Related topics

Sources: Soviet Official Warned Reagan Party About Refusenik Visit

May 31, 1988

MOSCOW (AP) _ President and Mrs. Reagan agonized over whether to visit a Jewish refusenik family after a top Soviet Foreign Ministry official warned that it would ruin the family’s chances to emigrate, U.S. sources say.

In the end, the visit never came off. And a 12-year-old girl who calls herself ″a lifelong refusenik″ was disappointed.

U.S. sources speaking on condition of anonymity said Monday that Deputy Foreign Minister Alexandr Bessmertnykh warned U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock during a summit planning meeting last week that the Zieman family would never be permitted to leave the Soviet Union if Reagan visited.

″It went back and forth several times″ as the Reagans and White House aides considered the dilemma, one source said. ″They didn’t want to knuckle under to intimidation, but they didn’t want to hurt the Ziemans, either.″

Instead of making the visit, the Reagans toured the Arbat mall in downtown Moscow. The Ziemans waited patiently until it was clear the president would not be coming.

The Ziemans’ 12-year-old daughter Vera had appealed to the Reagans for help in getting her and her family out of the Soviet Union.

Americans who meet her unfailingly note Vera’s uncanny resemblance to Little Orphan Annie with her curly hair and cherub cheeks. She speaks English with a British accent, as taught by her mother. She calls herself a ″lifelong refusenik″ because the family has been refused permission to emigrate virtually since her birth.

″My name is Vera Zieman,″ she wrote the Reagans last month, ″but everybody calls me ’Moscow’s Orphan Annie.‴

″My elder sister, who lives in Boston now, tries desperately to help us get permission to leave the USSR,″ Vera wrote the Reagans. ″I wish and wish I could do something too. So I made up my mind to venture to ask you for help.″

She told of her family’s efforts to emigrate and of the hardships her parents have suffered since becoming refuseniks. Her father, who has worked as a plumber since losing his scientific post, recently suffered a mysterious brain ailment that has affected his vision and balance. During his hospitalization for that condition, he contracted hepatitis and has been confined to bed, although he got up to attend the Reagan reception on Monday.

Matlock, a career diplomat who has dealt with the Soviets throughout much of his professional career, refused to respond to queries about the incident. But other sources who participated in planning the Reagans’ visit said the blunt warning came from Bessmertnykh, one of Matlock’s principal contacts in the Soviet government.

Several sources confirmed all or part of this account on condition they not be identified by name.

A White House spokesman, Roman Popadiuk, said the White House would not comment on the report, and Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov responded only indirectly, saying the Reagans were free to meet with whom they please.

Yuri Zieman, Vera’s father, was asked at a reception Reagan gave for Soviet dissidents and refuseniks Monday whether he thought a Reagan visit would have made it more difficult for them to emigrate, a goal they have sought since 1977.

″How do we know?″ he told reporters.″That’s a very Soviet-like statement, like ’Don’t try to emigrate; don’t believe in God.‴

A White House advance party made a discreet visit to the Ziemans’ home in a shabby apartment building in southwest Moscow to let them know the Reagans might come to see them. They made no commitment.

It was not clear how the Soviets learned of the plan, although the KGB keeps close watch on American diplomats, Soviet dissidents and refuseniks, Soviet Jews who have been refused permission to leave the country.

Zieman, a former computer scientist who lost his job when he applied for an exit visa 11 years ago, has been told he is not allowed to leave for security reasons, although he contends he never had access to state secrets and has no information that could threaten Soviet security.

Update hourly