Now that the battles fought by the dissident movement and by the thousands of individuals who voiced their opposition to the Soviet state have been swallowed up by the larger events of history, only a few names will be recalled. Yelena Bonner's will be one of them. She and her husband, Andrei Sakharov, symbolised – within the Soviet Union and throughout the west – the strength and courage of those opposed to state socialism. Bonner, who has died aged 88, was often portrayed merely as the wife of the Soviet Union's most famous dissident scientist, but her history as an activist was as lengthy as her husband's. Her determination, organisational skills and often fiery temper consistently drew attention to human rights issues.

Sakharov and Bonner were a team, bound together by the conviction that freedom of conscience was a prerequisite of any civilised state and that east and west should move towards reconciliation. This conviction helped them survive the ordeals of surveillance, harassment, arrest and internal exile.

The two first met in the autumn of 1970 outside a courtroom in Kaluga, central Russia, where a scientist, Revolt Pimenov, and a puppet-theatre actor, Boris Vail, were on trial for distributing the samizdat human rights journal Chronicle of Current Events. Sakharov had already achieved worldwide attention for publishing his essay Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, in the New York Times in 1968, but Bonner was the practical and already experienced organiser of the group – it was she who found rooms for both the defendants and the observers of the trial.

Like Sakharov, Bonner came from the Soviet elite. Unlike the brilliant physicist, who was recruited straight from university to the team that developed the Soviet Union's first hydrogen bomb and then became the youngest member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Bonner had seen the brutality behind Stalin's Soviet Union early on.

She was born in Merv (now Mary), a town in Turkmenistan, the eldest child of Bolshevik revolutionaries, who named her Lusia. Her father, Georgy Alikhanov, was first secretary of the Armenian central committee and her mother, Ruth Bonner, was a committed party activist. Yelena's earliest years were spent in Chita in the Soviet far east, where her father had been sent after a political falling out with Grigory Zinoviev, a leading member of the politburo. The family then moved to Leningrad, where they lived among the city's Bolshevik elite.

At one stage, they had a flat in a house where Sergei Kirov, secretary of the Leningrad party, also lived. In her second book of memoirs, Mothers and Daughters (1991), Bonner recalled being taken out by Kirov in his car and standing on the dais with him at an official demonstration. It was the murder of Kirov in 1934 that signalled the beginning of the Terror and Stalin's purge of the old Bolshevik cadres. By 1937 the family were living in Moscow, where, some time before the winter of 1938, during the first wave of the Terror, Bonner's father was arrested and shot.

Her mother was arrested as the wife of an enemy of the people and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp. Bonner herself was taken to the "big house", the secret police headquarters in Leningrad, for questioning. She remained in Leningrad to be brought up by her grandmother. When she was eligible for her internal passport she discovered that her parents had failed to register her birth. Free to chose her own name, she picked her mother's surname and Yelena after the heroine of Turgenev's novel On the Eve.

When the Soviet Union was invaded in June 1941, Bonner volunteered for the Red Army's hospital trains, becoming head nurse. The after-effects of a shell attack that October, which left her temporarily blinded, led to her being invalided out of the medical corps in early 1945. She returned to Leningrad and in 1947 was accepted as a student at the city's medical institute. After graduating, she specialised in paediatrics. She met her first husband, Ivan Semyonov, at medical school and they had two children, Tanya and Alexei. In the 1950s Bonner spent six months working in Iraq for the Soviet ministry of health and contributed articles to medical newspapers, as well as to literary journals.

In 1965, after her first marriage had fallen apart, Bonner moved into her mother's flat in Moscow. Her upbringing had seemed conventional enough: childhood membership of the Komsomol, followed by an application for full party membership after her parents had been rehabilitated in 1954. However, the fate of her family and friends and her Jewish/Armenian parentage – which made her politically suspect to the authorities – encouraged Bonner in her scepticism of the officially presented party line. The crushing of the 1968 Prague uprising marked for her, as for many dissidents of her generation, the beginning of her questioning of the basis of the Soviet state. Gradually, she moved into dissident circles, although it was not until 1972 that she renounced her party membership.

Bonner and her mother introduced Sakharov to the wider dissident movement. As he wrote in his memoirs, it was she who "taught me to pay more attention to the defence of individual victims of injustice". Their flat became a clearing house for those involved in the Helsinki Group, the human rights group set up to monitor Soviet violations of the Helsinki Accords, and for groups fighting for the rights of Christians, ethnic minorities and of Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel.

When Sakharov's children complained to him about his increasingly vocal opposition to the Soviet state, as well as about his friendship with Bonner so soon after his first wife's death from cancer, he moved into the Bonners' flat. He and Bonner married in 1972.

With Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, they became the central focus of the dissident movement. Sakharov went on his first hunger strike in 1974, during Richard Nixon's visit to Moscow, to publicise the plight of political prisoners.

That winter, Bonner's eyesight – already damaged by her wartime injury, thyroid problems and glaucoma – deteriorated sharply and she was warned that, without an operation available only in the west, she would go blind. While she was in Italy in 1975 recovering from the eye operation, Bonner heard of Sakharov being awarded a Nobel peace prize, and she remained in the west to attend the prizegiving ceremony and to deliver her husband's Nobel lecture that December.

The KGB had now resorted to sending the couple obscene pictures and photographs of dismembered corpses through the post, and accusing Bonner in particular of being a "money-grubbing Jew" who had married Sakharov for his privileged position. Despite such harassment, the couple continued to highlight the plight of political and religious dissenters in Leonid Brezhnev's stagnant Soviet state. Sakharov's position as a state scientist and Bonner's status as an Invalid Veteran of the Great Patriotic War prevented the KGB from attacking them too openly. But their friends and fellow human-rights activists were picked off the streets, given summary trials and exiled or imprisoned. The Sakharovs, both in poor health, remained at liberty to speak, write and give interviews to foreign correspondents. However, at the start of 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Sakharov's open call for an international boycott of the Moscow Olympics led to his arrest.

Sakharov was stripped of his awards and exiled to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) by decree. Bonner remained free to travel between Moscow and Gorky, give interviews and publicise her husband's plight. She was Sakharov's lifeline to the outside world. She was, as Sakharov put it, "always a doer" and refused to stop her activities because of her husband's arrest. But the strain immediately began to affect Bonner's health. Stripsearched on a train on her way back from Gorky in the winter of 1982 and left to find her way back to Moscow alone, she suffered her first heart attack the following spring and another more severe one a year later.

Then, in 1984, she too was arrested, charged with slandering the Soviet state, sentenced and exiled to Gorky. Bonner's health deteriorated further and Sakharov went on hunger strike on three occasions to demand that she be allowed to travel to the west for treatment. Finally, in 1986, she was allowed to travel abroad for heart surgery. She took with her a volume of memoirs of their internal exile, which appeared as Alone Together in the same year.

The release of Bonner and Sakharov from their exile came suddenly and unexpectedly. One day an engineer turned up at the flat in Gorky to install a telephone. The following morning they received their first telephone call. It was from Mikhail Gorbachev, telling them they were free to return to Moscow. Their release was one of the most tangible signs that glasnost had begun.

Although some of Gorbachev's policies seemed close to fufilling demands made by the dissidents of the 1970s, the Sakharovs continued to dissent from the official party line. They were instrumental in forming the unofficial organisation Memorial, set up to campaign for the rehabilitation of political prisoners. In 1989 Sakharov was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies and during its first session criticised Gorbachev for refusing to relinquish the Communist party's monopoly on power. On 14 December that year, after a particularly tense session of the congress, during which Gorbachev had demanded Sakharov sit down, he returned home and told his wife that he had work to prepare for the next day's session. In the morning she found him dead from a heart attack.

Bonner, grief-stricken, had to face Yevgeny Primakov, one of Gorbachev's aides, who wanted to give the former dissident a state funeral. She also had to endure the row that had erupted when the congress did not honour Sakharov with a day's recess. In distress, Bonner shouted to waiting reporters from the flat where her husband's corpse still lay: "You all worked hard to see that Andrei died sooner, by calling us from morning to night, and never leaving us to our life and work. Be human beings. Leave us alone."

When Gorbachev appeared at the funeral and asked her if there was anything he could do, she requested that Memorial should be registered as an official organisation. Many reformist politicians rushed to her side. Boris Yeltsin was not slow to show his support of her ideas, but Bonner distrusted politicians wanting to use Sakharov's memory for their own ends. In early 1991, when Gorbachev, also a Nobel peace prize winner, crushed a pro-independence demonstration in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, with force, she requested that Sakharov's name be removed from the list of laureates. Later the same year she spoke to the crowd outside the White House, the Russian parliament building, in support of Yeltsin during the abortive coup.

As the Soviet Union fell apart, Bonner continued working to support human rights and democracy. By 1996, she was calling for democrats not to vote for Yeltsin in the presidential elections; the war in Chechnya had dashed her hopes for him as a democratic leader. She became an outspoken critic of Yeltsin's successor Vladimir Putin, and last year was among the prominent signatories of a petition calling for his resignation.

Bonner divided her time latterly between Russia and Boston, Massachusetts, where her son and daughter, who survive her, had lived since the 1970s, and where she died.

• Yelena Georgievna Bonner, human rights activist, born 15 February 1923; died 18 June 2011


Isobel Montgomery

The GuardianTramp

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