With Yelena, 4 generations of Russians all under one roof

IT was nothing, really. At least not to the handful of reporters asking Yelena Bonner's son-in-law about the latest Soviet film clip of his father-in-law, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. But as a weary Efrem Yankelevich responded to questions in the living room, two relatives -- united by Yelena Bonner, yet separated by history -- passed virtually unnoticed on the stairway behind him.

Mrs. Bonner's mother, her weathered face etched with memories of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and 17 years in forced labor camps, climbed slowly down the stairs, pausing after each step to gaze silently at the room. Moments later, her 10-year-old great-granddaughter -- heading in the opposite direction -- peeked in at the reporters, grinned, and dashed up the stairs.

A minor detail, certainly, but not insignificant. For their two lives -- one tied to a Russian past, the other to an American future -- are the bookends between which the history of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner has been written. And now Mrs. Bonner's visit to this tree-lined Boston suburb, the scattered pages of their four-generation Russian history have come together.

Efrem and Tatiana Yankelevich's modest two-story home -- filled with old Russian books and artifacts, worn furniture, and a brand new videocassette recorder -- now houses nine family members, including Mrs. Bonner; Ruf Bonner, Yelena's mother; Efrem and Tatiana, Yelena's daughter; their two children, 12-year-old Matvei and 10-year-old Anya; Alexei Semyonov, Yelena's son, and his wife, Liza; and their two-year-old daughter, Alexandra.

Just being able to see her daughter again has answered one of Ruf Bonner's biggest wishes. But now, almost six years since Sakharov was exiled to Gorky and she was flown to the United States, another wish remains: She wants to return with Yelena to the Soviet Union.

Despite the painful memories, she longs for her homeland. And as she stares out the dining room window, waiting for her daughter to return from a visit to an area doctor, one can almost see the past in her penetrating eyes and gaunt figure.

Her husband, an enthusiastic Bolshevik whom she married just four years after the revolution, fell victim to one of Joseph Stalin's purges in 1937. That same year, she was arrested by Stalin's agents and imprisoned in a labor camp, where she toiled until 1954. Since then, her life has been relatively comfortable, though her daughter's marriage to Sakharov in 1970 and the couple's escalating dissident action have brought the family nothing but persecution, she said recently. In fact, the fear of persecut ion in the Soviet Union compelled her relatives to extend her ``temporary'' visit, which began in 1980. Ruf Bonner is still a Soviet citizen.

Still, she wants nothing more than to go back with her daughter. ``It's difficult for her to relate to this country,'' says Efrem Yankelevich, explaining that the language barrier and the lack of friends have been her greatest frustrations. ``She's not quite happy here, because she wants to be understood.''

Efrem's daughter, Anya, who was only two years old when her parents decided to flee the Soviet Union in December 1977, feels quite the opposite. She and her 12-year-old brother, Matvei, are wholly enmeshed in American culture. When asked if she would like to go back to Russia, she pauses, then responds carefully, ``I'd rather they come here than me go there.''

While Anya's English -- and Russian -- are precise, her memories of the Soviet Union are vague and mostly defined by family photographs. The girl with a page-boy haircut and tan corduroy dress says she only remembers ``watching the `Three Little Pigs' '' and traveling to the family summer house outside Moscow.

Her parents make an effort to reinforce her Russian roots. ``Matvei and Anya are American schoolchildren,'' acknowledges Mr. Yankelevich. ``But at home, they speak Russian, they read Russian. It's a chance for them to be fluent in two cultures.''

But a deeper reason is partly that he is unable to get into the full swing of American culture. ``I can't imagine speaking to my own children in English,'' says the MIT-trained engineer, who now works full-time fighting for the freedom of his mother- and father-in-law. ``I still can communicate my feelings and thoughts best in Russian.''

Indeed, Yankelevich feels strapped between cultures. ``I believe that I am American,'' he says, ``but I will never be able to feel the culture fully. I came here too late in my life.''

The Yankeleviches and Alexei Semyonov emigrated to the United States in 1977, after the Soviet Union began to pressure them in retaliation for dissident protests by Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.

Mr. Semyonov's wife, Liza, the only family member to see Mrs. Bonner in the past four years, came to the United States after Sakharov's 1981 hunger strike in Gorky, the ``closed'' city 250 miles east of Moscow. Semyonov himself staged a hunger strike in Washington three months ago to free the exiled couple. Most observers feel his efforts may have been a catalyst for getting Bonner released.

But Efrem Yankelevich also credits last month's summit meeting and the unflagging press coverage over the past several months. The family has grown weary of the attention but is grateful for the effects it has brought, he says.

As Yelena Bonner settles in for her three-month stay, it remains to be seen whether the US public will get a true glimpse of the fiery human rights activist behind the placid smile that now adorns her face. So far, Tatiana says, her lively character has been hidden because of her promise not to talk to the press.

But it seems the true meaning of her visit will not come from her public exposure. Rather, it is in the joyous reunion of her family and their resilience to political oppression.

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