries and three volumes of memoirs published in Russia. It was rather fundamental work on the whole.
It’s quite interesting that academia screams out for a memorial to Sakharov, Medvedev says, “Freedom is better than no freedom,” and something else about Sakharov, and Putin says something about Sakharov. But nobody paid attention to the fact that each of them could have an eight-volume edition of Sakharov on their bookshelves and they could have read his works. They talk about Sakharov, but they don’t turn to Sakharov. And now I will speak.
Regarding the letter “Putin must go”: I believe that silence is already becoming a dirty trick. Tolstoy’s phrase “I cannot remain silent” in this case should apply to a broad circle of people in Russia. Everyone should stop being silent. People have always stolen in Russia, there have always been problems with idiots and roads in Russia – I’m not the one who came up with this – yet Russia has never been a gang of thieves. I would say this was something that took place on the side. Today it has become mainstream. It’s dangerous for the country and even more dangerous for the people. But what can be done? This is the dilemma. Where is a leader who will be different? Indeed, the country does not need a leader or a führer. But we are all looking for a führer. Putin is the führer or Medvedev is the führer. The country doesn’t need a führer. The country needs a normal democratic electoral system. Even the electoral system created at one time by Anatoly Lukyanov and Mikhail Gorbachev was light years closer to a democratic form of government than what Vladimir Churov and his associates have done with the law on elections. They have destroyed everything in this law. It’s not a matter of administrative resources or ballots being thrown away at some polling station; the problem is the structure has been destroyed. There is absolutely no feedback at all. No elected official depends on the people who allegedly elected him. There is no feedback. Not only is the country not democratic or autocratic, it’s simply despotic.
Ms Bonner, even I was surprised to hear that you know the name Churov. When you say that the electoral system has been destroyed, do you seriously believe that Churov was the one who destroyed it?
Well, he probably didn’t do it himself, he was ordered to. But this does not absolve him of historical responsibility.
What concerns you today about relations between the authorities and citizens?
Every country has different groups of people, you know. Businessmen, traders, engineers, teachers, musicians, show business… Each group of people has common interests in every country. I don’t know if there is a country in which the interests of criminals are united. In my opinion, these crooks are an invention of the Soviet authorities, or the spawn of the Soviet authorities. It’s very scary. The country is in the hands of crooks. Not just the rich, who one way or another, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally, became rich, but actual crooks. Russia is in the hands of criminals. This alone doesn’t just compel us, it obliges us to ensure this group steps down. Perhaps not even leave, as I am generally not a vindictive person, but in this case step down by law. Once again, one of the most important things is that there are no differences within the party, the programme or I don’t know what else is of relevance today. The time will come to deal with the particulars. Today there should be total unification. Even with Eduard Limonov and Gennady Zyuganov. I am deeply convinced of this.
At the same time, however, there is always some internal struggle taking place. I won’t follow a Limonov supporter, I won’t follow a communist, I won’t follow, what’s his name, Boris Nemtsov or Garry Kasparov. The problem is that things can only be changed with a single slogan: “Rise up, great country”. It rose up at one time, didn’t it? Under this very slogan. This is the same nonsense as “Fight for the Motherland, Fight for Stalin”. Nobody ever went to war for Stalin. This was invented after the war. People shouted “F**k you!” as they fought because nobody knows what to yell out of fear. Stalin had nothing to do with it.
If you had continued to live on Zemlyanoy Val Street in Moscow, would you still say everything you are right now?
I would still say it. I say the same thing both here and there. The geography of my location is not relevant. What does matter to me is that I am not connected to the American government by any financial or welfare factors. This is important for me personally.
Of course, as people living in Russia, we feel more anxiety than others about the conflict between the authorities and individuals, between the authorities and human rights. You live in Boston, this fantastic city, but, as far as I understood from your brief remarks, your relations with local institutions aren’t perfect either.
Not perfect at all because the local institutions spit on human rights in the exact same way the others do. I don’t see any difference. And I’ll give you an example: when I gave Harvard priceless archives – gave, mind you, and not sold as often occurs – they took on a number of commitments, including the Sakharov Programme on Human Rights, which involves Russian human rights defenders travelling here each year and, I would put it this way to be brief, gaining experience on how to establish civil society. Last September, they discontinued the programme. It was Sakharov’s only programme in the United States of America. I believe this is a very demonstrative example of the real attitude towards human rights. Not what the aides of Hillary Clinton or somebody else are saying, these are just words, words, words – the very same words as those of Medvedev. Freedom is better than no freedom. And in reality, the only Sakharov programme at the world’s wealthiest university was shut down because there allegedly weren’t enough funds for it.
Ms Bonner, as I listen to you, I recall a time when the whole world, including the heads of state of major Western powers, fought for Natan Shcharansky to be released. Poor Leonid Brezhnev was afraid to show himself abroad because he heard this demand everywhere he went, not only from human rights defenders and people, but from Ronald Reagan and everyone else. Why are Western officials so nice and friendly to the Russian leaders today when Mikhail Khodorkovsky is sitting in prison? Does such phrasing of the question generate any comments?
It does. It seems they are also – I don’t know what epithet to use here – they are also becoming crooks.
One of the people who, along with you, was one of the first to sign the letter, said to me, “What do you expect? Putin’s dacha is right next to Silvio Berlusconi’s dacha. He bought it for him. Gerhard Schröder was hired to work for Gazprom”. In this regard, your complaints, as a person known to the whole world, against the Western establishment, are quite powerful.
They are exactly the same as the complaints against the Russian establishment. I believe the Western establishment has betrayed the ideology of protecting human rights based on economic and other interests, but mainly because of the personal interests of each congressman and senator, several of whom could be elected president in the future. That’s it. Perhaps it’s just human nature: the higher a person gets, the worse he becomes. In that case, being homeless would be the best thing.
I spoke with Sergei Kovalev. He also has major problems with the Western elite…
And he’s right. Meanwhile, the woman who currently presides over Amnesty International – I can’t confirm this but people are talking – could possibly even become UN secretary general, therefore she will do everything that Putin says. Amnesty International has become shit. That’s how it is.
What about Freedom House?
Freedom House has its own schemes – freedom of the press, one after another, but in actuality it hasn’t done anything for a long time either. It’s an organisation that eats up a lot of money, but does nothing in terms of the public. It must be said that all the well-known human rights organisations are just formalities: the UN International League of Human Rights, Freedom House, Amnesty and the others have all become the same officials with high salaries.
Another incredibly important thing about the West: everyone always says, “Russia keeps stepping on the same rake”, but the West is stepping on the same rake even more so. European anti-semitism, American anti-semitism, political anti-semitism, pressure on Israel – these rakes are worse than the Russian ones. And the West has total disregard for its own institutions. World War II ended. The Geneva Conventions were put forward, developed and signed by the majority of states. There was a convention on warfare with more or less gentle methods, although this is impossible, and a convention on the wounded and prisoners of war. The West has breached all of these conventions for the fate of one man – Gilad Shalit. The West violates the convention on the wounded and prisoners of war because the West, the UN and the whole bureaucratic machine has never said, “No exchanges and no negotiations while you are holding hostages”. Thus, the West is stepping on the same rake, and no less willingly than Russia.
Is that why things are probably so difficult for Russian human rights defenders?
There’s no need in asking for anything. It’s like the rules of a concentration camp – don’t ask and don’t hope for anything. It’s the only way… Everyone says that Russian rebellion is so senseless and relentless… well, Alexander Pushkin once said that, stop repeating these words for us. Rise up, great country! Nothing will change until the country holds a nationwide strike and universally fights against increases in utility payments as well as these other fraudulent plans.
It’s such a small thing: Putin takes over as prime minister and I’ll remind you of one of his first speeches: “We are giving apartments to all disabled war veterans and ordinary veterans”. This means that they still haven’t received these apartments for 65 years, yet “we are giving everyone free cars, and whoever does not want a car will receive 100,000 roubles”. I am such a naïve fool… Well, a car wouldn’t work – my doctor told me not to get behind the wheel – but 100,000 roubles would be nice. We waited. Putin never came back to this issue.
Everyone was getting ready to celebrate the 65th anniversary [of the end of World War II] and a petty privilege is revoked literally on the eve of the celebrations. Disabled war veterans never had to pay for the registration of notarised documents, powers of attorney or wills, and bang – they took away this benefit. I understand that this $170 or so for a power of attorney doesn’t mean anything to our bureaucratic elite. For an invalid or veteran, this is almost a month’s worth of subsistence. Who had the audacity to take away this benefit on the eve of the 65th anniversary? These small matters epitomise, pardon my language, the shitty nature of this handful of people who are ruling Russia. As for the power of attorney, I don’t know.
Ms Bonner, I would like you to recall the day when the Supreme Soviet trampled on Andrei Dmitryevich. You remember this day well. You brought him home during the break between sessions in your Zhiguli car. We all rushed to your building as you brought him home from the Kremlin - Yury Rost, me and someone else. You saw us and said, “Why are you panicking? Everything’s okay. Andrei is fine”. At that very moment, there was a huge collision on the other side of the Garden Ring Road as a truck smashed into a small Zaporozhets car. A man got out of the car carrying a child who had blood pouring from the back of her head. You grabbed your first-aid kit like an experienced nurse on the front line and ran through eight to ten lanes of traffic. Andrei ran after you, and I followed both of you. You took the girl after running across the Garden Ring Road, where all the cars had already stopped upon seeing you and Sakharov, poured some iodine on a cotton wad, pressed it to her head and she stopped crying. At that moment, Andrei said to me, “You know, all she has to do is put her hand on someone and that person will calm down”. And I saw the eyes of a schoolboy in love.
When I re-watch this film about Sakharov, which I managed to make thanks to you, there is one scene which blew everyone away: when he is finally allowed to travel abroad for the first time, and to America no less, the authorities didn’t have the resolve to let you both leave and kept you as a hostage. The scenes when he is leaving, you are saying goodbye and watching him leave – this shot speaks volumes to the people who have seen it. What were you feeling at that moment?
I was extremely happy that these shackles, these ropes than bound the Titan had finally been cut. I just remembered an old story that has nothing to do with Andrei. My mother was rehabilitated very early – in August 1954, or before the 20th Congress. This evidently resulted from the intervention of [Anastas] Mikoyan, who was friends with my father as a kid. So, my mother went to receive her passport and register at her apartment. When she came to the police station for the passport, the passport officer, a woman of her age, said, “You won this time”. My mother remembered the passport officer’s words for the rest of her life - “You won this time”. Now we don’t know who the winner was. You understand?
Today it is criminal to remain silent. And I believe it is a colossal strategic mistake today to divide all the protestors into different parties. Leaders aren’t born on paper; leaders are born on these grounds. Either we will piss everything away – there’s a word for you – or we will rescue Russia. I’m not actually very fond of the word ‘patriot’, but I am much more of a patriot than all those assholes sitting in the State Duma.
I think this would be very dignified for Russia. And if Putin has so much money – my Lord – do us a favour, leave, live on that money wherever you want, buy yourself an island and stay there. You’ll enjoy it and the people will be better off. I’m not planning to take it away – let him build a good life for himself. Separately from the country.
So that’s my idea. I am looking for the rich and the kind, not a husband.
Why do you need someone who is rich?
I have an apartment in Moscow. The kitchen’s the same, and it’s basically a historical apartment, which my mother received at the end of 1954. Many rehabilitated people passed through this apartment, all dissidents of the Soviet Union passed through this apartment, most press conferences were held in this apartment, including the famous one when the Day of Political Prisoners was declared, and many different guests have been there, from Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Romaszewski, Adam Michnik – it’s beyond belief… I have to sell it. But I don’t want to sell it because it’s a memorial apartment. I want to find a person who will buy it with the obligation to give it to the archive. I will take on the obligation to restore the interior entirely to what it was at that time and make a plaque: “The apartment has been purchased and donated to the archive to create a memorial” by Ivanov, Petrov, Sidorov – whoever is so kind.
If Russian billionaires are buying Faberge eggs – a souvenir of the royal family and a talented jeweller – it seems to me that a person could be found in Russia for this purpose too. Perhaps, I’m being naïve once again. Our rich people may all be crooks, but they’re not all shit. You know?