Sakharov's Widow Protests Planned Memorial to Nobel Peace Laureate

More than 12 years after Moscow's city council decided to erect a statue of Soviet dissident and Nobel peace laureate Andrei Sakharov, a city commission has finally given the green light to the stalled plan. Now just one person stands in the way: Sakharov's widow, who says today's Russia is not worthy of her husband's memory.

Yelena Bonner, a prominent human rights activist in her own right, said honoring Sakharov is hypocritical because Russia has failed to live up to his ideals.

"It seems to me that putting up a monument to Sakharov today would be a very big deception," Bonner told The Associated Press from her home in Boston.

A physicist who helped design the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Sakharov became a staunch promoter of human rights and world peace, and spent seven years in internal exile for speaking out. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

In the years following his death in 1989, Sakharov was widely revered for his contribution to the democratic changes that swept Russia during perestroika and the Soviet collapse. In 1990, the Moscow city council decided to erect a monument to him, but funds were not immediately found and the plan fell by the wayside.

This year, Moscow officials again expressed support for the plan after repeated appeals by federal lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov. But Bonner said that while the idea of a monument made sense in 1990, it no longer is appropriate.

"Back then it was in line with society's mood, but in the past 12 years, everything has changed. We don't know where Russia is going or whether it needs Sakharov or not," Bonner said.

Bonner has been a harsh critic of President Vladimir Putin, who built his career in the KGB, the same organization that tormented her and Sakharov. Since Putin's election three years ago, KGB-style secrecy has increased and media freedom has slipped, human rights advocates say.

Meanwhile, thousands of soldiers and civilians have perished in the war in Chechnya. Except for a precarious three-year truce, Russian troops have battled separatists there since 1994.

"All nine years he (Sakharov) would have been standing at protests against the war in Chechnya with his hat off" out of respect for the dead, Bonner said. "And this country is going to erect a monument to him?"

Long before Putin became president, a museum named after Sakharov was established to help teach about the human rights abuses of the Soviet regime and a Moscow street was named after him. He also has a bust at Moscow State University.

On Wednesday, the city legislature's commission on monuments approved Yushenkov's proposal but said it would go ahead only if Bonner approves.

Yushenkov agreed with Bonner that Russia had lost some ground on human rights over the past years.

"Yelena Georgiyevna's feeling is on the mark," he said, referring to Bonner by her first name and patronymic. "We are seeing a backlash. But we can't just silently watch it happen."

A monument to Sakharov would help remind Russians "that the outstanding sons of our country clashed with the government" over human rights, Yushenkov said.

Yushenkov and other Sakharov admirers would raise money for the monument if Bonner changes her mind, he said. Moscow officials told him a monument would cost about $600,000.

Possible locations for the statue include Moscow's Sakharov Avenue and the area around the Sakharov Museum. The city commission ruled out the site originally chosen in 1990: Pushkin Square, where Sakharov was frequently seen at pro-democracy rallies. The site is off-limits to new monuments, Yushenkov quoted the commission as saying.