During the 1940s - 1950s Yelena Bonner helped political prisoners and their families. She became a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976. In 1984 she was sentenced to five years of exile in Gorky after helping her husband, Andrei Sakharov, who was there in exile, to bring his writings back to Moscow.
After the death of her husband in 1989, she established the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, and the Sakharov Archives in Moscow to continue to fight for human rights. Bonner remained outspoken on democracy and human rights in Russia, in particular the authoritarian politics of Kremlin.
From 2006, Bonner divided her time between Moscow and the United States. She died in 2011 of heart failure in Boston, USA.