William Plummer
January 20, 1986 12:00 PM

A month ago Woodford McClellan was feeling understandably chipper, and his language showed it. He had just heard that the Soviets were finally going to grant exit visas to his wife, Irina, and her daughter, Yelena, so that they might join him in America after a separation of 11½ years. “We’re not in the Super Bowl yet, but we’re in the play-offs,” bubbled the 51-year-old professor of Russian history at the University of Virginia, although he did concede that it would be “a miracle if [the bureaucrats] cut through the red tape and allowed them to leave the Soviet Union in time for Christmas. They are not sentimental over there.”

They are not, indeed. On Dec. 29 Soviet emigration authorities told Irina, 47, a Soviet citizen, that she was free to leave the country, but that her 26-year-old daughter, Yelena Kochetkova, was not. “Like Sophie’s Choice, this is ‘Irina’s Choice,’ ” says Woodford McClellan. “They’re saying to her: ‘Your daughter or your husband, which do you want?’ And her answer is: ‘You are asking me to give up my daughter for my husband and I will not do that.’ I support her. I wouldn’t want a woman who would do that. We’re going to fight this thing through to the end.”

Back in 1974 Irina was, in fact, the first native half of a Soviet-American couple to be denied an exit visa for more than two years, since Stalin’s death in 1953. “We were victims of the collapse of detente,” says Woodford. “They wanted to give the Americans just one more not very subtle sign: ‘Look, don’t tell us what to do. You want to tell us how to run our emigration policy? We’ll show you our emigration policy!’ ” The McClellans are still a favorite toy of Soviet politicos. At present, Woodford believes, the couple is in the grips of the extreme right wing of the Communist Party, which controls the passport office. The professor figures that a Stalinist faction is denying Yelena’s visa in an effort to embarrass Mikhail Gorbachev, who has recently been seeking a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations.

The McClellan saga began in 1972 at a resort in the Caucasus Mountains, in southern Russia. Woodford, divorced with one son, was accompanying a Canadian tour group, garnering a free ride by giving lectures on Russian history. It was through the tour’s Soviet guide that he met Irina. “She was vacationing alone,” he says. “She was divorced and we were introduced. She was at once the most poised, the most dignified and, I mention it thirdly, the most beautiful woman I had ever met in my life. She had trained for the ballet as a young girl, and she carried herself with such grace. I was captivated too by her voice and what she said, her choice of words. Her degree is in English, and she spoke it beautifully. She was working at the time in the protocol department of the Institute of World Economics and International Relations—what we call a think tank. The Institute advised the government on foreign policy, and that’s why in the beginning, when she tried to obtain an exit visa, they cited this job, saying she knew state secrets. But she never had a security clearance. She was a translator and interpreter, greeting foreign visitors.”

Ten days after meeting Irina, Woodford—or “Vadim,” as she calls him—returned to the States. Over the next couple of years, he made several return trips to the U.S.S.R. In December 1973, he went to Moscow as a visiting professor, and he and Irina moved in together. Woodford took some good-natured ribbing from his friends about his transcultural Washington-to-Moscow romance, but it was nothing compared with what Irina went through. Her superiors at the Institute told her she would have to throw Vadim over or she would be demoted to the secretarial pool. Irina replied by quitting. “She got a job as a teacher of English in a high school,” says Woodford, “a job she would lose after we were married. She’s been tutoring English ever since.”

Things were even rougher for Irina at home, where her mother, who had worked for the KGB, objected to the relationship. Says Woodford, “She told Irina, ‘We don’t need this complication in this family.’ But Irina said, ‘I’m very fond of this man. I can’t help it.’ ” Finally, Irina’s mother relented and granted permission for her daughter to marry, which is required by Soviet law. The two were wed in a civil ceremony on May 4, 1974. Woodford left the country four months later when his visa expired, and has not been permitted to return, despite repeated petitions to Soviet authorities. Through the years the couple has kept in touch by mail, occasional phone calls and messages carried by friends. “In the beginning,” says Woodford, “we were in contact frequently. We telephoned every week, wrote at least twice a week. But inevitably that slacked off. It was an emotional drain; and my phone bills were running $400-$500 a month, and we couldn’t keep that up.”

Still, McClellan says he is buoyed up by his wife’s “world-class courage” and has no time for such small-change emotions as bitterness. He is eager, however, for Gorbachev to unravel the latest red tape tangle. He is eager to see his wife once more. “We have to get to know each other again,” he says. “A dear friend of mine, a professor of psychiatry, told me: ‘You have a unique opportunity to meet someone for the first time twice.’ ”

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