World: Help Us!

2 minute read

Out of the swirling snow of a Moscow winter morning last week, 32 shabby peasants suddenly appeared at the iron gates of the U.S. embassy at 19/21 Tchaikovsky Street, brushed past the Russian guards on the sidewalk, and strode inside. To flabbergasted American diplomats they put a startling request: Help us get out of Russia.

The six men, twelve women and 14 children clad in tattered sheepskin coats and babushkas were a forlorn lot with a forlorn tale. They came from a sect of Protestant Pentecostal evangelists in the Siberian town of Chernogorsk, near the Mongolian border 2,100 miles to the east. Of late, local authorities there had taken away several children of the sect, and threatened to imprison the adult faithful. With the vague notion that a foreign embassy might help them, the Siberians went by train to Moscow. Now they wanted to travel to “Israel”—probably meaning the Israel of the Old Testament.

The Americans listened sympathetically, but Ambassador Foy Kohler had to stick to regulations.* Out went a call to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, explaining the situation and asking that the peasants be removed. Embarrassed by the whole thing, the U.S. officials prevented foreign correspondents from photographing or speaking with the visitors.

At last, a dilapidated bus drove into the embassy compound and backed up to the lunchroom door. With it came Soviet Foreign Ministry agents, who urged the peasants to come along quietly. “Come now, let’s not have a demonstration,” said one. “Where will you take us?” a Siberian inquired. “To a hotel,” replied the official. “Then we will arrange for you to go back home.” By then, the women were wailing. One peasant yelled, “But I do not want to go back! They will arrest me and shoot me!” To a cluster of newsmen standing near by, he cried, “We ask all brothers and sisters who believe in God: Help us! Help us!” Then the bus drove away into the snow.

* The State Department later explained that it is U.S. policy, as a rule, to deny asylum to foreigners in embassies abroad unless the person is in “imminent danger from mob violence.” Josef Cardinal Mindszenty, Roman Catholic Primate of Hungary, was considered to qualify “under exceptional circumstances” when he won sanctuary in the U.S. legation during the 1956 uprising in Budapest, where he still lives.

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