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Dina Kaminskaya; Lawyer Defended Soviet Dissidents

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006; B06

Dina Kaminskaya, 85, a diminutive Moscow defense lawyer who for 37 years dared to stand up to Soviet authorities on behalf of dissidents and others accused of crimes, died July 7 of complications from a stroke at her home in Falls Church.

Harassed by the Soviet secret police after she agreed to represent dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, now known as Natan Sharansky, she and her husband, Konstantin Simis, a trial lawyer and professor, were ordered to leave the USSR in 1977. They settled in Arlington and then in Falls Church.

Mrs. Kaminskaya's son, Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, said that his mother's involvement with Sharansky, perhaps the best-known dissident at the time, was the final straw for the Soviet authorities. They had grown increasingly impatient with her eloquent and outspoken defense of prominent dissidents, beginning with Vladimir Bukovsky in 1967. A book manuscript her husband was preparing with the provocative title "USSR: The Corrupt Society," discovered by the KGB at the couple's dacha, contributed to her fall from official grace, as had her son's decision in 1973 to leave for the West.

"It was not her desire to leave," Simes said in a phone interview from Moscow, where he was en route to St. Petersburg for the Group of Eight summit. The alternative, he explained, was imprisonment or internal exile.

In her book "Final Judgment: My Life as a Soviet Defense Attorney" (1982), Mrs. Kaminskaya recalled that she had wanted to be a lawyer from an early age, but as an undergraduate at the Moscow Institute of Law, she quickly realized she had no desire to be a prosecutor for the state. She would be an advocate, a defense lawyer.

"I am grateful that, young as I was, some sixth sense -- some combination of upbringing and intuition -- prompted me to choose the profession that answers to a fundamental need in my nature -- the job that has enabled me to defend so many people against the arbitrary and often cruel power of the Soviet state. Yet even then I had intimations that the role I chose would be a hard one."

A system of legal defense was enshrined in the Soviet constitution, but the law was often flouted. Advocates were barely tolerated.

"No one bothered to conceal it, either in the courtroom or outside," Mrs. Kaminskaya recalled in her book. "During a trial the judge would rudely interrupt an advocate or forbid him to put questions whose necessity was obvious even to me. Yet the same judge would never permit himself to treat a prosecutor that way."

Working within the system, flawed as it was, Mrs. Kaminskaya began to have some success by dint of exhaustive preparation, a deep knowledge of the law and the implacable force of logic. Clear and forceful in her courtroom presentations, she obtained acquittals in more than 100 criminal cases. In many other cases, she got sentences reduced.

In 1967, she agreed to represent a 16-year-old boy named Sasha, who had been charged, along with his friend Alik, with the rape and murder of their classmate Marina in a village outside Moscow. During six months of pretrial detention, the boys had confessed, then recanted. The prosecution's star witness was an elderly woman who claimed she had been at home sitting by her window when she heard the girl cry out, "Alik! Leave me alone! Sasha, let go!"

After her first meeting with Sasha, Mrs. Kaminskaya was convinced that he and his friend were innocent, and she soon realized that the prosecutor had fabricated evidence. Visiting the scene of the crime, she and her co-counsel discovered that the boys could not have attacked the girl where the investigator said they did. She also discovered that the old woman was deaf and nearly blind.

Over a period of three years and three trials, Mrs. Kaminskaya was Sasha's advocate in every sense of the word. At last, in the Supreme Court of the Russian Republic, the case drew an honest judge who conducted his own investigation and ruled the boys innocent.

She wrote years later: "Who, having lived through all this, can say that the work of an advocate is painful and unrewarding? Surely it is the happiest job in the world."

Mrs. Kaminskaya was born in 1920 in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. She grew up in Moscow, where her father was director of the Industrial Bank of the USSR, despite being Jewish and not a member of the Communist Party. The family was part of the city's intelligentsia and, for the most part, escaped the horrors of Stalinist purges and government persecution of Jews. "I grew up a thoroughly 'Soviet' child," she wrote.

Beginning her work as an advocate in 1940, Mrs. Kaminskaya managed to make a comfortable living, despite the frustrations, petty and otherwise, that made her professional life difficult. Alfred Friendly Jr., Newsweek's staffer in Moscow in the mid-1970s, recalled that the Kaminskaya-Simis home was something of a salon for writers, artists, intellectuals and foreign visitors.

"My house was known as one of the most hospitable in all Moscow," Mrs. Kaminskaya wrote, "and I always delighted in a beautifully set table, delicious food and the company of close friends."

Friendly recalled that Mrs. Kaminskaya, barely 5 feet tall with piercing blue eyes, was a wonderful cook who gave great dinner parties. She was "bubbly," he said, full of life.

Her son recalled that his parents "were free people in an unfree country."

Her fateful decision to defend dissidents was to her a natural outgrowth of her role as an advocate, but the Soviet authorities did not see it that way. Beginning with her defense of Bukovsky, they had her in their sights as an enemy of the state.

Bukovsky, among the first to expose the use of psychiatric imprisonment, was initially arrested for organizing a demonstration on behalf of dissidents. He would spend 12 years in prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals.

She also defended such prominent dissidents as Anatoli Marchenko, Ilya Gabay, Yuri Galanskov and Pavel Litvinov.

"She was unbelievably sharp, and you could see it every time she spoke," Litvinov recalled from his home in Westchester, N.Y. "She was also strikingly beautiful."

Litvinov, a physics teacher who spent five years in a Siberian labor camp for organizing a Red Square demonstration against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, said that even among the KGB, "she commanded absolute respect for her decency and professionalism."

That respect did not save her when she agreed to represent Sharansky, the human rights activist who would spend eight years in Soviet prisons and labor camps before being allowed to immigrate to Israel.

In her book, Mrs. Kaminskaya recalled the day she learned she would not be allowed to represent Sharansky, her last day as an advocate in her homeland. "I was calm," she wrote, "as though this terrible disaster had never occurred, as though I were not coming to the end of my professional life."

Living first in a cramped apartment in Arlington and then in a house in Falls Church, she and her husband worked on their books, both published in 1982. She also delivered radio commentaries to Soviet listeners of Voice of America and Radio Liberty. She visited Russia twice during her years in the United States.

"They were remarkable," Friendly recalled, noting that Mrs. Kaminskaya and her husband were in their fifties when they started over in their new home. "Most people would have curled up into a ball, and they didn't."

Survivors include her husband of 64 years; her son, of Bethesda; and one grandson.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company