Nine Years After They Were Married, a Soviet Refusenik and His American Wife Are Finally Living Together

updated 04/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 01:00AM

The champagne and buffet-dinner party was over. The 40 guests, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), were gone. Elena Balovlenkov had just started clearing away the debris when she heard her husband say, "Can I help clean up?" Elena was stunned. "I was thinking, 'Am I hearing voices?' " It's not that Yuri had never offered to help before. It's just that, in their nine years of marriage, he'd never lived with Elena before.

Since their 1978 wedding, refusenik Yuri Balovlenkov and his American bride had been separated by half a world, each clashing with the Kremlin while the international media focused on their extraordinary marriage of inconvenience. Yuri, a computer programmer in Moscow, staged three hunger strikes to pressure the Soviets into letting him emigrate, twice losing 55 lbs., and almost his life, in the process. Elena, a Baltimore nurse, ping-ponged 4,832 miles East and West seven times, tending him back to health there, bearing their two daughters here, holding down two jobs while she petitioned for his freedom. On the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit last November, the Soviets finally wrote an upbeat denouement, giving Yuri his exit visa while garnering goodwill for themselves in the eyes of everyone—except the Balovlenkovs.

"We were so ridiculously naive about what we were taking on," says Elena, 34. "U.S.-Soviet politics kept us apart, and because of that we're both very different. It's almost as though he's a Martian." Yuri, 39, is no less bitter: "They changed me. I lost my health. I lost 10 years. She lost 10 years. Soviet Union didn't care." Yuri, who'd only seen his older daughter, Katya, once, when she was 2, felt very much the alien as he stepped off Pan Am flight 61 at Dulles International Airport and met his long-lost family—Katya, now 7, and Masha, 4. "I lived all my life with my parents in one room," he says. "Now it is very strange. We are all trying to get to know each other."

Despite their Russian Orthodox backgrounds, Yuri and Elena are a study in contrasts. He's a tall, bearded dreamer. She's a practical, bespectacled workaholic. He thinks the four-room row house she bought in 1978 is a palace. She talks about trading up to a bigger home. He hasn't been regularly employed since 1978, wants to change careers and talks idealistically about working for human rights. She earns $35,000 a year, works 55 hours a week and plans to go back to college for a master's degree. "We used to laugh that my feet were on the ground and his head was in the clouds," says Elena.

She blames Yuri's lack of ambition on nurture, not nature. "Russians have nothing to work for," she says. "There are no performance incentives. You can't make it to the top unless you're a hard-line Party member." But turning Yuri into a good capitalist may prove harder than getting him out of Mother Russia. "I don't care about material things," he declares. "They're not important to me."

The stubborn youngest child of a military pilot and a housewife, Yuri was born in Gorki and moved five years later to Moscow. In 1972 he earned a degree in radio electronics from the Bauman Technological Institute, later becoming a systems analyst. Elena Kusmenko, born in Baltimore to Soviet immigrant parents (a mechanic and a seamstress) grew up speaking Russian. After earning a B.S. in nursing from the University of Maryland in 1975, she decided to visit the land her parents had left 20 years before.

The couple met in a Moscow restaurant on May 3, 1977, when Elena began chatting with Yuri and two of his friends. "I thought he was utterly charming," she says. "He was definitely the type of person who would sweep you off your feet." Yuri found her "energetic, very intelligent, full of life. I like around me an active person." He took off from his job to spend the next 15 days with Elena, accompanying her to Leningrad and Kiev, once standing in line all day to buy her a Russian luxury—a bag of tangerines that were as puny as silver dollars.

"Those days we spent together were probably the most intense moments of my life," says Elena. After she went home, the gabby lovers ran up $1,400-a-month bills on her phone. Elena returned to the Soviet Union three more times and married Yuri in Moscow on Dec. 5, 1978.

That was the end of the happy phase. Before the wedding, Yuri was fired from his job at a technical institute because he was going to marry an American. The Soviets refused to allow Yuri to join Elena in America, and after three years of odd jobs and repeated visa applications, he began staging hunger strikes in desperation. During his second, in 1982, his health became so precarious that Elena flew to Moscow, told him, falsely, that the authorities had granted his visa, then fed him a special diet until he recovered. Three years later, he went on his longest fast. "It was a nightmare," Elena says of the 100-day ordeal. "He couldn't get out of bed. His kidneys were shutting down, and he was having problems with his memory." In all, Yuri's hunger strikes lasted 178 days, he had his visa denied 14 times, and he may have sustained permanent kidney damage.

The difference between then and now can be measured by Yuri's waistline. Gorging himself on Maryland crab cakes, french fries, Chinese food and Oreo cookies, he's gained 15 lbs. in four months and is now on a diet. He's also coping with homesickness and culture shock—used to Moscow's efficient subways, he has qualms about learning to drive a car; accustomed to Moscow's crowds, he feels self-conscious about walking Baltimore's relatively empty streets. Yuri does venture out, however, to do the grocery shopping. "I can't believe all the food," he says. "The quality is so high. The lines are so small."

At home, Yuri has mastered the family toaster and VCR but still can't handle the microwave oven. Being an instant father hasn't been easy, but Yuri delights in his children. "He can dress them and brush their hair," says Elena, "and he's better at nagging them than I am." The girls like having Dad around the house. "He lets us have ice cream for breakfast," giggles Katya. "And we dance to Daddy's Russian records."

While Elena works weekdays at Francis Scott Key Medical Center and weekends at Sinai Hospital, Yuri will look for some kind of work after finishing an intensive English language course at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

For Elena, starting over means learning to be a wife after ruling the roost as a single parent. "There was a lot of power jockeying at first," she says, "because I've never lived with a husband before." But Yuri has been a helpmate since his first night in America, when he offered to clean up after that previously mentioned welcoming party. "He's been great," says Elena. "How many men do you know who would volunteer to go in the yard and pick up dog doo?"

The Balovlenkovs are aware that the odds are against them. They've been told that the divorce rate among long-separated couples in which the husband emigrates is 85 percent. "All my feelings about him were based on the wonderful times we had before," says Elena. "I've got to know what I love about him now." The couple is determined, in any case, to make the marriage work. "I think we are understanding each other better," says Yuri. "Our problems are disappearing."

Friends say Elena and Yuri are adjusting well to each other. "Sometimes they giggle and laugh like honeymooners," says Lucille Simpson, a co-worker of Elena's. "Other times they act like they've been married a long time." The Balovlenkovs, in fact, show signs of becoming a completely normal couple. When Yuri went away on a religious retreat recently, says Elena, "I missed him terribly. There wasn't anyone to argue with."

—By Mary Vespa, with Andrea Pawlyna in Baltimore

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