A Betrayal of the Promise

part 1, 2, 3

One of Boris Pasternak's most heartfelt admirers in Moscow's community of intellectuals back in the 1950s was a woman defense lawyer named Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya. Kaminskaya, like Pasternak, had lived through Stalin's terror and witnessed the stir caused by Khrushchev's secret speech. And Kaminskaya, like Pasternak, would eventually collide into the wall of Kremlin repression.

Kaminskaya was famous among Moscow's dissident circles. After Khrushchev lost power in 1964, his successor cracked down on all forms of dissent. Like Pasternak, writers and intellectuals were the first to suffer. There were political show trials, and Dina Kaminskaya represented the defendants in court when few others would.

For Dina Kaminskaya, Khrushchev's treatment of Pasternak was a betrayal of the promise of the secret speech.

"After the terrible revelations at the twentieth party congress and the sworn assurances of the new rulers that none of it would ever be repeated, I saw the development of a new cult of Khrushchev," Kaminskaya wrote in her memoir. "Once more, it was bound up with lies and arbitrary disregard of the law, as well as the suppression of freedom to create, to think and to speak."

Dina Kaminskaya was a battler for civil rights, a sort of Russian Thurgood Marshall. Her inspiration and vitality had been stoked in significant part by Khrushchev's secret speech, which had fueled what she described as the spiritual emancipation of her soul.

"After Khrushchev's secret speech," wrote Kaminskaya, "there was increasing self-examination and self-awareness. Our understanding of such concepts as bravery, civic courage and decency changed."

Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya's courage and decency, her willingness to defend dissidents in court, eventually got her and her husband, also a lawyer, expelled from the Soviet Union. It was that or prison. The Kremlin silenced her voice.

Dina Kaminskaya and her husband, Konstantin Simis, live in a suburb outside of Washington, D.C. They are both in their late 80s, and both frail. After her stroke, Dina Isaakovna lost the ability to speak. She can make sounds, but she can't articulate sentences. As for Konstantin, he has Parkinson's disease but is able to whisper his way through a conversation.

Konstantin tells me that Khrushchev's secret speech marked the beginning of an understanding of human rights in Russia. He says the speech gave rise to the concept of dissent for the first time.

I asked him why his wife did what she did. It was dangerous work, I said. Did she consider herself to be courageous? Konstantin replied that Dina Isaakovna's work gave her a certain moral and political satisfaction. She didn't consider herself to be a brave person, he said. She was an honest person who followed her beliefs.

The couple's nurse, a woman named 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 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 Rossiiskii Advokat, (Russian Lawyer), number 2, from the year 2000, and on the cover is a picture of Dina Isaakovna. It says "Dina Kaminskaya, advokatura bylo moim mestom v zhizni, sposobom moego sushestvovanie v nei," 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 goodbye.

"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 communicate more fully. But she was smiling, and seemed pleased by the visit.

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