Soviet-Era Lawyer Made Courageous Stand for Truth

Dina Kaminskaya was a defense lawyer who made a career of standing up to the Kremlin during the Soviet era. She dared to demand justice in Moscow at a time when justice fell victim to the whims of the Communist regime. She died at age 85 on July 7. Producer Robert Rand remembers her life.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Soviet Union has been gone 15 years now and Dina Kaminskaya did everything she could to help make that happen. Ms. Kaminskaya was a defense lawyer in Soviet Russia who represented many of that nation's most famous human rights activists. She made a career of standing up to the Kremlin at a time when justice was denied to many under that regime. Dina Kaminskaya died earlier this month. Producer Rand knew her and sent us this remembrance.

(Soundbite of Russian song)

ROBERT RAND reporting:

Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya was famous among Moscow's dissident circles during the 1960s and '70s. She was a battler for human rights, a sort of Russian Thurgood Marshall who represented dissidents in political show trials when nobody else would. One underground singer even wrote this song about her, called the Lawyer's Waltz. It describes Kaminskaya's efforts to dance around obstacles in KGB-controlled courtrooms. Kaminskaya's courage and decency eventually got her and her husband, also a lawyer, expelled from the Soviet Union. It was that or prison. The Kremlin silenced her voice.

Ms. DINA ISAAKOVNA KAMINSKAYA (Lawyer): (Foreign language spoken)

RAND: This is what Dina Kaminskaya use to sound like, 30 years ago, in her prime, before she had her stroke. She's talking about the Soviet legal system, about political trials, how arbitrary they were. She's saying that all political trials were scripted and decided in advance.

Professor KONSTANTIN SIMIS (Kaminskaya's Husband): (Foreign language spoken)

RAND: Tell me, if you could, Konstantin, a little bit in English, about the work that Dina Isaakovna did in Moscow in the 1960s.

Prof. SIMIS: (Foreign language spoken)

RAND: Dina Kaminskaya and her husband, Konstantin Simis, lived in a suburb outside Washington, D.C. I visited them late last summer. They were both in their late 80s and both frail. After her stroke, Dina Isaakovna lost the ability to speak. She could make sounds, but she couldn't articulate sentences. As for Konstantin, he has Parkinson's disease, but was able to whisper his way through a conversation.

Prof. SIMIS: (Foreign language spoken)

RAND: Konstantin tells me his wife took risks by defending dissidents in Soviet courtrooms. It was dangerous work, he said, that gave Dina Isaakovna a certain moral and political satisfaction. She didn't consider herself to be a brave person, Konstantin said, she was an honest person who followed her beliefs.

NANA (Nurse): Please, will you be so kind as to come up?

RAND: The couple's nurse, a woman name Nana, allowed me to walk upstairs to Dina Isaakovna's second floor study. She was seated behind a desk, dressed in a bathrobe, listening to music. I hadn't seen her in more than 15 years, when she helped me with a book I wrote about a murder trial in Moscow. I was struck by how good she looked despite her stroke. I asked her if she remembered me and she vigorously nodded her head, yes. I passed on greetings from mutual friends and acquaintances...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAND: ...and she laughed. I told her it was great to see her. And Nana said Dina Isaakovna seemed frustrated that she couldn't speak with me. Suddenly, Dina Isaakovna looked down at her desk. She reached inside her desk and pulled out a copy of a magazine called Russiske Advokat, Russian Lawyer, Number 2, from the year 2000. And on the cover is a picture of Dina Isaakovna. It says, Dina Kaminskaya (foreign language spoken), which means, Being a lawyer was my place in life. It enabled me to exist.

I realized that Dina Isaakovna was talking to me through that magazine cover. Despite her stroke, despite her inability to speak, she was communicating with me. I took her hand to say good-bye.

Dina Isaakovna, (foreign language spoken)

Ms. KAMINSKAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

RAND: It was really nice to see you, I said, all the best. As I left the room, Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya weakly raised her hand, a gesture in frustration at her inability to express herself more fully. But she was smiling and seemed pleased by the visit.

Ms. KAMINSKAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

RAND: Dina Kaminskaya died on July 7th at the age of 85.

For NPR News, this is Robert Rand reporting.

SIMON: Our story was produced through American Radio Works, the documentary unit of American Public Media.

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