Bittersweet freedom

12/08/2011 14:42   By ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN

A memoir about a brave, doomed refusenik and her courageous American friend.

Photo Courtesy of the Kitrossky family

Moscow in the 1980s was a grim and dangerous place where talking to an American on the street was enough to attract the unwanted attention of the KGB. This is where Lisa Paul, then a University of Minnesota coed, came to work for two years as a nanny for an American businessman’s children.
It’s not clear why Paul, a devout Catholic, took an interest in Russian language and culture. But it is clear from her book that the education she received abroad was not at all what she expected.

“I began my stay in Moscow on the side of left-leaning peace activists in the United States,” she writes. “I was optimistic and believed [in] the simplistic notion that if the American and Russian people came to know and understand each other, we could peacefully coexist. But one experience after another during my second year in Moscow chipped away at that optimism.”
Her Russian-language tutor, Inna Kitrosskaya Meiman, turned out to be a Jewish dissident. Paul became an activist on behalf of Meiman, who was refused permission to get cancer treatment in any of the countries that offered to pay for her trip and medical care – most likely as punishment for her refusenik husband Naum’s participation in the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.

It is from Meiman that the book gets its title. She shared with Paul, and later with the world, a folktale about a fish so scared of a certain undersea predator that it dares not leave its hiding place during the daytime hours for fear of being caught. Meiman, then 51, was determined to “swim in the daylight” no matter the cost.
In addition to Meiman, Paul befriended several young Russians despite the danger involved, and their stories also opened Paul’s eyes to their Orwellian reality. In fact, her first act of derringdo “in the land that’s the exact opposite of everything we are and everything we know” was helping a friend’s mother secure a copy of George Orwell’s 1984.

The woman, a reviewer at the Soviet institute of censorship, had mislaid the book. If the loss were discovered, she would have been fired, evicted and sent to jail. As Orwell’s books were banned in the USSR, buying a replacement was impossible. Paul arranged to receive a copy her mother mailed in Minnesota to an acquaintance at the American Embassy.

At one point, Paul even considered a sham marriage to Gary, a young black marketer, to get him safely to the United States. Meiman and others dissuaded her. Gary successfully feigned mental illness to get out of serving with the Soviet army in Afghanistan, but his story did not end happily.

Sadly, neither did Meiman’s.

While still in Russia, Paul helped arrange for Meiman (who was already well known to US diplomats and politicians such as Colorado Sen. Gary Hart) to be interviewed by an American reporter. That taped interview proved pivotal in bringing Meiman’s plight to the masses.

Back in Minnesota, Paul embarked on a 25-day hunger strike in an attempt to expedite a solution to Meiman’s desperate situation. The ensuing publicity brought Paul many speaking engagements and ultimately took her to Washington, where she worked with the Soviet Jewry movement and government officials to get Meiman a visa.

But diplomacy is and was a painfully slow process, particularly in pre-Internet days. By the time Meiman arrived at Washington’s Georgetown University Hospital in 1987, it was much too late. She died within a few weeks, and to make matters worse she died without her husband, whose release the Americans could not obtain. Probably as a result of press reports surrounding Meiman’s death, he soon got permission to emigrate to Israel, as did her son, Lev.

The ever-optimistic Meiman nevertheless felt she had won an important victory. As she wrote to Hart, “The hospital is just beautiful, but that is not the most important thing. The most important thing is the sensation of being among friends, of being cared for and about.”

She received many visitors, including former dissidents such as Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, who’d been freed only the year before. She savored feeling that “for the first time in my life, I did not have to look over my shoulder with worry the KGB might barge in.”

At Meiman’s funeral, former ABCNews Moscow bureau chief Anne Garrels (now with National Public Radio) told the folktale about the fish.

“Anne made the point that Inna had been swimming freely in the daylight long before she left the Soviet Union and that it was her great triumph to be free in America before she died,” writes Paul.

This first-person memoir about a brave, doomed refusenik and her courageous American friend is a welcome addition to the body of literature about an unfathomably cruel regime that destroyed its own people. Paul’s unusually sharp powers of recollection make this bleak period in modern history come alive.

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