By Frank W. Martin and Richard Lemon
Updated January 25, 1982 12:00 PM
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They were strange words that would have been meaningless to anyone else in the world: “On the evening of the eighth we stopped drinking Borzhomi [bottled mineral water].” But to Liza Alexeyeva of Apt. 68, 48B Chkalova Street, Moscow, those 10 cryptic words in a cable from the city of Gorky were earthshaking. They were a prearranged message from the apartment’s owners, exiled atomic scientist Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner. It confirmed that the Sakharovs had ended their 17-day hunger strike in return for guarantees that, after almost four years of appeals, Liza would be allowed to leave Russia for the U.S. to join her husband-by-proxy, Yelena’s son Alexei.

At home in Massachusetts, Alexei Semyonov, 25, was skeptical. But on Dec. 20 Liza walked off a jet at Boston’s Logan International Airport and into Alexei’s waiting arms. Two and a half weeks later in Butte, Mont., site of their proxy wedding last June, the honeymoon of Liza and Alexei Semyonov, for which the Sakharovs had starved and much of the world had prayed, finally began.

“We like this country very much,” Alexei says. “Some things I can argue with you about, but not right now. I’m not a political figure.” They are, however, celebrities, and so far the Semyonovs’ life in the U.S. has been hectic. In Boston, Alexei was stopped for speeding as he drove home from the airport with Liza; reporters tailing them finally persuaded the cop to issue only a warning. Alexei has a one-bedroom flat in Waltham, near Brandeis University where he is a teaching assistant in mathematics. But the couple stayed with his sister and brother-in-law, also emigres, in their small house in suburban Newton. After the holidays they flew to Butte as guests of the townspeople. The honeymoon was the inspiration of Mary Mollish, a Butte housewife who had “looked at Liza’s picture in the paper and realized this bride had never seen where she was married.” They were welcomed by Gov. Ted Schwinden, then taken to the bridal suite in the Copper King Inn. It is an elegant jade-green room featuring a copper-toned mirror and a whirlpool bath. At the door the manager whispered it was traditional to carry the bride over the threshold. “Alexei explained the custom to Liza,” Mary Mollish says, “and then he slung her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes.”

The next day the newlyweds toured Butte, then went to a TV studio and intently watched a tape of their proxy marriage. (Montana was picked by the State Department because it is one of the few states that still allows weddings by proxy.) The stand-in “bride” was Ed Kline, a department store executive who is active in humanitarian causes, and during the ceremony Kline and Alexei dutifully held hands. The only hitch was that nobody remembered the ring. The court reporter lent hers.

On the second day of the belated honeymoon the town threw a big wedding reception at the Copper King. The Semyonovs greeted some 350 guests, cut a cake and drank unspiked punch. They spent the next two days at Big Sky ski resort, took a snow-coach tour of Yellowstone National Park, and then headed on to San Francisco. All their expenses were paid by the people of Butte.

The Semyonovs have been affectionate with each other and polite to others, but they are also subdued; clearly the festivities were a startling contrast to their ordeals. They met as students at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute in 1975. Alexei and his first wife, Olga, agreed to divorce in 1977, but he was forced to emigrate the next year because of his dissident stepfather. Olga followed in 1980 and they got the divorce in Boston; they have joint custody of their daughter, Katya, 6.

The Soviets capriciously refused to allow Liza to join Alexei and began harassing her. She was denounced in Izvestia for wanting to leave her parents. More than a year ago she was fired from her job as a computer technician. She then served as a liaison between the outside world and Sakharov, who had been exiled to Gorky, a Volga River city 260 miles east of Moscow. When Liza tried to visit the Sakharovs in Gorky she was stopped by the KGB. In March 1980 Liza became so depressed she attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. “I spent three days in a hospital with bars on the windows,” she has said. “I wouldn’t tell this story, except that there was an offensive article inspired by the KGB in the Moscow paper Nedelja. I was conclusively depicted as the victim of a ‘little tawdry affair’ of the Sakharovs, who finally attempted to incite me to do away with myself.”

Alexei speaks of his family’s ordeals with eloquence. “The Soviet Union also persecuted my sister—there were letters to my father saying my sister’s young son would be killed if certain activities didn’t stop. Liza was followed by the KGB. She tried to lose them on the subway and they said if she tried that again they would push her under the train. Our mail usually would not get through and our phone in Moscow was disconnected two years ago. But Liza and I exchanged letters occasionally and we had three phone conversations during the hunger strike.”

The fast was a cause of anguish to both Alexei and Liza. “You have to understand my father’s feelings,” he says. “Liza was actually a hostage and for him to know somebody was being persecuted because of him was unbearable. Liza and I understand his reason but we were against it because my parents are not healthy. They are 60 and 58, he has a history of heart problems, and my mother was a war victim [WWII] and is practically blind.”

“I was really afraid for their lives,” Liza, 26, says, “especially the first days of the hunger strike. It looked like the Soviets would be glad just to let him die. Then they were taken to the hospital and were totally in the hands of the KGB. These five days were terrible. Dr. Sakharov practically couldn’t walk. The Soviets were waiting to see if the pressure would cool down.”

The young couple’s worries are hardly over. “My parents are in complete isolation from the rest of the world and totally in the hands of the KGB,” Alexei says. “The last reports were that my father had two heart attacks three weeks ago. He did not get help right away because they don’t trust the physicians in Gorky. During the hunger strike the doctors collaborated completely with the KGB.”

In spite of the grim news from his homeland, Alexei has managed to adjust to his new life. “I have found Americans very friendly, very open-minded and very pleasant to communicate with,” he says. “I haven’t felt any psychological barrier. Even people who aren’t very interested in politics have opinions and feel their opinions count.”

For the future, he says, “I’m going back to school and Liza is thinking about working in computers. Of course we’re planning a family.” Neither cherishes much hope of ever seeing the Sakharovs again. “My father doesn’t think about emigration—he doesn’t want to think about things that aren’t feasible,” Alexei says. Asked what sustained her and Alexei in the past four years, Liza answers simply, “Our love for each other. It gave us something to live for.”