MOSCOW — They came from the far ends of the Soviet Union--human rights activists and Jewish refuseniks, veterans of labor camps and Siberian exile and the wives and children of some still imprisoned--to hear the American President praise their courage and urge them on.
In one of the more unusual meetings held during a U.S.-Soviet summit, the hard core of the Soviet human rights movement spent nearly an hour with President and Mrs. Reagan at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence. They emerged praising the American chief executive as a bulwark of freedom.
"We saw from the forthright words of the President that human rights for him is not simply a formality but that it really touches his heart," said Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest.
Sentenced to five years in a Ural mountain labor camp, Yakunin was freed halfway through his term last year and allowed to resume his service at a church near Moscow.
'Press With Your Lives'
"I came here to give you strength, but it is you who have strengthened me," the President told his 96 invited guests, who responded several times with applause. "While we press for human lives through diplomatic channels, you press with your very lives, day in and day out, year after year, risking your homes, your jobs and your all."
The giggles and shrieks of toddlers punctuated the meeting, and at one point U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock Jr. interrupted to ask the dissidents and refuseniks, seated at plum-colored tables in the Spaso House ballroom, to refrain from passing their place cards up to the President for his autograph. Matlock promised to have them signed and mailed out.
Soviet officials criticized the meeting, suggesting that it was a lapse of protocol to meet with citizens that the host state considers troublemakers at best. Gorbachev, toasting the Reagans at a state dinner in the Kremlin, noted that the Soviet government "wants to build contacts among people in all forums."
But in conveying his own perspective on human rights, Gorbachev pointedly added that "this should be done without interfering in domestic affairs, without sermonizing or imposing one's views and ways, without turning family or personal problems into a pretext for confrontation between states."
In keeping with the diplomatic tone of his recent statements on the Soviet Union's human rights record, Reagan acknowledged that progress has been made in the three years of Gorbachev's leadership and held out the "fervent hope" that the Communist Party would eventually permit the full freedom of religion, speech and travel.
He noted that more than 300 political prisoners have been freed in the past three years, while "fewer dissidents and religious believers have been put in prisons and mental hospitals" and more people have been allowed to emigrate in recent months.
Calling this a "hopeful time" for the Soviet Union, Reagan said: "Your new leaders appear to grasp the connection between certain freedoms and economic growth.
"We hope that one freedom will lead to another, that the Soviet government will understand that it is the individual who is always the source of economic creativity."
According to U.S. human rights organizations, about 350 political and religious prisoners are known to remain in labor camps, special psychiatric wards and internal exile. Jewish organizations estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 Soviet Jews who have applied to emigrate--a step that requires an invitation from a family member abroad--have been refused permission to leave.
Moscow made clear its irritation at the meeting with several articles in the official press, depicting the United States as a contrasting land of technological marvels, poverty, hunger and repression.
As evidence, Soviet television broadcast a brief interview Monday night with members of the American Indian Movement who spoke of Washington's "terroristic" policies toward minorities.
'Not the Best' People
The Foreign Ministry's chief spokesman, Gennady I. Gerasimov, said the guests the President chose to entertain "are not the best of the Soviet public. Rather, on the contrary."
The guests included 10-year-old Natasha Lubinskaya, who came by train from Kiev with her mother, clutching a bouquet of roses for the President. Her father, Evgeny Lubinsky, is serving a four-year term in a labor camp for promoting the Hare Krishna faith. He is reportedly suffering from tuberculosis.
And there was 12-year-old Vera Zieman, whose parents--barred from emigrating for the past 11 years--the Reagans had planned to visit on Sunday, until Soviet authorities suggested that if they did so the Ziemans might never leave.
Vera, along with a number of other refuseniks, penned a letter for President Reagan, asking him to appeal to Gorbachev on their behalf.