She arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday afternoon, carrying her 2-year-old daughter in one arm and the child's doll in the other.
"Can you give us a statement?" asked a reporter in a crowd of about a dozen. Camera lights were switched on and microphones adjusted at the podium.
She exhaled hard several times, raked her hands through her curly hair and said, "I guess the only statement I can make is that I will never know if I made the right decision--leaving the Soviet Union. My husband is dying."
Elena Kusmenko Balovlenkov, 29, is the American wife of a 33-year-old Soviet citizen who is on an extended hunger strike that he started in late May in an attempt to get permission to leave the Soviet Union. Denied an exit visa six times in the past two years, Yuri Balovlenkov is one of seven Soviets who have been fasting as a last resort to dramatize their plight. But yesterday Elena, who speaks fluent Russian and is a nurse-clinician at Baltimore City Hospital, shed no tears. "I left all my tears in Frankfurt," she said, recalling the midpoint of her journey home. World Airways and the Young Republicans had heard of the hunger strike and paid for her flight and expenses in Moscow. World Airways has also offered to pay her husband's way to the United States should he be allowed out of Russia.
Instead of tears, she had words about her husband and about the Soviet government. She also brought before and after pictures. She held up the picture of her husband before he began his fast.
"Here he is a normal, healthy 33-year-old," she said, "and all he wanted to do was come and be with his family." He is a handsome man with a strong yet gentle face, a computer programmer who met his American wife when she was on vacation in Moscow five years ago.
She held up another snapshot. "This is what he looks like now," she said, as cameras zoomed in. "He has lost a third of his body weight . . . My husband made a will asking when he dies that he be allowed to be buried in the U.S. I told him I'll press for that." There was a pause as the irony occurred to her and everyone else at the airport. "Hopefully if they won't let him live in the U.S., they'll let him be buried here."
Elena Kusmenko met Yuri Balovlenkov in a coffee shop in Moscow in May 1977. She and a group of American tourists had just left a circus performance. Balovlenkov and two friends were drinking champagne and asked the Americans to join them. Elena stayed the longest, winding up the day with a 1:30 a.m. tour of Moscow with the Soviets. "We agreed to meet the next day at the hotel," she said, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. "Yuri paid the other two not to come. I heard I was worth five rubles. I was flattered. He took me on a walking tour of the Kremlin. We kept walking for 15 days."
She went back home. "Then there were the $500 phone bills, the $700 phone bills," she said ruefully. "It seemed too good to be true. But I wanted to make sure it wasn't just the silvery moon."
She arranged to go back that December. "My mother told me I was out of my mind," she said. "My mother had wanted me to go to Disneyland, not the Soviet Union, for vacation. She hates it." Her parents, Russian-born and interred in labor camps in Germany during World War II, eventually immigrated here. "My mother told me if I was really in love with a Russian, I'd let him go--because they'd never let him out."
She smiled casually. "I'm not really good at listening."
The bureaucracy of simply getting married was an ordeal. It took a year, the intervention of Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.), and three fruitless trips to the Soviet Union. In December 1978, she and Yuri were married in a civil ceremony at the Palace of Marriages.
"It was a real funky place," she said. "We had to pay about $3.75 to have the organist play the Russian version of 'Here Comes the Bride.' "
The bride wore a long white dress she had bought for $7.95 here. ("I didn't want to pay a whole lot of money for a dress when I wasn't sure I'd get married.")
The groom wore a gray suit. An American Embassy official was best man. Hal Piper, a former Baltimore Sun Moscow correspondent, took wedding pictures. They spent their honeymoon night in American Embassy lodging.
Their intentions were to leave. She never wanted to live in the Soviet Union. "Oh, God no," she said. "I hate it. I couldn't stay more than 24 hours." They didn't think about visa problems.
"We were so stupid," she said. "We were so young and in love."
Elena Balovlenkov stayed in Russia 10 days this time, the term of her visa. She had taken her daughter Katrina--whom she calls Katya--to see her father. It was the first time he had seen her. "I had to bring Katya home," she said. "We got tired of cabbage and potatoes for breakfast. I got tired of boiling water for her bath. My in-laws don't speak English. And Katya doesn't need to see her father die at two years of age."
Katya, in white pinafore and white lace stockings, stood calmly by her mother's side, her solemn gray eyes scanning the crowd, a pacifier snug in her mouth.
"Katya got to meet her dad," Balovlenkov said. "He was able to play with her a little. And I think the Soviets know we are not giving up."
In Moscow, she knocked on one official door after another so relentlessly that she referred to herself yesterday as "the Avon lady."
She got no reprieve, although she was told that she could stay in the Soviet Union permanently and that officials would help her find an apartment and a job. She's not interested.
"I'm very angry," she said. "The only statements they told me were, 'Your husband is not Sakharov.' I don't know what that means."
Yuri Balovlenkov fasted for 43 days, until June 21, when, according to the couple, Soviet authorities had promised to allow him to emigrate. Later, according to his wife, the Soviets began to hedge and eventually told him that such a visa still had not been worked out for him. He began his fast anew on July 4. Yesterday was the 23rd day of his renewed fast. She has asked him to stop, but he won't. "Yuri is as stubborn as the Soviet government," she said.
As a result of the fast, she says, he is suffering from abdominal pain, mental deterioration and jaundice, and is unable to lie flat. She said he wanted her to leave so she didn't have to watch him die. "My husband essentially booted me out," she said.
Does she still have hope, she was asked? She sighed. "I'm running out of time. The problem now is keeping Yuri alive. They're not listening to a nurse. But they might listen to 2,000 telegrams from Americans."
She has appealed to the White House for intervention and met with Vice President Bush in May. "I'm told continuously they're doing everything they can," she said, irritated. "I don't know what 'everything' is."
In Baltimore, some of the reporters and photographers who awaited her arrival knew her. She called them by their first names; they wished her luck. One kissed her hand as he left.
"Guys, I'm tired," she announced at one point. "I want to go home now." But reporters went up to her afterwards to ask more questions and she answered them all. She needs the publicity, she says--it keeps her husband alive. Are the Soviets still sticking to the story that her husband can't leave because he knows computer secrets, asked two reporters after the conference?
"Oh, that's bull----," she said in a hushed tone. The job they have been referring to was one Yuri Balovlenkov held in 1975 when he was working with electrical equipment, which, his wife later scoffed, "you could get at Radio Shack." The job required security clearance.
In a small lounge at the airport, she plopped down on a sofa and pulled crayons and coloring book out of a large shoulder bag for her daughter. A paperback copy of Harold Robbins' "The Dream Merchants" was wedged in the bag.
Since she married Yuri, she has visited him twice. He has lost two jobs in that time. "Nobody would hire him after he married a Westerner," she said, adding flippantly: "It's a security risk."
The idea of a hunger strike took shape in March, she said. "Yuri was always the fair-haired boy. He got straight A's in school. Yuri was the type who would never give up his supper plate, let alone go on a hunger strike. He was never against the system. He doesn't care what they do politically."
But on this last trip, when Elena Balovlenkov was able to talk to immigration officials in Moscow, they said his visa was denied "for state considerations--security," she said. "I say that's garbage."
Balovlenkov, who desperately wants her husband to end his hunger strike, asked officials at the Soviet Embassy here and in Moscow to force-feed him. "I tried to deliver a petition to the minister of internal affairs," she said. "He said he was incompetent to deal with this question."
Her plan now: "to plead with the American people to write to Brezhnev--he is the one who has authority to overturn immigration officials."
She may not go back to work right away, she said. "I have to see how it goes with 'Good Morning America' this week," she said of a scheduled appearance on that show tomorrow. "And I'm going to check in on the Hill and let people know I'm back."
She smiled like a determined politician as she collected daughter, crayons and luggage, eager to head to her Baltimore home. She wanted to call her husband and see how he was doing.