MOSCOW — In the former annex of a Moscow vegetable store, a U.S. Jewish group and Soviet Jews on Monday launched a unique enterprise--a bureau officially sanctioned by Soviet authorities to help people who want to leave the country for new lives in Israel and elsewhere.
"Today is a joyous day for us," Leonid D. Stonov, a Soviet Jewish leader and founder of the new Bureau on Exit, Human Rights and the Rule of Law, told supporters who crowded by the dozens into a small room to celebrate the opening. "Any person of any nationality will be entitled to any help we can give."
The Spartan office, still in the throes of remodeling and with a woefully inadequate single telephone, will assist the current flood of emigrants from the Soviet Union by giving them information about Israel and the United States in advance, coaching them for visa interviews and compiling a computerized data base to match their skills with job openings.
"We'll even help them if they have problems with their luggage," said David Waksberg, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, the American organization that helped organize what it claims is the "first independent human rights bureau in the Soviet Union."
The high-ceilinged office at 14 Novoslobodskaya Street, to be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. starting today, also will monitor Kremlin conduct on emigration matters and Soviet compliance with the Helsinki and Vienna human rights accords.
Five full-time Soviet employees, as well as visiting American specialists, will offer counseling on resettlement in Israel and the United States, political matters and emigration law.
"The whole point is to institutionalize the human rights movement in the Soviet Union," said Robyn Lieberman, the former associate director for governmental relations for the Union of Councils who worked on setting up the Moscow office. "For the past 20 years, the movement has been run out of people's apartments."
However, emigration and past deportations have deprived the 1.5 million Soviet Jews of their best-known leaders, like Natan Sharansky, Josef Begun and Ida Nudel, as the community faces new challenges, including revived Russian anti-Semitism and a dramatic easing of emigration restrictions.
Stonov, a bespectacled biologist and specialist on pesticides who for 11 years sought permission from Soviet authorities to emigrate before finally obtaining it, is himself leaving within weeks to work for Waksberg's organization in the United States.
"Now that this bureau is operating, I can leave with a clear conscience," Stonov said.
Under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, people who attended the afternoon inauguration of the office in northern Moscow observed, the state of Soviet Jewry has become like a glass of water that, depending on one's point of view, can seem half empty or half full.
Israel-bound emigration, for instance, is at an all-time high. According to statistics from the U.S. National Conference on Soviet Jewry, 18,725 people left for Israel in September, a monthly record, and 100,926 have emigrated already this year, also a record.
On the negative side of the balance sheet, Stonov said there are still about 600 "refuseniks"--Jews denied their Soviet exit visas. He also accused Gorbachev of not doing enough to stem anti-Jewish sentiment, which he blamed in part on the country's economic problems.
"When in France, graves of Jews were desecrated, none other than (President Francois) Mitterrand led the protest," Stonov said. "Despite appeals from members of Parliament, our president has kept silent."
Even the door to the fledgling office in a crumbling, unlit Moscow courtyard betrayed the uncertain situation of Soviet Jewry. A hand-lettered sign read "The Public Committee," the name of Stonov's organization, but no more.
"Half of our people want it to carry the office's name in Russian, Hebrew and English; the other half are afraid to advertise it," Lieberman explained.
For many who attended, the opening of the emigration and human rights bureau, whose entryway had still been jammed 24 hours earlier with abacuses and scale weights from the state-run vegetable store next door, was vivid proof of the new vistas now open for Soviet Jews.
At a table laden with bottles of the soft drink Fanta, Soviet cognac, kosher cookies and pretzels, elected officials offered their congratulations and best wishes.
"For a long time we've known what Leonid Stonov has been doing, and we support it," said Valery Borshchev, chairman of the human rights committee of the Moscow City Council, who was instrumental in registering the bureau with local authorities and finding it a home.
Stonov himself wryly noted how much had changed from the pre-Gorbachev era, when an independent Soviet organization that intended to defend human rights would have been smashed by the KGB or infiltrated by its agents.
"If this organization had been created five years ago, we all know who would have been in it," Stonov said, provoking general laughter.