I am really excited about today’s post – an interview with Lisa Paul, whose memoir, Swimming in the Daylight, is about her time in Moscow and friendship with Soviet refusenik and dissident Inna Meiman. In 1985, after returning from her trip, Lisa went on a hunger strike to bring attention to her friend’s plight and need for an exit visa so she could get cancer treatment in the US. As you’ll see from the Q&A, this is a deeply personal time in Paul’s life — words like hunger strike, dissident and human rights are so easy to gloss over, but here, the connection between them and real lives is so clear, and so moving.
Lisa has very kindly agreed to both the Q&A below, and is sending a signed copy of the book to the giveaway winner. If you’re a newsletter subscriber, find out who won in this month’s issue of the Soviet Samovar. If you’re not yet subscribed, well, what are you waiting for? And since there can only be one winner, the rest of you can go check out the book here.
How did you end up in the Soviet Union in the first place?
A college course in my sophomore year of college sparked my interest in Russian and Soviet history. Three months later, I enrolled in a Soviet Studies semester that ended with a three week trip to Leningrad, Vilnius, Kiev, and Moscow. I decided to major in Russian Area Studies and, a year later, I got hired to work as a nanny for an American family in Moscow.
What were your expectations of the USSR before you went? How did it change while you were there?
My expectations were idealistic and, perhaps, naïve, and that changed dramatically while I was there. I had only studied about the Soviet Union for a little over a year before I began my stay in Moscow in the fall of 1983. My view of the Russian people was, in part, informed by the book The Russians by Hedrick Smith, so I had more than a stereotypical view of the Russian people and their day-to-day life. However, I had been Catholic in a small Wisconsin town and that background had not exposed me to the plight of Soviet Jews or the movement in the West for their freedom. So, I didn’t go to Moscow with the goal to meet refuseniks or Soviet dissidents. Yet, I realized during my weekly Russian language lessons with Inna Meiman, that I was in the epicenter of the dissident and refusenik community in Moscow. The harsh realities of their lives and their struggle left indelible impressions on me.
You’ve talked about being sympathetic towards left-leaning peace activists when you first got to Moscow. Can you talk about how that changed during your time there and after?
I lived in Moscow from 1983-85, just before Gorbachev came to power and during a time when the nuclear arms build-up was accelerating and the Cold War very intense. I started out with the belief that if we in the West got to “know the enemy,” we would realize we could peacefully co-exist. I learned the opposite to be true and that transformation was gradual, at first, and then complete after I spent a life-changing evening with Larisa Bogoraz. On the way home from her apartment, I felt it would be much wiser if the U.S. maintained as strong a defense as possible against the Soviet Union and keep it on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
What do you still carry with you from that experience – what impact did it have on your life overall?
It gave me the lens through which I see my life – that I have many luxuries as an American and I don’t mean materialistic. I mean the freedom to express my political views, to have a religious belief, to travel and live wherever I want, and to read any book of interest to me. What do I really have to complaint about on a day-to-day basis? I try to explain to young Americans who the Soviet dissidents were in a way that is tangible to them and I like to say they were the Nelson Mandelas or the Martin Luther Kings of the Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov, Naum Meiman, Irina Grinina, Larisa Bogoraz, just to name a few, were extraordinarily brave and beautiful people, who suffered greatly because they advanced the fight for human rights against an inhuman and brutal government—a fight that ultimately changed the course of history.
Why did you choose a hunger strike as your method of protest?
I believed it would be a dramatic and effective action of protest that would call attention to me so that I could call attention to Inna’s plight. I also felt it was an inherently credible action so people would take me, a young American college kid, seriously.
Did you have any doubts when you started the hunger strike, about whether it would help or whether to even bother?
I did not have a single doubt. I knew that the rest of my life would not make any sense if I didn’t try to do something to help Inna. So, I was living out the expression “to try and fail is better than to do nothing at all”—a powerful place to be because it is a fearless place to be. I was focused and excited about taking action and didn’t worry at all about the outcome because the action, itself, was the right thing to do.
How did people at home react to you and what you were doing?
I only received support and encouragement. In writing the book, I re-discovered three tremendously insightful and supportive editorials that my hometown newspaper, the Appleton Post Crescent published, and felt very proud of the connection I was able to make with the community where I grew up and that I love.
When you look back now, is there anything you would do differently?
I wouldn’t change a single thing. When I was writing the book, I began to second guess my decision to end my hunger strike at the press conference I had at the U.S. Capitol Building. There I was, with significant national and international press coverage, and I wondered what would have happened if I had announced that I was going to continue my fast until the Soviet government let Inna go. But I concluded that I did exactly the right thing by ending my hunger strike when I did because it was never my intent to starve until Inna was set free. Inna would have been upset and so worried if I would have put my own life in jeopardy and, it was out of respect for her, and my parents, that I wouldn’t put my life at risk—it wasn’t my place to do so.
It’s been a long time since those days – what inspired you to write about your experiences now?
The 2007 German film The Lives of Others stirred up so many emotions in me about my time in Moscow and to believe that the story about my friendship with Inna could be equally compelling. And then I fell into a time of despair when my parents passed away. I went back and read and re-read letters that Inna had written to me so many years before and it was her strength and hope that got me back into the daylight of my life. From that, I felt an ambition I hadn’t before—to write the book and share Inna’s story with the purpose that it might inspire others to find hope even and especially when it might seem impossible to do so.
What do you want people to take away from your book?
That it is possible to stay in the hope and daylight of life, even during the darkest times; that faith can provide great inner strength to never give up; that it is never impossible to help another human being; and that the way a person can make a difference is to simply begin by believing that he or she can. And, fortunately, this is the consistent feedback that I receive about my book. For example, an 8th grader wrote me that she suffers from anxiety and has always been afraid of it. But after reading my book and the story Inna told me about the little fish too afraid to swim in the daylight, she realized she doesn’t have to live in fear any more. So, the story has the power to be life-changing and, in that, I feel a mission to convey, not only what I understand to be Inna’s legacy in my life, but the legacy of the refuseniks and dissidents of her generation. If my book inspires people to see or live their life differently, then maybe all that Inna suffered and lost is not in vain; maybe it turns out to be her triumph.
Do you still keep up your Russian (/Soviet) connections?
Sadly, no. I had to cut off all contact with my Russian friends when I became so active for Inna. I didn’t want them to get in any trouble because the same phone number from America calling them was the same phone number calling Inna Meiman.
Have you ever been back to Russia?
No. The Soviet government denied me a visa to return during the summer after my hunger strike (1986). I consider that to be a very significant accomplishment in my life—that those who I wanted most to hear my protest for Inna’s freedom apparently did because the Soviet government wouldn’t let me back in a year after I left.
I have to ask – how is your Russian these days?
Very limited. The year after Inna died was very difficult for me. Everything about what had interested me in Russian and the Soviet Union had reached a peak and I knew I had nothing left to give it. It had all become very personal, in such a way it could not be the centre of my professional career. So, I went a different direction and ended up going to law school.
Can you talk a bit about the Inna Meiman Human Rights Award?
You are so kind for asking me this question. I didn’t want my book to be about an unfamiliar and intangible time in history. I wanted to show that the themes are universal and relevant today, and to inspire college students of this generation to stand up and fight for the causes they believe in. Most of all, it is an opportunity for me to pay all that I learned from Inna forward. I’m so grateful that my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, has welcomed me back and helped me establish this as an annual award.