Five political prisoners released on Friday from the Soviet Union brought the shaved heads and gaunt complexions of the Gulag Archipelago today into a bewildering American media event -- a New York news conference.
The five could not have been more startled or more startling if they had just stepped off a spaceship from Mars. They made statements and answered questions, but the big news was simply their haunting presence in the elegant meeting room of an East Side hotel.
The five men were exchanged on Friday for two convicted Soviet spies, an unprecedented swap of Soviet citizens for other Soviet citizens that these men all had difficulty accepting as reality.
In private interviews after the tumultous news conference, three of the five related in detail the astounding story of their sudden release. None knew until they were taken aboard a Soviet jetliner in Moscow Friday morning that they were coming to the United States.
At the press conference, spokesman Eduard Duznetsov, 40, read a general statement of thanks to President Carter and the United States on which all five could agree. But they are a disparate group, representing four distinct strains of the complex Soviet dissident movement, and they could not agree on a detailed common pronouncement.
"Yesterday we were still deprived of our rights," their statement said.
"Today we are here in a country which for more than 200 years has been a symbol of freedom... that fact is as incredible as if we had found ourselves on the moon...
"We still feel somewhat ill at ease wearing civilian clothing. We still have not grown accustomed to free faces that express only good will. We still cannot believe that all the burdens of prison camp are behind us..."
The five -- who stayed up late here on their first night out of prison drafting the statement together -- said the West should continue to press the Soviet Union for "guarantees" that it is serious about improving East-West relations. The best guarantee would be a "broad liberalization of internal policy in the Soviet Union," they said.
But responding to questions later, Kuznetsov and others said they did not consider their release a sign that fundamental Soviet policy had changed. Kuznetsov said a desire to promote the impending new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) probably led the authorities to set them tree.
This was one of the few substantive points made at the press conference, much of which was devoted 'See DISSIDENTS, A17, Col. 1> to reading and rereading the five men's statement for the television cameras -- there were nearly a dozen in the room. No line of questining could be pursued, and frustrated reporters began shouting queries from around the room.
"Were there beatings?" one reporter yelled out again and again in an effort to learn something about prison conditions in the Soviet Union. "How about their weight loss?" the same reporter yelled.
Pastor Georgi P. Vins, a Baptist activist from Kiev, described his release as "a real miracle sent by God." As he spoke he displayed a Russian bible that he had been given by a church group here -- a book he had not seen for five years, he said.
Unlike his comrades, Vins has a full head of hair, mustache and beard. He has been out of prison a few months, though under sentence of internal exile.
Valentin Moroz, a histroian and Ukrainian nationalist, said in Ukrainian. "I beg you not to call me a Russian dissident.... I am a Ukrainian dissident." He spoke of removing "the occupiers of the Ukraine" -- meaning the Soviet government -- "with bayonets."
Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits, 51, are members of the Jewish emigration movement, about which both spoke. The Soviet Union accused them in 1970 of plotting to hijack a Soviet airliner so they could flee to Israel.
Alexander Ginzburg, 42, active in the human rights movement in Moscow since the late 1960s, spoke about the fund to aid the families of political prisoners which his friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn established and Ginzburg administered until his arrest last year.
In the press conference, the newly freed men gave only a sketchy account of their release from prison camps, but later Kuznetsov, Dymshits, and Ginzburg provided more details.
Ginzburg revealed that on Wednesday, his last day in the Mordovian labor camp where he, Kuznetsov and Moroz were being held, 11 inmates sent a threat to the Soviet prosecutors to begin a hunger strike in three days. They demanded adequate medical attention at once for Alexei Tikhy, a Ukrainian dissident who had fallen gravely ill at the camp.
"He may be dead for all I know." Ginzburg said today.
Dymshits recounted the events of last Tuesday in Camp 389/35 in the Urals not far from the industrial city of Perm.
After his breakfast of kasha (rough porridge) he was working at the metal lathe where he spent eight hours every day. At about noon the prison superintendent called him in to show him two telegrams.
"They were from my comrades" in the hijacking incident, he recalled -- five members of that group who were released from prison two weeks ago in a gesture that coincided with the presence in Moscow of a delegation of American members of Congress. "I felt like this was a sign that more releases could follow." Dymshits recalled. "I was very happy."
Dymshits went back to work on his lathe. When his shift was over. "I went back to theliving zone of the camp and had supper" -- kasha and a slice of salted fish. "Then I sat by myself and read.
"At about 7 a guard came and told me to get my things together for a trip. Suddenly I really felt it might be possible that I would get out."
Dymshits was thoroughly searched. The authorities seized all his books, personal letters, family photographs and other belongings, leaving him only the prison uniform on his back and some extra underwear.
A special prison car took him to a railroad station: "I don't know which one." A regular passenger train carried him to Perm, where he was transferred to the city jail.
Two hours later, he was handcuffed and put aboard a plane to Moscow, accompanied by several guards. In Moscow, the guards took him to the notorious Lefortovo Prison, which the KGB uses for in terrogations. He arrived there at 11 a.m. Wednesday and was put in a cell with common criminals.
At 5:30 a.m. Friday, Dymshits was taken to the office of the warden of Lefortovo, where the warden and two men in civilian clothes were waiting
"One of them told me that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. had stripped me of my Soviet citizenship and that I would have to leave the country within the next two hours."
Dymshits' wife and daughter were already living in Israel, but the official asked him anyway if he wanted to take his immediate family with him to be sent. Dymshits said he would like to visit cousms in Kharkov and Leningrad before leaving. "That will not be permitted." he was told.
Instead, he was given Polish-made shoes and a suit and told to change quickly. He was taken to the airport and driven right up to a jetliner, then led on board. Only when two diplomats from the American embassy came aboard and explained the swap did Dymshits know what had happened or where he was going. He also saw his old friend Kuznetsov on the plane, but the 25 KGB men who accompanied the five prisoners to New York refused to let them talk to each other during the flight.
Kuznetsov told a similar story, but said his knowledge of what was happening came sooner -- when he was searched before leaving his camp, A KGB Colonel named Romanov asked Kuznetsov for his copy of a new edition of the works of Mikhail Bulgakov, a brilliant but seldom-published Russian whose writings infuriated Josef Stalin.
You can have the book if you know I won't be coming back to camp, Kuznetsov told Romanov in effect. The colonel winked and took the volume. "He sold me a state secret for the book," Kuznetsov recalled yesterday with a grin. CAPTION: Picture, Appearing at New York news conference: Alexander Ginzburg, Valentin Moroz, Eduard Kuznetsov, Georgi Vins and Mark Dymshits, AP