Many in the audience wept as Aishe Seytmuratova told the stories of harassment, forced displacement, arrests, suffering and persecution of other sorts.
Seytmuratova, a Crimean Tatar from the Soviet Union, spun her tales at the International Sakharov Hearings, organized by emigre Soviet dissidents to take public testimony on the conditions they deplore in the motherland.
The Sakharov hearings were held in a hearing room of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, but the participants turned that typically Washingtonian space, so big, so grand, so formal, into a slice of Russia.
There was "testimony" from many of the famous dissidents of recent years, most of whom now live in Israel and the West. But perhaps more interesting were the stories of people like Aishe Seytmuratova, who were not famous dissidents when they lived in the Soviet Union, but who have brought emotional or intriguing tales with them into emigration.
Not all of them were grim. An Armenian, Hambartsum Khigatian, for example, reduced the crowd of several hundred to uncontrollable laughter with his description of his experiences as a factory worker in Soviet Armenia, where working too hard could be a greater sin than not working enough.
Friderich Neznansky, a former Soviet lawyer, told the hearings he had seen official figures during his career as a prosecutor saying there were 10,358 political prisoners in the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1977, and that 2,660,425 people were convicted of crimes of all kinds in 1976. Both figures are Soviet state secrets.
Soviet justice, Neznansky argued, is quixotic and unpredictable, because it is administered according to the wishes of the communist party, not by any rule book. He recounted the story of a worker named Popov, who was brought before a peoples' court in his ball-bearing factory accused of stealing "an inoperative typewriter."
Popov was sentenced to a year in jail, a much harsher penalty than could have been expected. But the explanation for this was easy, Neznansky said. A week before that trial the communist party boss of the city of Moscow had met with judicial officials and warned them that he wanted to speak personally to any judge who gave a jail sentence of less than one year.
This is the third biannual session of the Sakharov hearings, named for Andrei D. Sakharov, the elder stateman of the dissidents in Moscow and Nobel laureate who once helped invent the Soviet hydrogen bomb.
Financed by unidentified private individuals and the AFL-CIO, the hearings are intended to draw public attention for specific dissidents as well as general conditions in the Soviet Union.
So the participants sent an appeal to the United Nations on behalf of all Crimean Tatars, and also heard a letter written last month by Irina Orlov, the wife of imprisoned dissident Yuri Orlov, reporting on her annual visit to him in prison camp.
Orlov, she wrote, is in poor physical condition, suffering from back and head pain, numbness in his limbs, decaying teeth and inadequate diet. "The authorities are gradually killing him," she wrote.
Orlov is a popular figure among the dissidents, a spirited activist whose present term in prison camp stems from his participation in the Moscow group established to monitor Soviet compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki agreements on European security.
For participants in the hearings these meetings were an opportunity for nostalgic reunions, and also the cause of bitter frustration. Participants were livid with the Washington newspapers and national media for all but ignoring them, and a Russian-speaking reporter who appeared at the event was barraged with hostile comments and hurt expressions.
Some of the frustration bubbled out openly. A veteran of dissident battles in the early 1970s, for example, Natalia Gorbanyevskaya, took advantage of a news conference at Friday's session to denounce the Russian-language service of the Voice of America as little better than official Soviet radio.
Natalia Solzhenitsyn, wife of the author, told the hearings that in her husband's view, President Carter's human rights policy "has been reduced to mere words."
Countless of the emigre dissidents lectured Americans at the hearings on American policy toward the Soviet Union. One appeal, signed by three dozen participants at the meeting, was a letter to Sen. henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) praising the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which denied trade benefits to the Soviets unless they allowed unhappy citizens to emigrate.
While witnesses testified before a group of "commissioners," including former government officials, labor leaders and prominent human rights activists, many of the participants stood in the hallway, buzzing in typically intense Russian conversations.
"The real meeting is out here," one former Muscovite confided. "This is where we can talk like Russians."