MOSCOW — When 76-year-old Naum Meiman calls a press conference, as he tends to do every few weeks, some of the busiest American journalists based in Moscow usually drop what they're doing and go.
Not that Meiman, a lonely widower, makes much news. On the contrary, his story has changed little in more than a decade.
But the journalists say they feel a moral obligation to show up when Meiman calls, because among the thousands of Soviet Jews who have been refused permission to emigrate, the case of this retired mathematician is among the cruelest and most bewildering.
Ostensibly, the authorities refuse to let Meiman leave because of classified calculations he performed for the Soviet nuclear weapons program while employed at the Institute for Physical Problems. Meiman concedes that he did secret work but points out that it was done more than 30 years ago "at the dawn of the atomic era."
"You don't have to be a scientist; you only have to have common sense to know that calculations done 30 years ago can't be sensitive or secret," he told a handful of correspondents at his latest press conference.
He left secret work in 1955. In 1975, when he applied to emigrate, he was forced to retire from another job. He has been a refusenik ever since.
For a correspondent who first met Meiman in 1977 and who returned recently to his second-floor apartment on the Maxim Gorky Embankment, the notion of being passed by took on new meaning.
Meiman greeted visitors in the same dim sitting room he had used 10 years earlier and sat at the same table strewn with documents typed in Russian and English on onion-skin paper. The beige wallpaper looked as if it might be new, but the cheap green drapes over a torn fishnet curtain were certainly not.
A small photograph of Meiman's late wife, Inna Kitrosskaya--they were married in 1981--was on the wall next to a familiar old mirror. Kitrosskaya died in Washington earlier this year, just three weeks after the Soviet authorities had finally allowed her to leave for cancer treatment. Meiman considers her a victim of Soviet intransigence, a martyr at age 53 to four years of fruitless struggle to obtain an exit permit that they hoped would save her life.
Meiman was not allowed to accompany his wife. When she died, he was barred from attending her funeral in Washington.
There is literally nothing left for him here. He has no relatives in the Soviet Union, and he is in poor health.
Meiman was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the so-called Helsinki Group, which was established unofficially to monitor Soviet performance under human rights commitments it had made under the 1975 Helsinki Agreements on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The group was disbanded in 1982 after all its members except Meiman were either exiled or jailed.
Wants to Go to Israel
Meiman has a married daughter by an earlier marriage living in Boulder, Colo., but he said he wants to go to Israel.
"I want to live the rest of my life in a free, democratic, Jewish state," he said.
He called his latest press conference to say he was given new hope by a statement made by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze at the recent meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
Shevardnadze quoted the words of former dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, who has criticized the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" program, and he commended Sakharov as having spoken "with the very highest authority."
Meiman has been estranged from Sakharov ever since the physicist was allowed to return from exile in Gorky and gave a conditional endorsement to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reform program; Meiman won't say why.
However, in his halting English, Meiman said the one-time spiritual leader of Soviet dissidents had previously spoken out in his defense.
Meiman quoted a 1977 letter in which Sakharov assured the Federation of American Scientists that "Meiman without any doubt possesses no information which might be classified as secret."
If Sakharov's opinion is so trusted by the Soviet authorities that Shevardnadze quotes it at the United Nations, then surely they must acknowledge his statement in another area where he is no less expert, a smiling Meiman said.
Fear and Pessimism
For all his bravado, however, the retired mathematician harbors a deep fear, and it came out at a chance meeting two weeks later at a going-away party for Ida Nudel, the latest in a growing list of refuseniks who have been permitted to emigrate under an apparent change of policy by Gorbachev.
Meiman, a reporter suggested, must be encouraged about his case in light of the new climate.
On the contrary, he replied, reflecting a deep pessimism bred by a lifetime of living in a system where arbitrariness is a tool of social control.
"They'll have to keep somebody," he said, "and I'm afraid it will be me."