Mothers and Daughters

MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS might not have received the attention it deserves if Elena Bonner had not been a prominent Communist’s daughter who, with her husband, Andrei Sakharov, became a leader of the democratic movement in Russia and received international recognition when he was exiled by the Soviet authorities to Gorky from 1980-1986. The book provides firsthand details about the Stalin years in Russia, but its real merit lies in Bonner’s ability to recapture and describe intimate details of her childhood. Perhaps no other book since the DIARY OF ANNE FRANK has been able to communicate the inner world of a child growing up in a cruel and turbulent society in such a fresh, frank, and compelling way.

Her mother’s death in 1987 prompted Bonner to write a letter to her own children so they would understand and appreciate their background. This letter became the beginning of the book, in which recurring themes are Bonner’s relationships with her mother, Ruth—a hardline communist devoted to the Party and unable to show affection to her daughter—and with her grandmother, Tanya—who never embraced communism and exposed her granddaughter to old world values and culture.

The book covers the first fourteen years of Bonner’s life (1923-1936) in Chita, Leningrad, and Moscow. A happy child, she enjoyed the privileges of special housing, shops, famous visitors, and holidays at dachas (vacation homes), afforded by her stepfather’s rank in the Comintern. She describes her earliest memories, school days, friendships, first love, and finally, the terror of the Stalin purges in 1936 and 1937, when one by one, family friends and neighbors disappeared, her stepfather was executed, and her mother exiled.

The narrative is often punctuated by poignant flashforwards in italics, revealing Bonner’s later life, reflections about events, or what became of the characters in her childhood drama. Many were executed or died in World War II.

Beautifully translated by Antonina W. Bouis, the book is enriched by sixteen pages of family photographs that make the many foreign names recurring in the text familiar and alive.