By Lara Cornelius, Staff Writer
Larisa is a beam of light when she steps into a room – the embodiment of Eastern European beauty, elegance, and grace. For as long as I can remember, she has never allowed me to call her babushka, or grandmother, only by her first name. I do not think I could ever imagine Larisa growing “older” in the conventional sense of the word, and over the years she has only become more active in human rights and political affairs. Today she continues to travel to various UN summits around the world: from Palestine, to Morocco, to Paris, to Johannesburg, advocating peace and spreading her light. Larisa is co-author of several books on health, gender equality, and sustainable development, and she has also written many articles on climate change.
For me, I will always picture her as the angelic woman who sang beautiful Russian lullabies to me during White Nights, the humid Moscow summers of my childhood. For the rest of the world, she is one of the first people to change the face of the Soviet Union in the United States forever. Yet she is still much, much more than that.
In light of her birthday this past Monday, the 20th, I would like to share a bit of the story of the woman who has shaped my world and has never failed to inspire me through her generous acts of kindness, soft nature, and commitment to making a change.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved in political affairs.
Hello, my name is Larisa. I was born in Baku, Azerbaijan (USSR). My father was Russian and my mother Ukrainian. I am a physician by education and I also studied International Affairs at Colombia University at the Human Rights Center. I am involved in the gender aspect of environment, health and human rights. I am an MD and PhD as well.
In 1982, I became part of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. This movement began in 1980 by physicians in US and the Soviet Union who both shared the common goal to prevent nuclear war between the two countries. As doctors, we felt obligated to prevent what we could not treat – there would be no cure for this kind of epidemic. For our efforts to unite physicians through the divide of the Cold War, the IPPNW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. My involvement in this movement forever shaped my way of looking at the world and drove my passion for social affairs. I used my experience in this movement to become deeply involved in climate change and human rights today.
When did you first feel you were making a change? Did you always feel you had a calling?
From the moment I became I physician, I had the understanding that as a doctor you have a dual obligation:
1. The oath of a medical professional.
2. You have knowledge of basic human rights and you have a duty to protect those rights.
When I became part of the Physicians Against Nuclear War movement it changed my life forever and I had the opportunity to carry out this understanding.
In 1985, I was invited to the US as member of delegation of Soviet Union by Betty Bumpers, who at the time was the wife of Dale Bumpers, the senator of Arkansas. Betty Bumpers created Peace Links at the time. She began this organization because during this period of the Cold War, her daughter was living in fear that the the Soviet Union would drop nuclear weapons on the United States. Betty felt it was her duty to show the human face of the Soviet Union to the people of America. She soon invited 15 women from the USSR to the United States for the first time. I was a member of this delegation.
Did you feel your visit to the United States changed America’s perception?
Absolutely. In two weeks, with two other women, we visited 3 states: AZ, Nevada, and Utah. We were the first people, no–not women, people, from the Soviet Union to ever go to these three states and also to live in citizens’ houses. We gave many speeches and met many people during this trip. There was a very memorable event I remember in Salt Lake City where we had a special, two-and-a-half-hour meeting at the Museum of Art and people from all over Utah came to greet us. We stood between two flags – the Soviet Union and the United States. It was a powerful symbol. When I returned to Russia, I received many letters and a producer from Hollywood even made a film called From Heart to Heart about this journey.
This experience changed my life because it made me truly understand that it is individuals that make changes – even if you start somewhere small. If you try to penetrate the system, someone will listen, hear what you are saying, then also make the change. I cannot emphasize how important it is to share your knowledge.
What advice can you give future generations?
Education is the most important aspect of life. The more you educate yourself, the more the idea of justice and human rights become instilled in you and the more you care about it. I would say that it is necessary to study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it is important fundamental knowledge for every individual on this planet to know.
Only through true education can anything change in our world. We are the ones living on this planet so we are the ones doing good and doing bad. It is not that many people purposefully do bad. But if you know how your actions impact the planet, if you are educated, then you start thinking about those actions, and that is where true change begins: with education and awareness. The reason I have committed my life to spread global awareness is in order to share knowledge. I am trying to develop and bring to the forefront the issue of human rights. If I am talking about the human rights issue in Russia, it also helps people in other countries. I try to live my life by doing locally, and thinking globally. You really do not ever know who you could impact.
For example, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, it was considered that the victory was a result of the exertion of political will of the leaders and countries involved. I actually share the opinion of people who believe it was the citizens of our countries who created the climate to make it possible for this stalemate to happen. We must continue this citizen’s movement now when we have so many controversial issues globally.
Please include one of my favorite phrases that speaks to my soul, by Boris Pasternak, a Soviet Russian poet.
Jolts and revolutions
do not clear a path to a new life
But rather revelations and kind acts
from someone’s inspired soul…
Larisa has written a number of books and is open to anyone reaching out to her for more information about the United Nations, human rights affairs, and climate change. She currently lives in Moscow with my grandfather, Vadim Repin. Please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.