MOSCOW — "I just can't believe it," Vladimir Slepak said Wednesday, just minutes after he had been told that his 17-year wait for a visa to leave the Soviet Union was over.
Slepak, the Jewish refusenik who has waited longer than anyone else to leave, said he felt as if he were watching someone else receive approval to emigrate. Since he and his wife, Mariya, were first denied permission to go to Israel in 1970, they have watched thousands of others leave the Soviet Union.
The big, bearded Slepak, 59, decided to celebrate at a farewell party for Ida Nudel, 55, who had waited almost as long for her exit visa. Nudel, who has been waiting 16 years to emigrate and who leaves the Soviet Union today, announced the Slepaks' good news to a crowd of 80 persons who had gathered at a Moscow restaurant to bid her goodby.
The Soviet approval for Slepak's departure came despite the inclusion of his name on a list of eight people who were told that they would never be allowed to leave the country because they know state secrets.
Slepak says that the excuse is a joke, that he worked as a radio engineer so long ago that radios still used vacuum tubes instead of transistors.
In recent weeks, Soviet authorities have been granting exit visas to such veteran refuseniks as Nudel, Josef Begun, Viktor Brailovsky and others who have waited for more than a decade to leave the country.
Some, although not all, had been turned down on grounds they had access to secrets, so others in the same category have renewed hopes of emigrating.
About 5,000 Soviet Jews have been given permission to leave the country this year, compared to fewer than 1,000 in 1986. Yet the number for 1987 so far is less than 10% of the 51,000 Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the peak year of 1979.
The increase this year apparently reflects a Kremlin decision to get rid of long-waiting refuseniks who have attracted attention of Western sympathizers to their plight. A new law that took effect last Jan. 1, however, generally allows only those with close relatives living abroad to emigrate.
Slepak, a familiar figure at street demonstrations in Moscow during the early 1970s, was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia near the Mongolian border for hanging a banner outside his window in 1978 that proclaimed: "Let Us Go to Israel."
Mariya Slepak, who suffered from ulcers at the time, received a suspended sentence.
Last April, the Slepaks staged a 17-day hunger strike to mark the 17th anniversary of their application to emigrate. Their sons, Alexander and Leonid, joined the protest in the United States, where they had emigrated in 1978 and 1979.
The senior Slepaks have not seen their sons since then.
Slepak's father, a strong believer in the Communist Party, died of a heart attack when he heard that Slepak had been convicted of "malicious hooliganism" and sentenced to exile.
Despite years of refusals, Slepak recently predicted that he would be granted an exit visa as a Soviet good will gesture in advance of the next superpower summit, now expected to occur before the end of the year.
In a related development, Soviet police and plainclothesmen Wednesday night broke up a demonstration by refuseniks and cut the cables of U.S. television crews covering the protest outside a government broadcasting studio.
At least a dozen demonstrators were shoved into a bus and driven away, witnesses said. All are believed to have been freed later in the night.