IT'S EASY to understand why Russian teen-agers like this country. Our young people have great personal freedom, a variety of material goods and a life style that is markedly different from that available to youngsters in the Soviet Union. One doesn't even have to reach questions of political and religious freedom to know why a 16-year-old might prefer to stay here, though that no doubt plays a part too. Walter Polovchak, an immigrant from the Ukraine, was only 12 when he decided to remain in Chicago rather than return with his parents to his native country. And even though U.S. courts have held that he was improperly removed from his family's custody, he is still in the Windy City and fast approaching the magic age of 18 as the appellate courts continue to review his case with all deliberate lassitude.
Now a second youngster appears to have made a similar choice, but because his father is a high-ranking diplomat in the Soviet Embassy, the situation is far more complicated. Andrei Berezhkov is the 16-year-old who disappeared from his home last Wednesday and apparently sent letters both to President Reagan and to The New York Times expressing his desire to stay in this country rather than go back to school in Moscow. His parents say he returned to his Chevy Chase home Thursday morning--though they won't say where he is now and won't let any Americans talk to him. The embassy claims the letters were forged.
Americans feel strongly about political asylum, and our government has taken extraordinary steps to see that the boy is not removed from this country against his will. Unlike most refugees, however, Andrei was not fleeing from persecution but rather expressing a quite understandable preference for one society over another. By going public with these sentiments he has placed himself and his family in a position that can only be described as uncertain at best. Sentiment here is strong that he not be sent back to a situation where he will be penalized for stating his preference and perhaps embarrassing his country abroad. We also have strong beliefs in family ties, however, and can empathize with any parents--the Polovchaks, the Berezhkovs or the Joneses next door--whose teen-ager wants to strike out on his own.
The dilemma is all the more poignant because the choice made by or on behalf of this 16-year-old will have permanent effects. If the Soviet Union were a free society, if emigration were a real alternative, it would be easy to say "Go home for a couple of years with your parents and think it over. If you want to come back when you're 18 or 21, you'll be welcome." That's what would be done if the child were French or Brazilian or Indonesian. But we understand and we are profoundly concerned that if Andrei Berezhkov is sent back against his will, he may never be allowed to venture outside his own country again. It is because closed, repressive societies have tried to control citizens to this extent that these tragic cases arise in the first place. Divided families, strained international relations and ruined personal lives are the result.