Naum Meiman was a giant in the human rights movement in the Soviet Union — he was an accomplished theoretical mathematician and a well-known dissident. And his wife had cancer.
“There were very few giants,” Lisa Paul, a 1986 University of Minnesota graduate, said in an interview last week.
Paul was not a giant. A native of Appleton, Wis., she was 23 years old when she took on the Soviet Union on behalf of the Meimans, though that’s not how she saw it at the time. Then, she was an American college student who had to do something to help a friend who would die without medical treatment.
For Paul, action included a 25-day hunger strike with the goal to garner as much media attention as possible. According to a 1986 Appleton Post Crescent editorial, Paul hoped the media would “turn her lone voice into a crescendo.”
It did. In 1986, Paul was denied a visa to enter the Soviet Union for a conference on U.S.-Soviet relations that she helped plan. She was one of three controversial voices not granted entrance. The others included a journalist who had written an “anti-Soviet” story and a Latvian-American activist.
Inna Meiman arrived at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport in January 1987, but it was too late to save her.
More than 20 years later, Paul recounted her relationship with the Meimans in her newly published memoir, “Swimming in Daylight.”
Today, she will present the first-ever Inna Meiman Human Rights Award to two University students who are fighting for human rights.
“I want to inspire people of this generation that they can make a difference,” Paul said. “That takes [my story] from being a passive history kind of story to an active presence.”
‘None of that was paranoia’
When she met Naum and Inna, Paul was living in Moscow working as a nanny for an American businessman and his wife. She learned of the job in her Russian language class at the University in spring 1983 and began that fall.
In September 1984, Paul started taking Russian lessons from Inna Meiman, who had a doctorate in English education and taught Russian to several Americans.
Meiman was a “refusenik” –– someone refused permission by the Soviet government to emigrate. She tried to leave the country in the late 1970s, but at that time the government limited the departure of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who wished to leave. Instead, she lost her job.
During the Cold War, Soviet Jewish emigration was one of many contentious issues between the East and West, University history professor Tom Wolfe said.
As the Soviet economy began to slow, the country was looking for something, or someone, to pin it on, Wolfe said. Though many Soviet leaders and prominent scientists were Jewish, history showed Jews were always available as that scapegoat.
Meanwhile, Meiman was developing cancer in the soft tissue of her neck. By July 1985, she had undergone four surgeries, but nothing the doctors did would solve her problem. Naum and Inna believed they could get better treatment in a Western hospital.
Several countries, including Sweden, Israel, France and the U.S., offered to care for Meiman, but she still was not granted a visa.
Naum was a human rights activist, and the KGB kept their eyes and ears on him.
Wolfe said there was a “climate of paranoia” at the time, especially among critics and dissidents.
“It was common to be always alert to where one was and who might be listening,” he said.
Paul remembers Naum suggesting they go for walks when they talked, or she turned up the radio in her home.
“None of that was paranoia. All of it was justified and necessary,” Paul said. “They were watched and followed and under scrutiny.”
She said Naum had done nothing blatantly illegal, which was why he was still free. But his wife couldn’t seek medical treatment in another country.
“You couldn’t find anything more cruel than that,” Paul said.
‘Instrumental in bringing this to justice’
During the summer of 1985, Paul had returned home to Wisconsin. She planned to start school again that fall. In July, she received a letter from Moscow.
The letter, written by an American friend on behalf of the Meimans, updated Paul on Inna’s condition, which had not improved much after her fourth surgery.
“[Naum] spoke very highly of you and is hopeful that you will be instrumental in bringing this to justice,” the letter read. “I hope you are enjoying life in the USA.”
Paul remembered feeling helpless, but reading how Naum had spoken of her lifted her spirits.
“It was an honor, and I took that very seriously,” she said. “I had to make a difference. It wasn’t an option.”
In December 1985 Paul began a hunger strike that would last 25 days and earn her national media attention. Her fast allowed her to consume only fruit juice and vitamins.
A week before her fast started, her story appeared in the Minnesota Daily.
“She’s being denied the right to fight for her own life,” Paul said of Inna Meiman in the Dec. 6, 1985 article. “For five months I’ve lost sleep over this; as long as she’s alive I’m compelled to do this.”
The Daily article was the first in a string of stories that provided local and national attention, including articles in the Star Tribune and USA Today.
Besides calling the media, Paul, who is Catholic, wrote to legislators who she thought could help pressure the Soviet government to let the Meimans and the other Soviet Jews emigrate.
In January 1986, the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union organized a press conference at the U.S. Capitol at which Paul would break her fast and tell Inna’s story.
Paul called that press conference a “catalyst” for even greater involvement. In April 1986, she returned to D.C. for another press conference urging the Soviet government to grant Inna a visa. The second time, she was joined by “a coalition of support for Inna,” including lawmakers.
The following summer, she was denied a visa to enter the Soviet Union with a conference on U.S.-Soviet relations.
“That felt so triumphant to me,” she said. “It remains one of my greatest accomplishments.”
U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo. was on her list because Inna’s stepdaughter lived in Boulder at the time. Paul said Hart wrote a letter to the Soviet government, co-signed by 60 members of Congress, pressuring officials to grant Inna the visa she needed to seek treatment elsewhere. During a visit to Moscow, Paul said Hart met with Mikhail Gorbachev, who indicated there might be a change in the Meiman case.
There was, but it came too late.
An Associated Press article from Jan. 19, 1987, shows Paul greeting Inna at the airport in D.C. Three weeks later, Inna died.
Paul, now a civil attorney living in Milwaukee, said she thinks success came from a combination of changes in the highest level of the Soviet government and a massive movement in the U.S. that directed lawmakers to make Soviet Jew emigration cases “high profile.”
“If you asked Soviet officials, they would say they had no problem with Jewish emigration, but that was the opposite of what the reality was there,” Paul said.
In 1985, Gorbachev came to power as the last ruler of the Soviet Union. Wolfe said Gorbachev was intent on reform and wanted to form a new relationship between his country and the West. With that reform came less restricted borders for Soviet Jews.
“He felt the antagonism of the Cold War needed to be ended. This was one obvious and simple thing he could do,” Wolfe said.
A year after Meiman died, Paul said she wrote everything down and moved on with her life. She attended law school in Milwaukee and began practicing civil law.
“My work is advocating for the rights of others,” she said. “To me, it feels like a good fit.”
She started writing her memoir in 2009, prompted by personal obstacles and “The Lives of Others,” a movie about East Germany, which made her wonder if her relationship with Inna would make a compelling story.
Early on, Paul contacted Barbara Frey, who was a member of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights in 1986, when the organization recognized Paul for her work.
Frey, now the director of the Human Rights Program in the University’s Institute for Global Studies, said everything “has come full circle.”
Frey wrote advance praise that appears in Paul’s book, calling her story one “that will inspire new generations of students to take social action and stand up for the causes they believe in.”
Today, two University seniors will receive the award Paul named after Meiman.
Nora Radtke, a global studies major, said taking Frey’s international human rights class her sophomore year was a “driving force” in her involvement since then.
She has worked with the University group Child Protection International to advocate for child rights in South Sudan. Currently, she’s writing her senior project, which explores how and why tales of atrocities are told and how that affects the public view of such stories.
“As American students, we’re born into privilege. We have the right to speak up for what we believe in,” Radtke said. “There’s nothing in my mind I would rather be doing.”
Morley Spencer, a global studies and political science major, directs CPI, lobbying the South Sudan government to draw attention to child abduction.
Spencer was born in Minnesota but grew up in Bangladesh. She said she saw children whose basic needs weren’t met.
“That influenced me as a kid to be aware that people live in very different circumstances,” she said. “When I got to college, I was able to study why that happens and how to change it in the U.S. and abroad.”
As director of the Human Rights Program, Frey said part of her mission is to work with students on real-life human rights issues.
Radtke called it “practical advocacy.”
Frey said Paul is an example of using the privilege that comes with American citizenry as leverage on others’ behalf.
“As a student, she really made a difference in someone’s life.” she said “Not only that, but in a human rights issue of that time.”