Moscow — They sat at a wooden picnic table at the far end of the asphalt courtyard of the US Embassy in Moscow. Small children from embassy families played loudly under their feet and in the tree above them.
Once the group was a curiosity: seven Russian Christian dissidents, dramatically sheltering inside the embassy grounds from Soviet guards.
But now children play around them and some embassy staffers wander by with scarcely a glance. They have become almost part of the landscape.
Still unsolved, however, is the fundamental challenge they pose to Soviet atheism and to American Christianity.
On June 27, the so-called Siberian seven will have been inside the embassy grounds for two full years. After 16 years of trying to emigrate to the United States to worship God in their own Pentecostal, evangelical way, they rushed in past the guards that stand at embassy gateways 24 hours a day.
For two years they have resisted all embassy pressure to get them to leave. They insist that they will be beaten, tortured, or even killed if they so much as set foot outside embassy territory.
A few days ago, embassy consular officers asked the Siberian seven what they would of if they were given air tickets to Helsinki or Paris, rather than to the US.
At once their hopes rose. They assumed the embassy had been in touch with Soviet officials and that their departure was imminent. When Scandinavian correspondents came to interview them, the group plied them with questions about Helsinki.
But embassy sources told this newspaper there had been no contact with Soviet officials. The conversation with the consular officials had been "part of an ongoing dialogue involing discussion of a number of possible alternatives to see what the group's reactions would be in case any of them did materialize."
In a long talk with this correspondent, Augusta Vashchenko, wife of Pyotr Vashchenko and mother of three grown daughters also at the US Embassy, said she had asked the consular officials why they had raised the possibility of Helsinki or France.
She herself thought it was because of a meeting she heard about on the Voice of America shortware radio, on Capitol Hill in Washington May 21. It discussed the fate of Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov (internally exiled to the city of Gorky in January), other dissidents, and the Siberian seven, she said.
Her daughters, listening to our conversation, said they were puzzled. "What's behind it?" they asked. "Why talk about Helsinki if something isn't happening?"
For some months, the seven have hoped that the Soviet authorities might expel them or let them leave before the Moscow Olympics open on July 19.
They reason that the Soviets, who have been exiling and arresting dissidents so they can't mingle with overseas visitors to the games, don't want foreigners flocking to the embassy to see the group.
The case of the seven -- the five Vashchenkos plus Maria Chymkhalova and her teen-aged son Timofei, all from the Siberian city of Chernogorsk -- has been attracting more attention in the US and Western Europe in recent months.
A book entitled "The Siberian Seven" by British author John Pollack has been published in the United Kingdom, the US, and in Europe, in several languages, Mr. Pollack states in his prologue that the group provided more than a quarter of a million words about its experiences, as well as official documents naming specific KGB agents the seven say have harassed them and other members of their families.
The case raises basic issues uncomfortable for both Soviets and Americans.
For the Soviets, it is an emigration issue involving Russians rather than Jews. ("Jew" is a separate nationality in the USSR, and is so marked on internal passports.) More than 30,000 other Pentecostalists have openly appealed to leave the country. If the Vashchenkos succeed in leaving, the floodgates could open and even more Pentecostalists apply -- and perhaps other Christians and human-rights campaigners.
So far Moscow has steadfastly refused to let the seven leave. Last October if offered to let the group return home to chernogorsk to await processing of exit applications, and said the seven would not be punished for entering the embassy. The group flatly refused, saying it simply didn't believe the Soviet word.
The Vashchenkos have an invitation from a US clergyman, the Rev. Cecil Williamson, to live in Selma, Alabama. It has been processed by the Soviet Embassy in Washington. But since then Moscow has changed its regulations and says the group can leave only if invited by a close relative abroad -- which it does not have.
For the US, the challenge is twofold.
The US government is apprehensive. If the group leaves the USSR from the US Embassy, the embassy could be beseiged by other applicants -- and mob scenes may be repeated in East European capitals as well.
Western Christians in Moscow see a second basic issue: whether American Christians can get together and help their fellow believers in the USSR the way US Jews work ceaselessly on behalf think much more should be done to galvanize US public opinion. Yet the poor state of detente today means less incentive for the Soviets to take positive action.