As Yelena Bonner's plane taxied through a steady drizzle outside, her elderly mother, Ruf Bonner, seemed forlorn and forgotten as she slowly waved goodbye. Moments earlier, a swarm of photographers and cameramen had swallowed up the last glimpse of her daughter boarding the flight for Paris. After nearly six months of such news media mongering here in the United States, Miss Bonner -- a human rights activist and wife of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov -- had begun her inevitable journey back to the Soviet Union. She was leaving her family, friends, and freedom here to be reunited with her husband in Gorky, the walled Soviet city where the couple lives in internal exile.
For Ruf Bonner, who survived 17 years in forced labor camps and the purges of Joseph Stalin, the moment was just as wrenching. Not only had family fears prevented her from going back to her homeland. And not only does she feel enclosed and uncomfortable in American society, speaking no English and rarely venturing out of the family house in suburban Boston.
But that last glimpse made Ruf ``very upset,'' says Yelena's son, Alexei Semyonov, because ``she's afraid this will be the last time she will see her daughter.
Despite indications that Dr. Sakharov has received better treatment lately, Yelena Bonner herself expressed concern that conditions might worsen when she returns. ``I fear the unprecedented isolation in which we have lived our last two years in Gorky,'' she said in a press conference before her departure.
``I fear life under constant supervision under the lenses of hidden cameras,'' she said. What worries her more, however, is that the ``West will get nothing but disinformation'' about their situation.
Part of the added uncertainty stems from the fact that Miss Bonner's visit was more political than Soviet authorities might have liked. Before leaving her country for medical treatment, Bonner agreed not to speak to Western journalists. But that pledge proved difficult to keep, especially with a hounding press corps and her outrage over secretly made films that portrayed her husband as healthy and happy in Gorky. In reality, she says, the KGB was force-feeding Sakharov during his hunger strikes.
So Bonner began speaking out. Although she granted only one direct interview, she delivered several speeches at events linked to human-rights issues. Last month, she visited several congressmen and Cabinet members in Washington (though President Reagan refused to meet with her). Earlier this month in New York, she had a reunion with fellow human-rights activist Anatoly Shcharansky. And last Wednesday, which Mr. Reagan proclaimed Andrei Sakharov Day, she spoke at a congressional birthday party for her husband.
Any one of those activities could have repercussions upon her return to Gorky. ``I believe anything and everything can be used against me, whatever it is,'' she said at the airport as she left for Paris Saturday.
But her actions have also focused attention on the plight of her husband, the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner. ``She really renewed an interest in American public opinion in Sakharov's case,'' says Alexander Nekrich, a Harvard University scholar doing research in Soviet studies. ``Many people had just forgotten about him.''
As Bonner heads back to Gorky, she and Sakharov show that they are far from forgetting each other. Sakharov wrote recently that he had ``already washed the windows and planted the flowers,'' Bonner said.
Part of Bonner's gift to him will be her scheduled meetings this week with heads of state in Paris, London, Rome, and Oslo. Besides that, Bonner says she is also bringing the physicist a tiny radio-powered Porsche. But Sakharov can't tinker with his new toy until June 2, when she is scheduled to return to Gorky.