Reagan Meets 96 Soviet Dissidents : He Praises Their Courage, Says ‘I Came to Give You Strength’

Times Staff Writer

They came from the far ends of the Soviet Union--human rights activists and Jewish refuseniks, veterans of labor camps and Siberian exile and the wives and children of some still imprisoned--to hear the American President praise their courage and urge them on.

In one of the more unusual meetings held during a U.S.-Soviet summit, the hard core of the Soviet human rights movement spent nearly an hour with President and Mrs. Reagan at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence. They emerged praising the American chief executive as a bulwark of freedom.

“We saw from the forthright words of the President that human rights for him is not simply a formality but that it really touches his heart,” said Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest.


Sentenced to five years in a Ural mountain labor camp, Yakunin was freed halfway through his term last year and allowed to resume his service at a church near Moscow.

‘Press With Your Lives’

“I came here to give you strength, but it is you who have strengthened me,” the President told his 96 invited guests, who responded several times with applause. “While we press for human lives through diplomatic channels, you press with your very lives, day in and day out, year after year, risking your homes, your jobs and your all.”

The giggles and shrieks of toddlers punctuated the meeting, and at one point U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock Jr. interrupted to ask the dissidents and refuseniks, seated at plum-colored tables in the Spaso House ballroom, to refrain from passing their place cards up to the President for his autograph. Matlock promised to have them signed and mailed out.

Soviet officials criticized the meeting, suggesting that it was a lapse of protocol to meet with citizens that the host state considers troublemakers at best. Gorbachev, toasting the Reagans at a state dinner in the Kremlin, noted that the Soviet government “wants to build contacts among people in all forums.”

But in conveying his own perspective on human rights, Gorbachev pointedly added that “this should be done without interfering in domestic affairs, without sermonizing or imposing one’s views and ways, without turning family or personal problems into a pretext for confrontation between states.”

In keeping with the diplomatic tone of his recent statements on the Soviet Union’s human rights record, Reagan acknowledged that progress has been made in the three years of Gorbachev’s leadership and held out the “fervent hope” that the Communist Party would eventually permit the full freedom of religion, speech and travel.


He noted that more than 300 political prisoners have been freed in the past three years, while “fewer dissidents and religious believers have been put in prisons and mental hospitals” and more people have been allowed to emigrate in recent months.

Calling this a “hopeful time” for the Soviet Union, Reagan said: “Your new leaders appear to grasp the connection between certain freedoms and economic growth.

“We hope that one freedom will lead to another, that the Soviet government will understand that it is the individual who is always the source of economic creativity.”

According to U.S. human rights organizations, about 350 political and religious prisoners are known to remain in labor camps, special psychiatric wards and internal exile. Jewish organizations estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 Soviet Jews who have applied to emigrate--a step that requires an invitation from a family member abroad--have been refused permission to leave.

Moscow made clear its irritation at the meeting with several articles in the official press, depicting the United States as a contrasting land of technological marvels, poverty, hunger and repression.

As evidence, Soviet television broadcast a brief interview Monday night with members of the American Indian Movement who spoke of Washington’s “terroristic” policies toward minorities.


‘Not the Best’ People

The Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman, Gennady I. Gerasimov, said the guests the President chose to entertain “are not the best of the Soviet public. Rather, on the contrary.”

The guests included 10-year-old Natasha Lubinskaya, who came by train from Kiev with her mother, clutching a bouquet of roses for the President. Her father, Evgeny Lubinsky, is serving a four-year term in a labor camp for promoting the Hare Krishna faith. He is reportedly suffering from tuberculosis.

And there was 12-year-old Vera Zieman, whose parents--barred from emigrating for the past 11 years--the Reagans had planned to visit on Sunday, until Soviet authorities suggested that if they did so the Ziemans might never leave.

Vera, along with a number of other refuseniks, penned a letter for President Reagan, asking him to appeal to Gorbachev on their behalf.

From Tashkent in Central Asia came Reshat Dzhemilev, a 30-year member of a movement to restore the rights of Crimean Tatars, a minority deported en masse by Josef Stalin from their Black Sea coast homeland. Dzhemilev said he had spent 7 1/2 years in the labor camps.

Nine Hours by Plane

Boris Perchatkin, an activist in the Pentecostalist church, came the farthest--nine hours by plane from Nakhodka on the Pacific Coast.


Others included Sergei Grigoryants, editor of the unofficial journal Glasnost, whose Japanese-made computer and archives were seized recently in a police raid.

Casting about for representives of all the major streams of human rights activities and all religious faiths, the U.S. Embassy extended invitations by telegram, then gave Soviet authorities a guest list.

“We said these are the people we want to see,” a U.S. official explained.

He said that although not all had responded or accepted the invitations, none appeared to have been barred from coming, even though police and security forces have sealed the perimeter of Moscow--as usual during major public events in the capital--to prevent undesirable elements from entering.

Ivan Hel, a representative of the banned Ukrainian Catholic Church who clutched a wooden carving for the President, said he and seven others had set out from the Ukraine, but that police had pulled five of them off the train, apparently because they were not on the embassy’s guest list.

In a sign of changing times in the Soviet Union, the guest list did not include Andrei D. Sakharov, the Nobel Peace laureate who was once regarded as a major force and the guiding conscience of the Soviet human rights movement.

In frail health at the age of 67, Sakharov, whom Gorbachev released from internal exile, has restricted his contacts with Westerners and Soviet human rights activists. Although he still speaks out on behalf of political prisoners, he is a supporter of Gorbachev’s reform program.


A U.S. Embassy official said that Sakharov is no longer considered a dissident in the full sense of the word, but that he has been invited to the state dinner the Reagans will host tonight.

Seated next to the President was Abe Stolar, an American citizen born in Chicago who emigrated to the Soviet Union as a teen-ager with his parents in the 1930s. After trying for more than a decade, he has won permission to leave, but he refuses to do so until the family of his son’s wife grants permission for her to go as well, as Soviet law requires.

Married to American

Next to Mrs. Reagan was Sergei Petrov, who has been barred from emigrating since his marriage to an American, Virginia Johnson, in 1981.

Petrov, who befriended Ronald Reagan Jr. during his two visits to Moscow, said he thanked Mrs. Reagan for an invitation he received last year to a White House concert. He said she replied by patting his hand and telling him “we’ll keep trying, we’ll keep pushing” to resolve his case.

“I’m an old fan of his, as are many of the refuseniks, so it was very nice to see him in person and to see his personal, deep concern,” Petrov said of Reagan.

“On the American side, I’ve seen everybody up to the President” about my problems, he added. “On the Soviet side, the highest authority I’ve been able to speak with is a junior clerk.”


Three of the guests were asked to make three-minute speeches in response to the President--Yakunin, veteran dissident Sergei Kovalyov and Yuli Kosharovsky, a Jewish refusenik who has waited 17 years for permission to emigrate.

Situation Not Improved

Despite claims by the Kremlin leadership to advocate democratization of the Soviet Union, Kosharovsky said, the situation of Jews has not improved.

“The government continues to deny our right to learn and teach our national language or to have access to the riches of our culture,” he said. “With the entire Jewish population in this country, there is only one Orthodox rabbi. There is no Hebrew school. . . . In the meantime, a large quantity of anti-Semitic literature is being published and distributed.”

Yakunin, equating the urgency of human rights with arms control, credited Reagan for the release of political prisoners that began last year through public and diplomatic pressures on the Kremlin, and he voiced the hope that the next President will continue.

“We sincerely hope that when your successor takes over, whether he is a Republican or a Democrat, the banner of the battle for human rights which you hold up so high will be taken over by him,” Yakunin said.

Kovalyov, a sociologist who spent seven years in labor camps and three more in internal exile for advocating democratic change in the Soviet Union, said the promising changes now taking place can survive and develop only with fundamental changes in the Soviet legal system.


Hope for an Open Society

“We hope that these changes will gradually bring us to an open and legal society and to the idea that our state and our country would become a full-fledged and respected member of the world community,” he said.

The hourlong session afforded the dissidents and others no chance to chat with the Reagans, a disappointment for some. Several noted that its value was mostly symbolic.

“The fact that this meeting took place was more important than the words that were spoken,” said Yuri Zieman, who attended despite illness. “It was very, very moving.”

As Reagan met the dissidents and refuseniks at Spaso House, several dozen other refuseniks conducted the latest in a series of demonstrations near the steps of the Lenin Library within sight of the Kremlin.

About 100 bystanders gathered around the group on Kalinin Prospect, some sympathetic to their plight and others who condemned Zionism as a form of fascism--an official position of the state.

As the crowd ignored police orders to disperse, preferring to stay and debate with some of the refuseniks, Vladimir Meshkov, his wife and three children held signs declaring, “Refusal Is a Form of Murder.”