Focus on Issues the Plight of Refusenik Soviet Cancer Patients

Now that Rimma Bravve has left the Soviet Union, and is in the United States, the matter of other known Soviet refusenik cancer patients remains very much in the hearts and minds of their kin, and supporters, in the West.

In fact, the release of Bravve this month and of Tatiana Bogomolny in October, gives increased hope to the cause of obtaining the freedom of other ailing refuseniks whose hope rests in some experimental medical techniques available in a few selected hospitals in the West, techniques that have the possibility of saving lives.

Earlier this month, Sen. Gary Hart (D. Colo.) met in Moscow with top Soviet officials, including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and raised the issue of about 12 people who want to emigrate, among them cancer patients with families in the West. High on the list is Inna Meiman of Moscow, whose husband’s daughter, Olga Plum, lives in Boulder, Colo.

THE CASE OF INNA MEIMAN

Hart spoke specifically about Meiman, 54, who suffers from a recurrent tumor on her neck for which she has had four operations. Doctors in Moscow have told her there is little more they can do for her, in spite of the appearance of a fifth tumor on her neck.

Before he left Moscow on the flight to Vienna with Rimma Bravve, Hart was told by Shevardnadze that the Soviets would allow Inna Meiman to leave, but that her husband, Naum, 75, would not be permitted to accompany her. Shevardnadze reportedly told Hart that the people on his list who do not require security clearances are free to leave.

Naum Meiman, a refusenik since 1975, has had his visa request turned down on grounds of knowing “state secrets.” He is also categorized as a dissident by dint of his membership in the now disbanded Moscow Helsinki monitoring group.

The group included Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginsburg, Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, and Anatoly Marchenko, who was reported to have died December 8 in Chistopol Prison.

Inna Meiman is currently taking a position that she will not leave without her husband. Dr. Gerald Batist, a research oncologist in Montreal who has worked ceaselessly since April on behalf of the cancer patients, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it is extremely important that the couple remain together in the face of Inna Meiman’s critical medical situation.

He said that doctors strongly believe that “the psychological status is extremely critical” in the treatment of a cancer patient. “Separation from her husband,” said Batist, “could compromise any benefit from medical treatment.”

THE CASE OF BENJAMIN CHARNY

The matter of these Soviet cancer patients has drawn support from the whole spectrum of American politicians, on a bipartisan basis, said Leon Charny, whose brother, Benjamin Charny, 49, has been waiting to leave the Soviet Union for seven years and has been suffering from cancer as long.

Benjamin Charny applied to emigrate in the spring of 1979 separately from his brother Leon who lived in another district of Moscow and went to a different OVIR office. Leon received a visa; Benjamin did not. Two weeks after Leon left, Benjamin learned that he had melanoma — skin cancer.

A year-and-a-half later, Benjamin was refused a visa on the grounds of having access to “state secrets.” Benjamin is a mathematician.

He was told by his superiors to resign his job before applying to emigrate. He has not worked since then, except for some brief free-lance assignments as a scientific translator from Russian to English.

At one point, he worked as a teacher of mathematics at a vocational school in Moscow, described by Leon Charny as more difficult than inner city schools in America. Teachers at these schools are in short supply, Leon Charny told the JTA. But Benjamin was, ironically, fired from that job as soon as school authorities learned he was a refusenik.

IN AND OUT OF HOSPITALS

In 1980, Benjamin suffered a massive heart attack. He was in and out of hospitals, his brother said. In 1983, he was hospitalized for four straight months. Afterwards, he was classified as an invalid, which means he cannot work and receives a small pension.

All of the cancer patients are designated invalids, says Leon Charny. The status of invalid is reconsidered every year by Soviet authorities following a yearly month-long examination, he explained. The last time Benjamin underwent the examination was last May.

A year-and-a-half ago, a tumor was found growing on Benjamin’s neck. Doctors didn’t know what to do, Leon said. The oncologist wanted to remove it, the cardiologist didn’t concur. He was not operated on because of his cardiac condition.

OF INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Leon, who lives in Needham, Mass., and is a Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T. in engineering, has been trying to publicize his brother’s plight since June 12, when a group of cancer patient refuseniks put together their own press conference in Moscow. The patients — Charny, Bogomolny and Meiman — did this as an act of desperation, said Leon.

In June, following the press conference, which was attended by Western journalists, Batist in Montreal started the International Cancer Patients Solidarity Committee. Batist had been in Moscow in the spring, visiting Bravve and Bogomolny.

Since that initial conference, these people have held eight press conferences, at least one per month, in the U.S., Canada, and in Vienna on the opening day of the Helsinki Accord follow-up talks.

At these conferences, prominent legislators, Ambassadors and over 1,000 physicians have thrown their support behind the cancer patients in what Batist described as a “humanitarian movement — not anti-Soviet.” These supporters “are joining a winning team,” Batist said.

Leon Charny, speaking on the plight of the refusenik cancer patients, said. “This should not be repeated. I don’t think that in a civilized world that cancer patients should spend their remaining lives’ energy trying to get together with their families.”

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