As Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was flying to Washington yesterday, his comrade, Maria V. Cherkasova, had already completed her work here and was flying away. It was only fitting that she was several steps ahead of him.

Cherkasova heads the Soviet Union's largest grass-roots environmental organization, the Socio-Ecological Union, which has boomed in size and influence under the relaxed political atmosphere of glasnost and is one of many citizen movements shoving the Soviet Union toward a new era.

Her concerns were too urgent to await a high-level summit to end the Cold War, she said. So she came here on her own 10 weeks ago to open relations with the U.S. environmental movement, hoping to take home some of its organizational prowess in fighting nuclear power plants, exposing toxic dumps, combating radiation, stopping dams, saving whooping and sandhill cranes and protecting forests.

Her timing was perfect, for U.S. environmentalists have become increasingly alarmed about the Soviet environment and are expanding their contacts there.

With the help of the Institute for Soviet-American Relations, which arranges unofficial exchanges between the two countries, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, which financed her trip, Cherkasova networked her way through the U.S. movement in several states, learned about risk assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency and laid foundations for a Moscow summit of U.S. and Soviet activists in the fall.

"Your dirt is our dirt and our dirt is your dirt," Cherkasova declared to 35 of her new comrades, who joined her for a brown bag lunch on Tuesday at the National Audubon Society here. "If you send polluting technologies to our country, the resulting pollution will go into the ocean and float back to you."

For anyone witnessing the meeting, it was hard to escape the feeling that this -- more than the summit -- is where the action is in Soviet-American relations. That is, if action is measured by the number of international agreements reached without so much as a pause to tinker with phraseology.

Cherkasova took home with her an accord with the National Audubon Society to monitor acid rain in the two countries. She also negotiated a statement with Friends of the Earth, calling on Gorbachev and President Bush each to cancel "a pending environmentally disastrous project in your respective countries" as a first step toward a healthier ecosphere. At Tuesday's meeting, she passed out an agreement for each U.S. group to sign with her union to ease exchanges of information and joint actions.

"I decided to start in a mildly bureaucratic fashion and pass out paper first of all," she said with a laugh as she handed out the agreements.

The meeting had all the markings of a gathering of Washington environmentalists. It was held in a non-smoking conference room, appointed with breathtaking nature photographs and bookcases jammed with environmental impact statements. Cherkasova, 52, fit in well -- with long, dark hair pulled back in a barrette, more in the style of the baby-boomers around the table than the grandmother that she is.

An ornithologist, Cherkasova said her interest in ecology was born when she was a student "during the {Premier Nikita} Khrushchev thaw, working to protect cedar forests in Siberia." She later shifted her focus to endangered birds and found in them an analogy to human beings: "To save birds, you need to save their habitat. You need to do the same for people."

In her meeting with U.S. environmentalists, she spoke in Russian through a translator. But a number of the Americans understood her without help -- laughing at her jokes and nodding at her assertions before the translation was finished. Some American activists have made enough trips to the Soviet Union to begin to pick up the language, and several groups recently have hired Russian-speaking staff members to facilitate their work on Soviet pollution.

One example is the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is looking into health effects of a pesticide spill in a lake in the Ural Mountains. The lake froze, and when it thawed, contamination leaked into drinking water, said Kristen Suokko, a Russian-speaker and former Hill staffer now with the group.

Although the luncheon was a decidedly grass-roots affair, Bill Freeman of the EPA's Office of International Activities was there to offer official encouragement. A Russian-speaker, he developed rapport with Cherkasova during her stay, even taking her bird-watching along the C&O Canal.

But Cherkasova emphasized -- and her comrades appeared to agree -- that too much government involvement could hinder the grass-roots groups as they monitor and fight environmental pollution. A passionate devotee of perestroika, she warned: "It's monopoly that limits the possibility of joint efforts, both in your country and in ours."