In the evening I went to a party. The guests were journalists and diplomats and a woman who was neither. She was young and slight, with dark hair cut short. She spoke English with an American accent. As she drank wine, her V's became W's and vice versa. It became apparent that she was Russian.

A diplomat, diplomatically excusing himself for prying, asked her who she was and she said, "Maybe you have heard of me. I am the Russian wife of an American who is trying to divorce me because I cannot leave the country."

Of course. Like a newsreel in the mind, the stories ran across my screen and I recalled -- did I see it on TV? -- the California courtroom where an American had come to ask for a divorce. After seven years of marriage, seven years of separation, he apparently had had enough and wanted out.

A letter from his wife arrived from Moscow begging the judge not to grant the divorce. Her argument was plaintive: "My life will be in danger . . . divorce will leave me helpless and without protection." The U.S. Embassy could no longer intercede in her behalf. She signed the letter with her married name -- Elena V. Kaplan.

With that, Kaplan's husband, a ski instructor who for some reason changed his last name to Talanov, retreated from the courtroom. That was August, and since then Kaplan herself has not heard from him. The letters that used to come three times a week have ceased; the telephone calls, too. With a freedom that is unheard of here, Gary Talanov, 31, has disappeared -- a free man shackled only to his conscience.

But Elena Kaplan is shackled to the state, which, for its own reasons, will not let her go. The bureaucracy says that her parents oppose her emigration and the law requires their approval. It says that her parents, both mathematicians, know state secrets. If so, the secrets are now seven years old. Kaplan says she has not seen her parents since her marriage.

Elena Kaplan, having been refused permission to emigrate, is a refusenik -- a rare non-Jewish one at that. By either relative or absolute standards, there are few refuseniks of any kind -- Jews who are supposed to be able to rejoin relatives in Israel, spouses seeking to reunite a marriage. Numbers aside, they define the character of the Soviet Union. In some ways, the revolution restored the status quo and democratized it: Now everyone is a serf tied to the land.

"What would you do if you were my husband?" Kaplan asked me. I tried to duck the question. "What would you do?" she persisted. I said I was glad not to be him and have to make such a decision. She eyed me coldly. "You know nothing about this country." There was no "decision" to be made. The question was not one of only love or separation, but survival. Without her American husband, she would be lost.

Immediately after her marriage, Kaplan had to leave Moscow University, where she had met her husband. For a time, she said, she could find no work, and the government -- the only landlord there is -- would not give her an apartment. She slept in train stations; she lost weight. She was hospitalized. She found work in a textile factory in distant Kalinin. Now, back in Moscow, she has crossed the line, become a full-blown refusenik. She works when she can as a translator and researcher, sometimes for American publications.

In two of my talks with refuseniks, there was a moment when their eyes seemed to water and they appeared overwhelmed by their own plight. I thought that happened with Vladimir Feltsman, the celebrated pianist who has been a Jewish refusenik for seven years. For most of the interview he was defiant of the authorities. "I am not afraid of them," he said.

But when asked whether he was ever overcome by depression, he said, "sometimes" and then his mood seemed to change. His wife encouraged him to say more. "Talk about it," she said, but he really would not. "The first years were difficult," was about all he would say. His eyes seemed to moisten and the instant I left, Feltsman must have bounded to the piano. Music seeped through the door and spilled down a dark stairwell.

Something similar seemed to happen with Kaplan. She was strong and indignant, often able to laugh at the sick joke life had played on her. But for a moment she seemed overwhelmed by her plight, and her eyes appeared to water. The reality, after all, is awful. Her marriage had turned out to be a sham. She loved a man. But she was already married to the state.