Zieman Family Ordeal : Refuseniks: 11-Year Bid for Freedom

Times Staff Writer

The day the KGB came to call, Yuri Zieman remembers, was the day that all his doubts, all his countless reasons to hesitate, began to vanish, and he knew that Tanya was right. It was time for one more Jewish family to seek to join the modern exodus from the Soviet Union.

It was the spring of 1977, and thousands of Soviet Jews were being allowed to leave as Moscow sought expanded trade with the West. But for Yuri and Tanya Zieman and their daughter, Vera, this would mark the beginning not of a new life in another country but of an 11-year ordeal that would eventually carry them from the dingy offices of the KGB to the Oval Office of the White House.

“They were so flattering to me,” Zieman recalls of that day in 1977 when two agents with eminently forgettable faces came to call on him at the Moscow research institute where he specialized in developing medical software.

‘Wonderful Family Man’


“For 20 minutes they praised every side of my life. What a great scientist I was. What a wonderful family man. So loyal to the state. They said I should go on and take my next academic degree. If I had any trouble, they said of course they could help me.”

Only gradually did the KGB agents broach the subject of the “small favor” Zieman could do in return. Tatiana Velikanova, a computer programmer who was then in the forefront of an embattled Soviet human rights movement, was an old friend of Yuri’s.

“They said I should go on associating with her as always,” he says, “but from time to time they would meet with me and ask a few questions. I just refused. I said absolutely no. . . . After this, I could see that there was no future for us or our children in that country. There was no alternative but to leave.”

Worked as Plumber


But not without exit visas. He could refuse the police, and they could refuse him. Over the next 11 years, as the Ziemans gradually rose to prominence among Soviet refuseniks, he would be barred from his profession and obliged to support his family as a plumber in a Moscow maternity hospital.

In the end--as President and Nancy Reagan made plans to visit the Ziemans in their Moscow apartment during the summit last May, then called it off amid Soviet threats never to let the Ziemans go--they won their battle.

“Do you know when we got our permission?” Yuri, who is now 50, has jubilantly asked almost everyone he has met since they arrived in the United States in August. “It was precisely on July 4, your --our --Independence Day.”

The Ziemans’ story sheds light on the nature of the unspecified “security” reasons the Soviets often still cite in denying exit permission to an estimated 20,000 other Jewish refuseniks. In their case, and probably in many others, it appears to have had less to do with the protection of state secrets than with pure and simple vengeance.

More than a profile in courage, Soviet-style, their story also illustrates the enormous energy, much of it unpublicized, that Western governments often spend to resolve individual Soviet human rights cases, even in the age of glasnost .

Intervening on the Ziemans’ behalf were human rights organizations and government officials not only in the United States but also in Australia, the Netherlands, Britain, Canada, France and Italy. Last year, as Yuri fell seriously ill, members of Congress, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine weighed in on the family’s behalf.

Once the Reagans became personally involved last May, senior Administration officials believe, the Ziemans’ departure probably required specific approval from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

‘Permanently Guilty’


“I feel permanently guilty,” Yuri Zieman says he told the Reagans during a private meeting in the Oval Office on Oct. 5, “that so many important people spent so much effort, so much time--on what? On just nothing. On one family.

“The President told me: ‘No, you are wrong. In our country,’ he said, ‘everyone is important.’ If this is true, then I think this country is truly great.”

In 1977, when the Ziemans decided to apply for permission to leave the Soviet Union, little distinguished them from tens of thousands of other Soviet Jews who sought a better life.

Like many of their friends who were applying to emigrate or had already left, the Ziemans were successful members of the Moscow intelligentsia, people who in material ways enjoyed the best of the Spartan life the Soviet Union offered those who were not members of the Communist Party.

With a Ph.D. in mathematics, Yuri was a rising star at the Institute of Precise Mechanics and Computer Engineering. Tanya taught English at the Moris Thorez Institute, Moscow’s most prestigious foreign language school. Yuri’s daughter by a previous marriage, Galina, was 15 then, and Vera, who would come to play no small role in the family drama, was only a year-old toddler.

“In some ways we had the best that Soviet life could provide us,” Tanya recalled recently. “But I realized that it was for the sake of our children that we had to leave. . . . What was missing, I knew, was freedom.”

Her perspective was shaped in part by her own parents’ experience. In the latter years of Stalin’s era, Tanya’s father, a research chemist, was arrested on fraudulent political charges, and the family was packed off to the provincial region of Saratov, where her father was forced to work at the huge Soviet chemical weapons establishment at Shikhany.

In 1977, it was increasingly apparent to the Ziemans and many of their intellectual friends that as more and more Soviet Jews were being allowed to leave, fewer and fewer of their children were being admitted to the best universities and the best research institutes. Even as the road to the West seemed to be widening, the road to achievement at home was narrowing.


Yuri, however, remained unconvinced that the risk of refusal was worth taking. To apply and be denied permission was to sink into an almost indescribably stressful state of suspended animation in a society that branded those who sought to leave as nothing less than traitors.

Intellectuals in the 1970s and early 1980s who joined the netherworld of refuseniks were routinely barred from their professions and forced to take menial jobs. Some suffered the added humiliation of being stripped of their academic degrees. Children old enough to belong to the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, were drummed out in public ceremonies of denunciation in front of their schoolmates.

The turning point--when Yuri decided that Tanya was right, that the risks had to be taken--was the KGB’s demand in the spring of 1977 that he inform on Tatiana Velikanova, then an editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, the clandestine journal that served as the Soviet human rights movement’s main information channel to the West.

At a second meeting with the KGB agents, Zieman recalls, “they started to threaten.” His patriotism, the agents suggested, was now in question. Perhaps the director of his institute should be told that Citizen Zieman was untrustworthy. Think of your children, they advised.

“But I could not do such a thing,” he says he told them. And then he told Velikanova of the KGB’s intentions.

With no help from the Ziemans, the KGB arrested Velikanova, a grandmother, in November, 1979, on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and sent her off to four years in a “strict regime” labor camp, to be followed by five more years of internal exile in Central Asia. Soviet authorities allowed her to return to Moscow only last May, a few months short of her full term. Her friends the Ziemans were still there.

When they had applied for permission to leave in 1977, they had convinced themselves that there would be no legal grounds for refusal. So confident were they that they quit their jobs and sent many of their belongings ahead to friends in Boston. Ten years later, when Yuri’s daughter Galina finally reached Boston, she found the boxes of phonograph records and books and Vera’s baby clothes still in the friends’ basement, gone to mildew and dust.

Like thousands before them, they were denied permission on grounds of national security. In keeping with standard practice, the authorities steadfastly refused to explain what that meant.

From time to time, Soviet officials dropped hints that Yuri was considered to have acquired weighty secrets at his workplace. He remembers none.

One plausible explanation lay with Yuri’s brother, Jan, who worked for the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ ostensibly civilian Institute of Space Research. The institute’s director, Roald Z. Sagdeyev, denies that Jan Zieman performed classified work. But Yuri contends that it was common knowledge in the family that Jan was involved in the processing of satellite photographs.

Not all the pictures, family lore has it, were of distant planets. Some, presumably from Soviet spy satellites, were said to be of sufficient detail to discern scantily clad women on American beaches.

With this in mind, Yuri says, he broke off all contact with his brother when they applied to emigrate in 1977, to protect not only himself but also his brother. In any case, the authorities were never concerned enough about the protection of state secrets to remove Jan from his job or to try to prevent the Ziemans from building a wide circle of friends among Westerners in Moscow--among them the U.S. ambassador at that time, Arthur A. Hartman, and his wife, Donna--who became their lifeline to hope.

As the years passed, the Ziemans provided a penetrating window on Soviet society for several Western ambassadors, whose isolation from ordinary, unofficial Russians might otherwise have been complete. Lasting friendships developed, and diplomats sometimes returned the favor with defiant gestures of support.

That the KGB was exacting retribution for Yuri’s refusal to become an informer became clearer, he says, in 1982. Agents called on him again, this time at the maternity hospital where he now worked as an underpaid plumber.

“So, have you had enough of this life?” one of the KGB officers inquired. “Now will you cooperate?”

He turned them down again.

To survive in a society that they had rejected, and that had, in effect, rejected them but would not release them, many refuseniks risked arrest by turning to religious studies or political action. Many others, the Ziemans among them, survived by turning inward, protecting the integrity of the family above all else, forming a small circle of equally impoverished refusenik friends, distributing books and clothes and medicine obtained from Western friends.

“We had lost everything, just everything,” Tanya said in Moscow last May. “The most difficult thing is that you feel there is no future. You cannot plan your life. You must learn to live day by day, making the most of each one, if you don’t want to spoil the life of your children.

“It took us a year of complete depression, not knowing where to turn, before we learned this. One fine morning, life was reduced to basic rules--how to survive, physically, mentally.”

In time, as they adapted, the Ziemans found a thin silver lining in this existence. The feeling of having lost so much led logically to the conviction that there was not much left to lose. Like many of the other thousands of long-term refuseniks, the Ziemans found their fear of Soviet authorities slowly waning. In its place came an uplifting sense of liberation.

“You know, we were not revolutionaries,” Tanya noted with wry understatement. “But they break into your house, they threaten. You get tired of all this, and slowly you realize that all you have left to lose is your fear--when you see a police car, of the KGB, that unattached fear everyone has that Big Brother is watching.

“In our situation, we went through a gradual, gradual unbending. I had never experienced real freedom, but I sensed that it is something like this.”

By the fall of 1986, they had unbent enough that when their friend Nicholas Daniloff, then Moscow correspondent of U.S. News & World Report, was arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage and held in the KGB’s Lefortovo Prison for two weeks, Tanya virtually moved into the Daniloffs’ apartment a few blocks away to cook meals, tend their dog Zeus and answer the phone--freeing Daniloff’s wife, Ruth, for the more important tasks at hand.

Within the next year, several random forces would converge to tear the Ziemans from their obscurity, push them to the forefront of the Jewish emigration movement in Moscow and bring them to the attention of the White House.

One, ironically, was the gradual revival of Jewish emigration. In an apparent effort to reduce human rights as an irritant in East-West relations, the Soviet government began releasing many of the leaders of the emigration movement whose years in labor camps and exile had given them international prominence. Those who were left behind regrouped and sought new leaders.

Tanya Zieman, with her fluent English, emerged in the fall of 1987 as a jittery but increasingly effective translator at news conferences for Western reporters in Moscow. Then, in the more relaxed atmosphere of glasnost, she became an organizer as human rights protests and demonstrations proliferated.

Meanwhile, Yuri’s daughter Galina, her husband, Victor Khatutsky, and their 2-year-old daughter, Anna, reapplied to leave under Victor’s name, and succeeded. Within weeks of their arrival in Boston in the fall of 1987, Galina, a once-shy wisp of a woman, had put aside her fears and launched a dogged campaign for her family in the halls of Congress.

Her task became more urgent last November as her father developed blinding headaches and blurred vision, which Soviet doctors feared were the signs of a brain tumor or aneurysm. As he moved from one Moscow hospital to another, he contracted hepatitis, apparently from dirty hypodermic needles.

Among those who responded to Galina’s appeals was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “Galina deserves the real credit for this achievement,” Kennedy noted at a reception on Oct. 4 for all the Ziemans after they had finally gained their freedom. “This reunion is a triumph of the human spirit over extraordinary adversity.”

In Washington, the State Department elevated the Ziemans to a special list of the most urgent cases for discussion between Secretary George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze. But they were nevertheless refused exit visas again last spring.

As U.S.-Soviet relations began to thaw and a stream of visiting congressmen flowed into the Soviet capital, the Ziemans’ tiny apartment became an obligatory stop. Some were moved by the family they found--wise, amazingly ebullient, seemingly unscathed by the cynicism and bitterness that afflicted many of the long-time refuseniks.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) emerged a committed ally--"Carlyusha,” Tanya affectionately dubbed him. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) spent three hours grilling them on the subjects of human rights and Soviet society and came away deeply impressed.

“I thought, how could this family, under such stress, such horrible conditions, be so optimistic and have such a strong belief that anything is possible?” Bradley said in the congressional tribute last month. “You taught us a lot about freedom, and how much people sometimes must do to achieve it.”

In some ways the star of the family, the one who left the most lasting impression, was little Vera. Emotionally mature beyond her years at the age of 12, with her curly red hair, bright blue eyes and sunny disposition, she might have walked off the stage set of “Annie.”

But unlike Annie, Vera led two lives.

In school, she was just another Soviet child, although one who earned straight A’s. To avoid harassment, she never told her friends or teachers about her family’s struggle, nor even let on that she spoke fluent English.

At home, in the privacy of their apartment, she burrowed through most of the best of American and British children’s literature--the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume and J. R. R. Tolkien. She studied Latin and gained a command of Bach and Mozart at the piano. To all appearances, Vera’s only act of rebellion was her stubborn refusal to read Russian children’s books at home.

When Yuri fell ill last November, Vera took over some of the cooking and shared the task of handling the telephone in what was no longer so much an apartment as a human rights command center. She penned her own appeals to Gorbachev, and also to Reagan. Gorbachev never answered, but the Reagans did.

Whether or not Vera’s letter was enough to command presidential attention, an additional, if oblique, connection developed between the Ziemans and the White House. During a 1985 visit to Moscow on a writing assignment for Playboy magazine, the Reagans’ son Ron met the Ziemans’ close friend, Vladimir Feltsman, the stellar young pianist who was allowed to emigrate last year. Feltsman’s American debut was a concert at the White House, where his wife, Anna, struck up an acquaintance with Nancy Reagan.

According to mutual friends, Anna Feltsman and Nancy Reagan have spoken a number of times by telephone, including a 40-minute chat shortly before the Moscow summit, when they discussed the Ziemans’ plight.

A few days before the summit, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow telephoned the Ziemans and asked if they would mind a visit from the President. Of course, they would not. White House security agents came by to survey the three-room apartment, and a protocol aide suggested where everyone should sit.

On the appointed day, tea was brewing in the pot and a cake was ready on the table. Outside in the street, hundreds of ordinary Russians milled about, drawn by rumors that the American President and First Lady were about to descend on the apartment of a simple Soviet family. Why else, some in the crowd shrewdly pointed out, would truckloads of workers have swept up the neighborhood and patched the potholes the night before?

But the visit was called off at the last moment, amid blunt threats from the Soviet Foreign Ministry never to let the Ziemans go--and contradictory official hints that the case might still be resolved “positively” after all.

Bore Only the Seal

By way of apology, the Reagans discreetly sent over a small, gift-wrapped package of classical music tapes for Vera. In place of a note or card--which hyper-cautious White House officials now feared might incur Moscow’s wrath and doom the Ziemans’ slender chances--the present bore only a small, gold presidential seal.

As the summit ended on June 2, Soviet officials with KGB connections quietly suggested to several Westerners who knew the Ziemans that the fight was over. They would have their freedom.

But not without another wrenching twist. Ten days later, for reasons that remain unclear, a special commission of the Supreme Soviet, the nation’s Parliament, again denied them visas and told them to reapply in 1992.

Two weeks after that, Soviet authorities reversed themselves again. This time, U.S. officials believe, the ruling Politburo had decided matters--although no Soviet official troubled to inform the Ziemans. Instead, in a telling indication of Moscow’s new sensitivity to its human rights image abroad, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Yuri V. Dubinin, formally advised the State Department at the end of June that the Ziemans would be released.

For all of that, a family that had once sent its belongings prematurely to Boston was not about to release its grip on skepticism. It was not until July 4, still with no direct word from Soviet officialdom, that Tanya opened the mailbox at their apartment in Moscow and felt the weight of a terrible decade begin to lift.

Inside was an official postcard blandly summoning them to the passport office to pay a fee for surrendering their Soviet citizenship and to collect their exit papers.

In two months in the United States, the Ziemans have found themselves overwhelmed by an outpouring of support and charity far beyond the modest, government-supplemented aid from local Jewish organizations that most Soviet refugees receive.

Their small but comfortable apartment in the Boston suburb of Belmont has been fully furnished by gifts from total strangers, one of whom, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Florida, also sent Yuri a wardrobe of expensive shirts. Well-wishers have sent them two American flags and three sets of dishes. Others have provided furniture and lent an IBM computer.

“In the Soviet Union, the concept of charity was crushed long ago,” Tanya said. “Here it is beyond belief.”

Vera has slipped smoothly into an American seventh grade, on full scholarship at two private schools in Cambridge, the Shady Hill school and the prestigious Longy music school.

Is it different from Moscow? “Of course it is,” she laughed. “I like it very much.”

Yuri has largely recovered from hepatitis, and his neurological symptoms have abated. He is still undergoing medical tests, but doctors have ruled out a brain tumor or aneurysm. It remains now for him to find a job--something, he hopes, involving computers and medicine.

And Tanya’s suspicion, back in Moscow, that the White House might have been using them as political pawns in a propaganda struggle with the Soviets--a role she was perfectly willing to accept if it won them their visas--evaporated with the first phone call in their new apartment in August.

“Literally, we had just stumbled across the threshold when the White House called,” Tanya said. “They were so nice. Mr. Reagan spoke to us like an older uncle. They apologized for not being able to visit us. He said when we were refused again (in June), he was very upset and pushed all the alarm buttons for us.”

The conversation ended with an invitation to visit the White House when they came to Washington, which they did on Oct. 5.

If Tanya feels any bitterness, it is about the productive years that Yuri lost.

“It is so sad,” she said, “to think about all the good things he could have been doing for so many people for all those years that he worked in that maternity hospital.”

Cultural Euphoria

Yuri, caught up not so much in culture shock as cultural euphoria, is not inclined to look back. There is too much yet to be discovered here--the mysteries of self-service gas stations, comparison shopping in supermarkets, the latest computer software.

Friends tell him his euphoria will moderate. But for now, he says in his precise, measured English: “I love . . . every . . . single . . . thing in this country.”