What began as a dinner of friends to honor departing Soviet Vladimir Voinovich instead was transformed in an instant of anguish last night into a melancholy farewell echoing the tales of Russia's master storytellers.
More than 50 Muscovites loyal to the satirist during his years of confrontation with the state had gathered for an evening of reminiscence and songs at the studio loft of artist Boris Meserer.
Voinovich, 48, is scheduled to leave for West Germany Sunday with his wife, Irina, and their daughter, on Soviet passports good for a year. But as always with Soviet citizens in official disfavor, as Vonovich has been for more than a decade, it is uncertain whether he will be allowed to return.
Despite the candles, festive make shift tables, platters of home-cooked food and Russian good cheer, detectable tension settled early over the gathering and focused on his two children by a previous marriage, who are to stay behind.
Marina, 21, and Pavel, 18, were clearly struggling to maintain their composure. Their presence made wrenchingly clear the risks ahead for Voinovich, a stocky man with an ebullient manner, whose satiric novel lampooning Soviet secret police and the military, "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin," has gained wide Western readership.
Deepening the sense of shared embattlement was the fact that many of those present also are friends of two other prominent Soviet writers who have left the Soviet Union this year, Vasili Aksyonov and Lev Kopelev, and relatives of the Kopelevs were among the guests. Some of the talk was of how the two men are faring in the West, made so remote by the Soviet Union's closed borders, mail interception, and the difficulties of making or receiving international telephone calls.
The mood lifted briefly when a well-known television actress began singing satiric songs. Then came a folk song from the rich past of Russia's romantic laments. Voinovich, talking quietly with some friends nearby, suddenly turned, cast a stricken glance toward his family, and rushed from the room in tears.
There was a stunned silence, and then murmurs of sympathy as the guests realized what had happened. Voinovich's wife hurried to comfort him.
In time, he returned, red-eyed and subdued, and rejoined the party. Balladeer Bulat Okudzhava sang some contemporary songs of mourning, which seemed to make it easier for the guests to share their friend's burdens, which he had hidden from them once again.
But all understood his situation: unable to publish in his own country, and facing threats from the KGB secret police of possible internal exile or imprisonment for speaking up in defense of banished dissident leader Andrei Sakharov, and other acts of conscience, Voinovich was given no choice but to emigrate.
"It hurts every one of us, right here," said a retired writer, pointing to her heart.