Dina Kaminskaya

Lawyer to Soviet dissidents


Dina Isaakovna Kaminskaya, lawyer and human rights activist: born Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine 13 January 1919; married 1942 Konstantin Simis (one son); died Falls Church, Virginia 7 July 2006.

The diminutive but feisty lawyer Dina Kaminskaya defied the KGB to defend a string of high-profile dissidents, determined to seek justice despite the odds stacked against them in the Soviet courts.

In the end, she and her husband, Konstantin Simis, a fellow lawyer, were forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union in November 1977 after repeated KGB interrogations that would otherwise have led to certain imprisonment. They settled in the United States, where their son, Dimitri Simes, was already based.

Like many future dissidents, Kaminskaya was radicalised by the prosecution of two writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, in December 1965 - the first time in the post-Stalin era that anyone had been prosecuted for works of literature they had written. Daniel engaged Kaminskaya as his lawyer, but the state prevented her from speaking on his behalf in court, knowing that she would call for his acquittal. The Soviet version of justice did not foresee defence lawyers calling for acquittals - especially in political cases.

Kaminskaya went on to defend - as far as the Soviet authorities would let her in a legal system designed as an instrument of Soviet power - Vladimir Bukovsky in 1967. She also defended Yuri Galanskov (who would die in a Soviet labour camp), Anatoli Marchenko (who would also die in camp), Larisa Bogoraz and Pavel Litvinov, and the Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Jemilev.

Countless other political victims of the regime benefited from free legal advice (she would not even take the officially prescribed fee).

By now the KGB's irritation with the dissident movement had turned to determination to crush it. Kaminskaya was prevented from defending Bukovsky in his 1971 trial and Sergei Kovalyov in 1975. In 1977, after being stripped of her licence to practise as a lawyer, she was barred from defending Anatoli Shcharansky (now the Israeli politician Natan Sharansky).

Kaminskaya was born into a Jewish family in Yekaterinoslav (later to be renamed Dnepropetrovsk) amid the turmoil of a Ukraine then seeking independence before being crushed by Bolshevik forces. She grew up in Moscow, where her father was director of the USSR Industrial Bank. Despite not being from a Communist family, she entered Moscow Legal Institute but decided not to become a state prosecutor.

She later explained her decision to take the lower-status job of defence lawyer:

I am grateful that, young as I was, some sixth sense 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.

After graduation she entered the Moscow city college of advocates. Her defence speeches were even quoted in the Soviet press.

The KGB finally pounced on Kaminskaya and her husband at a Moscow railway station in November 1976. Searches of their Moscow flat and their country dacha had turned up a manuscript of a book Simis was preparing about corruption in the Soviet Union (which the Soviets insisted could not exist). Prosecutors threatened both husband and wife with criminal charges of anti-Soviet slander, which could have led to three-year labour camp sentences.

Once in exile in the Washington area, Kaminskaya and Simis produced the books they had been unable to at home. Kaminskaya's book Final Judgment: my life as a Soviet defense attorney, was published in English in 1982.

Kaminskaya kept up her commentaries on legal issues on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, broadcast back to her homeland. She even explained to Russian-speaking listeners the background to the acquittal on murder charges in 1995 of O.J. Simpson.

While Kaminskaya felt affinity for the embattled dissidents and their quixotic battle against the might of the Soviet state, she was as determined in seeking justice for many unknown victims of the system.

In 1967, she agreed to represent a 16-year-old boy named Sasha, who had been charged with a friend with the rape and murder of their classmate Marina in a village outside Moscow. The boys had confessed to the crime, but later retracted their confessions.

Convinced that the two boys were innocent and that the prosecutor had fabricated evidence, Kaminskaya and a colleague visited the scene of the crime. They discovered that the boys could not have attacked the girl where the investigator said they did and that the prosecutor's star witness - an old woman who claimed to have heard the girl's cries for help - was deaf and nearly blind.

After three years and three trials reaching as far as the Russian Supreme Court, Kaminskaya eventually had the satisfaction of seeing the boys declared innocent.

Kaminskaya never regretted her choice of career. "Who, having lived through all this, can say that the work of an advocate is painful and unrewarding?" she wrote later. "Surely it is the happiest job in the world."

Felix Corley

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