Moscow — One of the Soviet Union's leading human rights campaigners has left to seek medical treatment in the West. The release of Yelena Bonner suggests that the Kremlin is sensitive about the West's criticism of its human rights policies, its protests to the contrary notwithstanding. But it is too early to determine whether those policies might be reassessed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mrs. Bonner, who left from Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport for Rome late Monday afternoon, has repeatedly been denied an exit visa in the past. She has been in internal exile since May 1984, in Gorky -- a city east of Moscow that is closed to foreigners. Her husband, Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, has staged at least two hunger strikes in protest over the visa refusals. The last was in October, during the run-up to last month's superpower summit, when Soviet human rights policies were coming under worl dwide scrutiny.
Faced with Bonner's failing health, Dr. Sakharov's precipitous loss of weight (he is said to have lost 15 pounds during his last fast), and renewed international focus on its treatment of dissidents, the Kremlin relented and promised to allow her departure.
But there are strings attached. She is reportedly under orders not to speak to the press while she is away. The implied threat is that if she does, she may not be allowed to return.
Bonner is expected to receive eye treatment in Italy and heart treatment in Boston. Her daughter by a previous marriage, Tatyana Yankelevich, lives in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass. Mrs. Yankelevich expressed the cautious hope that today's development could mark a change in the Kremlin's handling of the couple.
The two previous Soviet leaders, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, had consistently refused to let Bonner leave the country.
There have been persistent reports that the United States State Department has been negotiating with Soviet authorities for the release of Sakharov and another leading Soviet dissident, Anatoly Shcharansky, but US diplomats flatly deny those reports.
The ordeal of Sakharov and Bonner mirrors that of the small Soviet dissident movement, which flowered here during the late 1960s and '70s, but has -- through arrests, detentions, exile, and death of its luminaries -- dwindled to only a relative handful of activists.
The Kremlin is still plainly worried about their influence, however, as evidenced by its treatment of Bonner.
In the last few days, while she has been in Moscow preparing for her departure, Bonner has been under constant guard. Soviet militia have been stationed outside her apartment, turning all reporters away.
Ever since she married Sakharov in 1970, Soviet authorities have attempted to blame her for his increasing criticism of and estrangement from the Soviet establishment.
Soviet officials privately charge that Bonner has manipulated Sakharov. And the official government newspaper, Izvestia, once branded her a ``shallow, resentful, and greedy person, ready to sell and betray everybody and everything for her own profit.''
When Sakharov was banished to Gorky in 1980, his wife acted as a messenger to the West, relaying his words and works to friends, family, supporters, and Western diplomats and reporters.
In 1984, the Kremlin claimed that she had been involved in a complicated plot to first seek asylum at the US Embassy, and then be spirited abroad once sufficient ``anti-Soviet sentiment'' had been whipped up in the West. Bonner was sentenced in mid-August 1984 to five years' exile in Gorky for anti-Soviet slander.
Sakharov's hunger strikes protesting his wife's plight have forced the Soviet secret police to periodically release pictures or videotapes to prove he is still alive.
A telephone call between the couple and their relatives in the US last month was the first time such contact had been allowed in more than one-and-a-half years.
Bonner, half-Jewish and half-Armenian, has been a persistent thorn in the Kremlin's side. In 1975, she was instrumental in founding a monitoring group to check Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Final Act, which the country had signed that year. The act includes a guarantee of certain basic human rights.
That same year, she traveled to Helsinki to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Sakharov's behalf. She delivered his acceptance speech, which strongly condemned Soviet human rights policies.
Sakharov, known as the ``father'' of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, has been denied permission to travel outside the Soviet Union because of his sensitive work in the country's nuclear weapons program.
He eventually renounced a privileged position within the Soviet hierarchy to criticize Soviet nuclear policies and to press for a more democratic Soviet society.
Sakharov's bona fides within the Soviet system -- at 32, he was the youngest full member of the prestigious Academy of Sciences and winner of the Lenin and Stalin Prizes -- have given added weight to his message and drawn the fire of his erstwhile colleagues. Soviet officials have said he is mentally ``sick,'' and that his exile in Gorky is a ``humane'' gesture, keeping him away from influences that might further aggravate his mental state.
Bonner herself has given much to her country. Her eye difficulties stem, in part, from injuries suffered while serving as an army nurse during World War II.
The couple's plight has sparked attention in many nations. The US Congress has passed resolutions calling for their release, and several foreign leaders have raised the case with Mr. Gorbachev personally.
Bonner has been allowed to go to Italy for eye treatment twice before, in 1975 and 1977. Those were the last times she has been out of the Soviet Union.