The telephone call that Woodford McClellan had hoped to get for so long came from Moscow yesterday at 8:15 a.m., when his Soviet wife jubilantly told him that Soviet authorities have agreed to give her ailing daughter an exit visa, allowing them both to come to the United States.
McClellan, a 51-year-old University of Virginia professor, said he hopes that the call from Irina McClellan, 47, will mark the end of 11 1/2 years of false starts and failed hopes, and the rebuilding of the life that they had together for a brief time.
"We've become total strangers in a sense," said McClellan, who has not seen his wife since 1974, when they were married and spent eight months together. Asked whether that meant he was nervous about the reunion, he replied, "You'd better believe it, but's a good kind of nervousness."
He quoted a friend whom he said told him recently: "You have a unique opportunity to meet the same person twice."
McClellan said his wife told him she heard Friday that the Soviet exit visas for herself and her daughter, Yelena Kochetkov, 26, would be ready on Thursday.
The American visas will be issued two hours later, Irina McClellan told him.
"I suggested she come the next day," said McClellan, who met his wife in August 1972 when he accompanied a Canadian tour group to the Soviet Union as a Russian history lecturer and saw her again on two short trips in 1973.
But he said there are a number of things she must do before leaving, such as turning her apartment back to the state.
"And there is the bittersweet process of saying goodbye to so many friends," he said.
In Moscow, Irina McClellan told Washington Post writer Celestine Bohlen that she and her daughter would leave at the end of January. "I am very very tired, but, of course, I am pleased" she said. "But I am afraid of new surprises. There are so many things to do. And I want to do them as quickly as possible."
An English teacher, Irina McClellan was one of nine spouses whom Soviet authorities said in November could leave the Soviet Union and join their American husbands. So far at least two, Helle Frejus and Tatyana Bondareva, have been reunited with their husbands in Los Angeles and Baltimore.
But Irina McClellan's departure was delayed when she was informed that her daughter from a previous marriage would not be able to leave. McClellan said that neither of them would agree to that. Kochetkov had an ulcer, he said, that "the emotional stress clearly exacerbated . . . . "
When they return, McClellan said, they want to spend time trying to help other Soviets to leave.
Now that the ordeal appears to be over, the question McClellan is most asked is: How did he and his wife kept from losing faith during those years apart?
"What we had in the beginning . . . was so right for both of us, that that sustained us in the early years," he said, pausing, "and of course in the later years. But also, when it became clear that the Soviets were making an example of us by keeping us apart, we were determined . . . . It was a shared ordeal."