Bonner's autobiography doesn't reveal enough

April 12, 1992|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS.

Elena Bonner.

Knopf.

349 pages. $23.

Although Elena Bonner gained fame as the wife -- now the widow -- of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, she already had lived an interesting life in interesting times before they met.

Add to this a most remarkable memory, and a gift for writing, and one could expect a fascinating memoir. Unfortunately, "Mothers and Daughters" is merely good.

One problem is that remarkable memory. "Mothers and Daughters" runs to more than 300 pages but deals almost entirely with her life only up to age 14. It begins when she is still in a high chair, age 2 or 3.

Not only does she remember broad details of incidents, but she remembers small details, too: where they lived. Where they moved to. Who came to visit. Who came to live. How she spent her summers. People running quickly in and out of the story, all of them having names ending in ka or ya or sometimes just plain a. And many with more than one nickname.

Along the way, she drops in casual mentions of contacts with Mikoyan, Kaganovich and Togliatti, among others.

But while the book is so full of details, it usually doesn't tell us nearly enough, either about her or the country or life there.

Elena Bonner was born in 1923 and grew up in a family of committed Communists. Both parents worked for the party at a fairly high level. She lived in moderately luxurious surroundings, by Soviet standards, even usually ending up at a summer camp or dacha.

Just what her parents did is never totally clear. Much of the time she lived with her mother's mother (not a committed Communist), along with a younger brother who was everybody's darling.

There is no lingering jealousy about the brother or anger about his treatment, and her ambivalence about her mother is openly dealt with. It was the mother's death in 1987, shortly after returning from the United States, that set Ms. Bonner to writing. She also is frank in dealing with herself and with some

generally uncondoned habits, such as a childhood inclination to tell lies for no apparent reason.

She mentions several times that her Papa was not really her father, but never explains what happened to the real father, although he comes to see her a few times, much to her unexplained displeasure.

Nor does she tell the story behind her most un-Russian surname.

She touchingly describes the battle of growing up and her relationship with Seva, her first real love (yes, before age 14 they knew). They were separated after the arrests started during the purges of the late 1930s. He was killed during World War II, a death that hit her hard.

The narrative stops just after her Papa was arrested and just before her mother was. But flash-ups are sprinkled throughout, to talk about some of the people and events from a later perspective. These generally are the most interesting parts of the book, and it is too bad she didn't concentrate on this story instead:

What life was like for the young teen with both of her parents arrested as enemies of the people; her life in the army in World War II, including the injury that permanently damaged her vision; going to medical school and becoming a doctor; her first marriage; her life as a dissident.

So missing are some basic details of her life that the publisher slipped them into a translator's introduction and onto the book jacket.

Her life is too interesting for "Mothers and Daughters" to be the only personal record of it.

The book does show that she is a talented writer. Some parts are extremely gripping in the way they portray facts and mood. One fairly random sample:

"The taking away of people became an ordinary, commonplace event. Quietly, at night, in the first half. So that the steps, cries and occasional weeping were heard before three."

Meanwhile, if you want to get a better picture of what it was like growing up and living in the Soviet Union, some other recent books do a better job of describing the forest and the trees. "A Soviet Odyssey" by Suzanne Rosenberg and "Nina's Journey" by Nina Markovna cover roughly the same period, though about people in very different circumstances. "Growing Up in Moscow" by Cathy Young deals with the more recent '70s.

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