Liuba Vashchenko spent the last five years of her life in the cramped basement of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. After a week in Washington, she ruminated on her new-found freedom.
"I have to say honestly, 'What freedom do I have?' " she said with a tired smile late Tuesday afternoon at a terminal at National Airport, press clippings crammed into a box which she had taped shut. "I'm so busy. I had to get up at six and get in the car with curlers in my hair. So what freedom do I have?" She smiled again. "No, it's just joke. Today, I'm a captive of correspondents, but soon I will rest."
Vashchenko in effect lost the years of her life between ages 25 and 30. She and four members of her family, along with two persons from another family--all members of the Pentecostal religion--staked out a place of refuge in the embassy, refusing to leave until the Soviet government granted permission to leave the country.
"If it would last until the end of my life, I would sit there," said Liuba Vashchenko in a clipped voice, quiet but steely.
The case of this fundamentalist Christian family had been publicized worldwide: Pyotr Vashchenko, patriarch of a 16-member family from Chernogorsk, Siberia, had tried in vain for 20 years to leave the Soviet Union, where he felt they could not practice their religion freely. He had gone to the U.S. Embassy several times before in an attempt to get immigration aid but to no avail. Once, after leaving the embassy, he was imprisoned and his children were sent to orphanages. In 1978 the Vashchenkos and several of their children got to Moscow, rushed past the Soviet guards posted outside the U.S. Embassy and began what turned into an extraordinary five-year stay.
Journalists, special-interest groups and members of Congress visited them and wrote and spoke about them. When the Soviet government suddenly granted permission to leave the country, Liuba Vashchenko emerged from her quarters to exhilarating fresh air and freedom and--somewhat as a jolt--celebrityhood.
Vashchenko has high cheekbones and blue eyes and softly curled light brown hair. She wore a simple brown skirt that she made during her stay at the embassy and a print blouse she bought at a store in Washington. She carried a straw hat that she bought in Israel. The Vashchenko family arrived in Israel three weeks ago, seeking permanent residency. "It is a country my family always dreamed about," she said. "Most of my brothers have biblical names. Abraham, John, Jacob . . ."
Vashchenko, on the other hand, wants to stay in the United States, get a job, go to college and law school. For the time being, she is a woman without a country, spending one day at the Chevy Chase home of Sen. Carl Levin's (D-Mich.) press secretary, Phil Shandler, and the next checking her baggage for a flight to St. Louis, escorted by Suzanne Nelson, a representative of a group called "Friends of the West." Liuba Vashchenko's luggage tags bear Nelson's Seattle address.
Accompanying her was her 29-year-old sister, Nadya, who smiled pleasantly and speaks no English. "It's a little difficult for her," said the older sister. "She doesn't understand everything, and I don't always have time to explain to her what's going on. I have to say, 'Come with me now. Come with me here . . .' "
Liuba Vashchenko's English seems remarkably good, although she learned it in a basement from assorted textbooks and irregular conversations with native English speakers. But it was part of how she kept herself going.
"From the very beginning, I had the Bible," she said. She also had the help of a Marine guard named Steve Holland. "He would read it in English and then I would read it. He would correct my mistakes. Then I would read it in Russian just so I would know the text."
Someone else gave her a textbook designed for non-English speakers learning the language. Holland would correct her exercises when he had the time.
"When I started with Steve, we could not speak to each other," she said. "We had to write to each other."
Reading the Bible was something she always did anyway, well before her embassy stay. "It's too hard to live on the Earth without reading the Bible and asking God for help," she said.
If she wasn't studying at the embassy, she was reading the letters sent to her. She also baby-sat for the children of embassy staffers and did some sewing.
"I think when a person is busy, the time flies," she said with a soft, husky laugh, momentarily surprised and delighted with having seized the English idiom.
Her political acumen is surprisingly sharp, honed perhaps by all those meetings with visiting politicians and the determination to better her situation.
Around her swirled an array of well-wishers and emissaries of public-interest groups, competing with each other for a piece of credit in this happy-ending epic tale. Privately, people spoke of some who are hurt because they were not given due credit for their efforts and they spoke of some who had been late to jump on the Vashchenko bandwagon. Liuba Vashchenko, unperturbed and unruffled, spoke of them all with deference and warmth, noting to a visitor how she had recently tried to call an American woman, who had helped the Vashchenkos, to wish her a happy birthday. "I never forget birthdays," Vashchenko said.
In the beginning U.S. Embassy officials tried to persuade the Pentecostalists to leave their building in Moscow.
"They kind of understandably presented a problem for the embassy," said Leslie Powell, a staff aide to Sen. Levin, who visited the family in 1979 with Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.). Levin introduced legislation, never passed, that would have made the family U.S. residents. "Originally it was forbidden to give them embassy food," Powell said. "They were given food by embassy people who stood in Russian food lines for it. The conditions were miserable to start with . . . They didn't have mail privileges and couldn't send mail out. At first, whenever they were interviewed--spring, summer, fall or winter--they had to go into an outdoor area to talk to journalists."
"I'm very grateful to the American government for having patience and allowing us to stay until the problem was resolved," said Liuba Vashchenko. "The members of my family did not want to stay--it became necessary to stay.
"Sometimes it was not so nice and not so soft," she said, "but, please, I don't want to talk about that . . ."
If she is bitter or still recovering from the experience, she didn't say so. "Everyone has sometimes problems or difficulties," she said. "We were trying to be as close as possible."
At National Airport, she was greeted by a reporter who visited her in Moscow a year and a half ago to write about the family's plight.
"I remember the last time we talked, I thought I wouldn't see you this quickly," he said to her.
"You think it is quickly?" she asked in a soft voice, her eyebrows raising slightly. "Maybe for you it is quickly," she conceded politely.