MOSCOW, SEPT. 9 -- Since a Soviet official called Monday to tell Josef Begun he could leave for the West, his activist friend and would-be emigre Naum Meiman has stayed close to the telephone in his apartment here. In the past two days, there have been 18 calls, all from friends, but none from the visa office.
Meiman denies that he is waiting for word from Soviet authorities granting him permission to leave. At 76, after 12 years of rejection of his applications to emigrate, he feels he has passed the phase of anxious expectation. "If a man is always caught in a time of hope and waiting, it destroys him," he said, leaning back in his rocking chair.
And yet, when the telephone rang, he jumped up anxiously.
It was another friend.
In a year when the emigration of Soviet Jews has increased sharply, including many who have battled for up to 15 years to leave for the West or for Israel, Meiman is among the oldest of the Soviets still waiting for approval to live abroad.
His case symbolizes the plight of those who have not been selected, the so-called refuseniks whose applications are rejected amid official Soviet promises that emigration will increase under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.
Of all the hardships endured by Soviet dissidents who fight to leave the country, including the loss of jobs and sometimes imprisonment, Meiman's 12-year vigil seems punctuated by the most bitter experiences.
During his long wait, some of his closest friends and family members, including his only child, have departed. This year brought the harshest blow -- the death of his wife Inna in Washington, D.C., only three weeks after she won a long battle to emigrate.
Most of Meiman's friends were swept out of the country in one or another of the emigration waves that have ebbed and flowed over the past two decades; emigration has diminished greatly in recent years from a peak of more than 50,000 in 1979.
A founding member of the Helsinki Watch, the unofficial group of Soviet activists who monitor their government's human rights record, Meiman was close to other members including Natan Shcharansky and Yuri Orlov. Both men were taken from prison last year and flown to the West.
"We were all in the house and the struggle together," Meiman said. "When they left, part of me left."
With the imminent departure of friends like Begun, who received permission on Monday to emigrate after 16 years of waiting, Meiman's group of friends nearly will have vanished. "The circle has gotten smaller," he said in an interview. "I am practically alone in it now."
By far the most excruciating experience in his 12 years of waiting, however, was the period between 1983 and last winter when his wife, dying slowly of cancer, fought a long battle to go abroad for medical treatment. "I cannot explain what she went through for the last two years," he said. "It gave me deep physical pain just to be with her. A human being is not supposed to bear those kinds of things."
When a plea by former senator Gary Hart to Gorbachev finally brought results last December, it was too late. Inna Meiman left for treatment in the United States last Jan. 19 and died of medical complications in Washington three weeks later.
In discussing the case, the neutral tone of voice Meiman adopts when discussing Soviet authorities gradually gives way to deep feelings of bitterness. "This country killed my wife by delaying her departure for so long," he said. "I counted the days and the pain. The experience has made living here intolerable."
As a refusenik left out of the latest group of 15 who gained approval to leave, Meiman is hardly alone. By western estimates, the cases of those consistently denied emigration visas runs into the hundreds, and perhaps thousands.
U.S. officials have appealed to Soviet authorities for leniency in many of the cases, including Vladimir Slepak, a Moscow Jew refused an exit visa for 16 years who celebrated Passover with Secretary of State George P. Shultz here last April.
Like Meiman, many refuseniks have had their applications rejected on the grounds that they possess state secrets. Meiman, a mathematician by training, worked on the Soviet Union's fledgling atomic bomb project in the 1950s.
Although his work in this sensitive area ended in 1955, and Gorbachev has said that the statute of limitations on state secrets should be less than 10 years, Soviet officials still base their rejection of Meiman's application for emigration on the contention that he knows classified information.
In the past year, the emigration of Soviet Jews to the West has risen to over 4,000, more than four times the 1986 figure.
During a long conversation in the sitting room of his apartment, Meiman was quick to dismiss questions about the effect of the new trend on his own chances to emigrate.
"They seem to pick and choose who can go more or less by chance," he said. "And at my age you can't count on being the one to be picked. I used to live next to the telephone but a person can't live in that way."
After returning from answering the telephone call from a friend and falling into a long silence, Meiman added an afterthought: "The human being is very complicated," he said. "Maybe something really has happened in my unconscious."