To Russia With Love

Natasha Lisman has come a long way from a primitive hovel in Kazakhstan

Published in 2005 Massachusetts Super Lawyers magazine

By Michelle Bates Deakin on October 21, 2005


At 60, Natasha C. Lisman is doing a lot of reminiscing. She is remembering her “Sweet 16” party in Wroclaw, Poland, a teens-only event where she slow-danced to Elvis Presley and wore black-market blue jeans.

She is recalling her pre-teen years in Ukraine, and her parents returning to their two-room apartment from the public well, carrying water in pails suspended from yokes across their shoulders.

And she recollects the home she left at age 4 in Kazakhstan, a settlement around a station stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, where she lived in a primitive, two-room hovel, with her parents, her sister and her grandparents.

Often it is retirement that prompts this kind of reflection. But for Lisman, a partner at Boston’s Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, it’s her career’s renaissance that is prompting her to look back. Her four-decades-long interest in American civil liberties and commercial litigation is morphing into an international practice that includes a focus on arbitration and Russian civil rights. And in June 2005, her husband of 37 years arranged a “roots” tour for the couple and their two 20-something children to explore Lisman’s childhood haunts in Poland and Ukraine.

Her 10-day trip was more than she’d imagined. In Wroclaw, Lisman found that time had stood still — with bakeries and butcher shops lining the narrow streets, just as she remembered them. Her memories of Ukraine, once hazy recollections of a place she left at age 12, were brought to life. She met with members of the tiny remaining Jewish community, connecting threads left unraveled for more than a generation.

“My psyche and my mind were preoccupied with tying up the loose strands in my life and making it into an integrated whole,” says Lisman, whose English bears only the faintest traces of a Polish accent. “I had been living a fugue in different melody lines, and I’ve decided to bring it together into a symphony. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to connect things in this way.”

It would take a capable composer to blend the refrains of Lisman’s life into a single opus. She is at once fully Americanized with sensibilities that are both Russian and Polish. Her outlook is informed by secular Judaism and philosophical liberalism. And she’s an old-fashioned Boston liberal who campaigned in 1972 for George McGovern. Lisman has blended her many intensities into a unified whole behind a handsome, broad face with a warm smile that frequently gives way to an infectious laugh. “If I were a lawyer in a conventional practice firm, I couldn’t do all the things I’m doing,” she says.

East Meets West

Lisman was born in Kazakhstan in 1945, where her family had been resettled during WWII. The family returned to its native Ukraine at the end of the war, and then immigrated to Poland in 1956 under a Soviet program that allowed people — such as her father — who had been born in a section of Ukraine that once belonged to Poland to repatriate to that country. After five years in Poland, the family applied to relocate to the United States. Many Poles were doing the same thing in the early 1960s, and the wait was years long. But her family applied as Russian citizens using her mother’s citizenship, and the United States accepted the family’s application after just a year. Lisman, 17 at the time, moved with her parents and sister to Brookline, Mass., in 1962. (Her sister, who works in health care policy and management, still lives nearby in Massachusetts, and her father and mother, a retired barber and seamstress, live in Massachusetts and winter in Florida.) Lisman attended high school in Brookline before enrolling in Brandeis University and then graduate school at MIT to study political science. The solitary nature of academia frustrated Lisman, however, and she took time off to work on the McGovern campaign.

Rather than returning to MIT, Lisman wandered into the Boston office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and announced that she wanted to volunteer. She was asked to look into a new project on the threat to privacy of personal data in the dawning age of information technology. She launched her research, got a grant funded and was hired. She worked there for two years before deciding to move on to Boston University Law School and, upon graduation in 1978, Sugarman Rogers.

Lisman refers to the firm as her “one and only.” The firm’s support of both profit-making and public-minded projects has let Lisman combine high-profile corporate litigation for companies in the fields of insurance, commerce, manufacturing, banking and professional services with endeavors such as being president of the ACLU of Massachusetts. She led that group for two years in the 1980s and, on behalf of it, represented the NAACP in racial segregation and housing discrimination cases — one of which has been going on for over 23 years.

Her interest in civil rights slowly pulled her from issues plaguing the African-American community to European racial struggles that affected her own family. In 1999, Lisman served as senior counsel to an international tribunal in Switzerland that was resolving claims to Holocaust-era bank accounts. The work was challenging — the tribunal called upon an international team of lawyers, paralegals and administrators to sort through claims on assets deposited in Swiss bank and investment accounts. And it was personally compelling as well. Lisman’s father was the only member of his Ukrainian-Jewish family to survive the Holocaust, a feat he achieved because he was a man old enough to be drafted into the Red Army after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. After the one-year sabbatical Lisman took to work with the tribunal, she wrote in the magazine Justice, “I have had the good fortune to … achieve a measure of justice, even if limited and belated, in honor of the victims of the horror which consumed my own grandparents and aunts and uncles.”

A year and a half later Lisman was traveling again. This time her pro bono effort took her to her homeland for the first time since she was a young girl. Lisman’s interest in the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) had been piqued at a presentation on the group she had attended at the Boston Bar Association. It just so happened that the ISLP was in search of a volunteer to join a Russian human rights team to assess the needs and priorities of Russia’s human rights movement. “Many of the volunteers with ISLP are semi-retired,” says Lisman. “But because of the firm’s pro bono policy, I could incorporate this work into my practice.” The result of their trip was a 65-page report they called “Human Rights in Russia Next Phase: From Glasnost to Slyshnost.” The term glasnost, which came into use during Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration during the breakup of the Soviet Union, means “voicing concerns.” Slyshnost is a term coined by a Russian human rights leader interviewed by the team and it means “making oneself heard.”

The executive director of ISLP calls Lisman a “dream of a board member.” Says Jean Berman, “Natasha brings the perspective of someone who knows very well both the American legal system and the culture of Russia.”

Her work with ISLP led Lisman to Jurix, a Moscow-based lawyers group that defends constitutional rights and freedoms in Russia. Lisman and a colleague at Sugarman Rogers provided research for an amicus brief, penned by Jurix laywers, for a Russian freedom-of-the-press case that was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Lisman’s contribution detailed how similar cases have been handled in U.S. courts. “U.S. decisions carry a lot of weight and are often cited in the European Court of Human Rights,” says Lisman. “Because of our Bill of Rights and our litigious culture and active civil liberties groups, we have developed a body of law that brings life to these noble declarations.”

As Lisman’s pro bono work has become more international, so has her commercial work, which makes up 85 percent of her practice. She often pursues arbitration with her overseas clients. “The creation of [international arbitration] is an extraordinary achievement,” says Lisman. “I wish it could be extended beyond commercial disputes. I wish the U.S. would join the International Criminal Court, and I wish we could have an International Court of Human Rights, not just [one in] Europe.”

If anyone would understand the value of international relations, it would be Lisman. Her life has largely been shaped by the variety of experiences she has had while living and working abroad. And now she is striving to pass along her worldly wisdom to her children, Nora and Aaron. Last June’s “roots” tour proved valuable in this regard.

During the trip a guide her husband had hired through a company called “ShtetlSchleppers” tracked down several people to help steer the family through Lisman’s past. The effect was to see history come to life. “My kids mentioned that they have heard my story many times, but it was always an abstraction,” says Lisman. “Now they say that the kind of person that I am makes more sense. They can see all of the transitions I went through and where my flexibility and adaptability comes from.”

Such traits have helped make Lisman the accomplished lawyer she is. “You do what appeals to you if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to follow your interests,” she says. “It is very satisfying that I can take advantage of all my life experience.”

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