At Last, the Promised Land
updated 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
For Pyotr, who struggled for 23 years against a Soviet bureaucracy that seemed more unshakable than the walls of Jericho, liberty came as a shock. Exit visas for the Vashchenkos were granted five years after Pyotr, four members of his family and two other Pentecostals had set up residence in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. They became international symbols of the quest for religious freedom. (Mariya Chmykhalov, 60, and her son, Timofei, 21, left the embassy with the Vashchenkos and are still in the U.S.S.R. awaiting permission to emigrate.) Following a brief stopover in Vienna, the Vashchenkos arrived on June 28 in Israel. Pyotr, his wife Augustina, their 13 children and one daughter-in-law are now all united in the Holy Land. "We never once feared that we shall not succeed in leaving Russia," says daughter Lyuba, 30, who learned English from a sympathetic U.S. Marine during her sojourn in the embassy. "We just did not know when or how."
Among the 40,000 Pentecostals living in the Soviet Union, Pyotr had been a leading advocate of religious freedom since 1960. In January 1963, while he was being held in a Siberian labor camp, Augustina was among 32 Pentecostals who requested exit visas from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow—something the U.S. officials were powerless to grant. That time they were persuaded to leave by a consular official who had been assured that the Soviets would allow them to return home unmolested. Instead, Augustina was arrested and sent to a labor camp for nearly three years; their three eldest daughters, Lidiya, then 17, Lyuba, 15, and Nadia, 14, had been removed to a state reeducation center. Over the next 15 years the Vashchenkos and their brood were discriminated against economically—Lyuba was denied work as a seamstress—and harassed physically—one son, for instance, was beaten unconscious by prison guards. The hardships strengthened the family's faith. Forced to leave their village and refused the right to travel by train, they once trudged 900 miles across Siberia to a new home, carrying the children on their backs in sub-zero temperatures. Their requests to emigrate were not even considered because Soviet citizens are required to have a formal invitation from a close relative abroad before they can apply for an exit visa. Their ignorance of that rule is what led the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs to Moscow five years ago from their hometown of Chernogorsk in southern Siberia. They had received an invitation to America from Dr. Cecil Williamson, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Selma, Ala., who had taken up their case for freedom of worship, and they were hoping the invitation might help them secure the coveted exit visas.
With their daughters Lidiya, Lyuba and Liliya, their son John and the two Chmykhalovs, Pyotr and Augustina calmly approached the embassy on June 27, 1978. But after examining the documents that the Vashchenkos were carrying, the Soviet guard at the embassy gate denied them entry. Acting more on impulse than design, the group surged forward. Seven of them made it through the embassy gate, but John, then 17, was caught by the guard, who threw him to the asphalt and beat him. "We begged the Americans to save John," Lyuba recalls. "When the Americans asked the Soviet authorities, 'Where is the boy?', the only reply was, 'Which boy? We know no such boy.' We knew that if we left, we might never hear from him and all of us would be arrested and sent to labor camps. We decided to stay in the embassy till we had news of his fate."
The Siberian Seven, as they were labeled, became an embarrassment not only to the Soviet Union but to the U.S., which at the time was pursuing the SALT II treaty. According to a former senior official at the Moscow embassy, "It was a human tragedy which was poignant because there was so little we could do about their problem. It was clear that unless something gave, the young people were doomed to a prisonlike existence. Groups in the U.S. didn't understand why we couldn't tell the Soviet Union what to do." Unable to persuade the Pentecostals to leave the cramped consular reception area where they camped out for eight weeks, embassy officials reluctantly moved them to a basement room 12 by 16 feet with a single barred window. Because the room had only two beds, most members of the group slept on mattresses on the floor. Supplied with a stove, a refrigerator and provisions from the embassy's exchange, the Pentecostals prepared their own food, often sending distinctly unsavory aromas wafting into the embassy courtyard. The family tried to earn their keep by mending clothes and baby-sitting for their hosts. For the first year their only exercise was a daily walk in that courtyard, accompanied by an embassy official to discourage the KGB from attempts at snatching them. Some friendships developed with the wives of embassy staffers, who voluntarily provided food and clothing. But the close quarters and the feeling of being "buried alive" also took their toll. Embassy officials remember that the Pentecostals would often bicker about who would accept telephone calls from American supporters, and that sometimes they complained if their demands for specific foods and other items were not granted.
For the Vashchenkos, the greatest concern was the separation from the rest of their offspring. It was two weeks before they were able to reach their other children by phone in Chernogorsk, 2,000 miles away. Only then did they learn that John, having sustained severe injuries in the beating (he has since fully recovered), was back home. They were warned not to leave the embassy lest they too be brutally treated. So they stayed—never imagining how long the wait might be. "The most difficult thing was the education of children by remote control," says Lidiya, 32. "If one of the children had misbehaved, my parents would talk to them very gently on the phone about what they had done wrong. Then, when they replaced the receiver, they would pray for them and bless them." The separation was probably roughest on Abraham, who was only 4 when his parents took up residence in the embassy. "Once when we talked with little Abraham on the phone," Lidiya recalls, "he cried to my mother, 'Mama, can't you make yourself very small and come to me over this wire?' "
As the ordeal dragged on with no prospect of the Soviets relenting, Lidiya and Augustina began a hunger strike on December 25, 1981 to gain international attention. The next month Lidiya was admitted to a Soviet hospital. "I was surrounded by white-coated doctors, over whose shoulders white-coated KGB agents pretending to be doctors were staring at me," Lidiya recalls. In February 1982 she was transported home to Chernogorsk, still requesting permission to emigrate. Suddenly last April she was informed that she could leave. Her parents were skeptical. "They thought I had fallen victim to a Soviet trick," she remembers. But when she phoned them from Israel two days later, they were convinced. "When we saw that Lidiya was allowed to leave the Soviet Union, we understood that there was no point in our continuing to sit in the embassy," says Pyotr. "We saw in Lidiya's departure a signal from the Soviets, saying, 'You will be able to leave.' "
After four years and nine months in the embassy, they walked out last April 12 to return to Chernogorsk and a joyous family reunion. During the last week of June the Soviets announced that the family would be allowed to leave for Israel to join Lidiya. Their travel costs were paid, in part, by a group headed by Ray Barnett, president of a Seattle-based human rights organization. Each person was permitted to take one suitcase—and that had to pass the scrutiny of the Soviet agent at the border. For Sarra, 12, there was a moment when it seemed that her beloved dolls Antushka and Radka, which she had squashed in among her underwear, might not make it. But after shaking the dolls vigorously, the agent let them through. A guitar that an embassy staffer had given to Lyuba, however, was confiscated. The family's copies of the Scriptures were voluntarily left behind. Religious books are so precious in the U.S.S.R. that the Vashchenkos wanted friends to have them.
Admitted to Israel on a three-month tourist visa, the Vashchenkos hope to stay. "This is the area where the Lord gave us the Ten Commandments," explains Lyuba. "This is the place of God's law." As non-Jews, they may be accepted as permanent residents of Israel at the discretion of the Interior Ministry. The family is confident, however. Says Lidiya: "I am sure that the Jewish people, who know the meaning of being persecuted and stateless, will not close their doors to those who are stateless, too." The Vashchenkos look to the future with unwavering optimism, yet they still speak in the hushed tones of people who lived too long in a closed society, in fear of listening devices. "All our lives we had learned to be careful," says Lidiya. "It's strange to realize that suddenly one does not have to whisper."