The greatest ethics challenge that most of us face is speaking truth to power. When our boss, or our spouse, or our good friend, says or does something that we disagree with we’re too often reluctant to object. At work we may fear the boss’s wrath; in our private life we may fear the loss of a friend.
We should take heart from the life of Yelena Bonner, who died Saturday in Boston after a long hospitalization. Many people think Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union: you could just as well argue that Yelena Bonner did.
Bonner relentlessly fought a one-woman battle against the Evil Empire, perhaps the strongest and most ruthless dictatorship the world has ever known. She had every reason to be fearful of its might: it executed her father and imprisoned her mother as enemies of the state when she was 14. Her own children were driven out of the country by state pressure and KGB threats. As a Jew in fiercely anti-Semitic Russia she had special reason to fear the state. But somehow she made the state fear her.
She was a founder and the personification of the Soviet human rights movement. In 1972 she married Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb-turned human rights activist.
When Sakharov was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his advocacy of human rights the regime forbade him to travel to accept his award; Bonner, in Italy for medical treatment, risked the regime’s wrath (more…)