Yulia Pessina of New Jersey would love to see her parents who live in the Soviet Union. But each time she has invited her mother to visit, the Soviet government has denied the exit visa. Alexander S. Volpin of Boston, Mass., says his mother tried several years ago to get a visa in Moscow, which would permit her to visit the United States. Soviet authorities told her to apply to emigrate to Israel if she wished to see her son.
Tamara and Daniel Horodysky of California went to the Soviet Union in 1977 as tourists, with the intention of visiting her relatives in the Ukraine. ``I had one hour with my grandfather in a crowded hotel,'' says Mrs. Horodysky. ``Even then, we had to sneak him in because Soviet citizens are not permitted in the tourist hotels.''
The Horodyskys, who wish their young daughters were able to know their cousins in the Soviet Union, want family visits to become an integral part of US-Soviet negotiations on human rights. The issue, they say, should find its place on the US agenda alongside concern about Soviet dissidents and emigres.
``There are people in the Soviet Union who do not want to emigrate, or cannot,'' Mr. Horodysky says. ``Visitation should be a separate issue.''
With that goal in mind, the Horodyskys 18 months ago founded a nonprofit organization called VISA (Visits International for Soviets and Americans). Working out of a home office in a middle-class neighborhood of Berkeley, Calif., the team contacts families who want to visit their families in the Soviet Union, writes newsletters, compiles statistics, and lobbies Congress and the White House.
Yulia Pessina, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in July 1980, says her mother has twice been refused a visa to the US. So, Ms. Pessina says, ``I'm going to apply for a visa to visit there. I have no hope, but I'm going to try.''
Even if she obtains a tourist visa, her best hope is that her parents could travel to Moscow to meet her while she was there.
The 11-year-old ``Helsinki Final Act,'' currently under review for compliance at an international conference in Vienna, sets the standard for cross-border family visits. ``The participating states will favorably consider applications for travel with the purpose of allowing persons to enter or leave their territory temporarily, and on a regular basis if desired, in order to visit members of their families,'' states the concluding document of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the Horodyskys say the issue has not received the attention it deserves. ``The Soviets do everything possible to keep relatives apart,'' Mr. Horodysky charges. ``The US, by its complacency on the issue, is accessory to the fact.''
If emigration gets more attention, it may be because emigrating is ``a more radical step,'' says Michael Novak, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ``Asking to emigrate from the Soviet Union invites punishment.''
But Mr. Novak, who was US ambassador to Switzerland for a meeting in Bern last spring on ``human contacts'' provisions of the Helsinki agreement, adds that the rights of people to freely visit their relatives must be respected by governments.
Novak says family visitation is one of issues on the agenda in the current talks in Vienna. While travel is tightly controlled in the Soviet Union, he notes, tourists and relatives ``come and go with relative ease'' in Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. ``They can't say they do this for socialist reasons.''
Between 20 million and 30 million Americans (one in 10) report that at least one grandparent was born in a country that is now a Warsaw Pact member. Efforts to build ties between the US and Soviet Union by promoting tourism, citizen diplomacy, and cultural exchange programs are helpful, but they largely ignore the existing ties between families, the Horodyskys say. Each year, about 1,000 Americans are allowed into the Soviet Union to actually stay with their relatives, and 1,500 Soviet citizens are allowed to visit family members in the US.
``In some ways, the Soviets dislike vists more than they dislike emigration,'' says Catherine Cosman, a staff member of the Helsinki Commission. An emigr'e leaves, ``and that's the last you see of that person.'' But visitation, particularly when Soviet citizens return home after traveling to the West, ``invites comparison with life in the United States, or in Paris, or other places,'' she says.
The Horodyskys are convinced the Soviet Union could benefit by loosening its strictures on family visits. Increased visitation would boost morale of the Soviet people, bring in more hard currency as Americans send money to pay travel costs of their relatives, and might in the long run even decrease the desire to emigrate, Mrs. Horodysky says.