Interviews

ANNA LITVAK: FROM FEDERAL PRISON TO UN

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In place of the boisterous nineties with its fashion for gangsters and their model girlfriends and the 2000s with the mistresses of the oligarchs, at last we have arrived at the current decade which brings the super-women to the forefront. Self-sufficient, successful, powerful, spiritual and naturally beautiful.

In my mind, Anna Litvak is the epitome of the super-woman – Doctor of Law, former delegate, a lawyer, and a staff member at the United Nations, working with 193 countries from across the world.

By the way, this super-woman has also done extremely well in her personal life: she has been happily married for 8 years to a lawyer of Italian origin, born in Uruguay. And they are a very beautiful couple!

Who could foresee what future holds for a girl who was born on the same day as Margaret Thatcher, only many years later; and who, since the age of six, started telling her parents that she will help people when she grows up, and will leave Latvia to work for the United Nations one day.  She has, in fact, reached these heights by the age of thirty.

Despite her high position, she is very easy going and pleasant to talk to. She speaks humbly about her encounters with Prince Albert and Amal Clooney, and doesn’t consider it anything extraordinary.

And we, her compatriots, are very proud that our small country—Latvia—has given the world such a remarkable lawyer, diplomat, human being, and perhaps the future Secretary-General of the United Nations. We believe this post would suit Anna quite well!

The thorny road to the starry sky of world politics: Exclusively for VigintillionClub— by incredibly smart and beautiful Anna Litvak.

(RUSSIAN VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW YOU CAN READ HERE/РУССКУЮ ВЕРСИЮ ИНТЕРВЬЮ ЧИТАЙТЕ ТУТ)

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You were born in an intelligent Soviet family. Did your parents have any affect on the choice of your career field?

With the legal field—absolutely nothing. My career field was purely my decision. But without their support none of this would be possible! I thank my lucky stars for my parents! My mother is an organic chemist, with a specialty in medicine production. She has worked for many years in cosmetology and make up. My father has always been an outstanding entrepreneur and an innovative businessman. There was a place in Riga’s zoo where everyone from the city came to, to have pictures of their children being taken by my dad. Many of us still have pictures taken at that place. This place was started by my father at the time when not many other people had experience with photography, particularly in the Soviet Union. The pictures were taken by him on a NIKON camera, sent to him from the United States by his best friend Serge Sorokko. Nobody had such technology back then. Dad was taking pictures of children, schools and kindergarten graduations. The same friend also sent him large inflatable toys, which were also used for the photos at that location at the Zoo. People were queuing to see them. According to my father, if aliens landed on Earth today it would be less impressive than seeing those inflatable toys back then.

20130424090115_0059You probably got a bunch of baby pictures thanks to your Dad. It seems to me that you were a bit unruly as a child—there must have been many cool shots.

Yes! Exactly. We have an amazing picture, which displays all of my character. Recently in the US, we celebrated my thirtieth birthday. The guests came from all over the world. And this particular photo was enlarged and hung on the wall of the banquet hall in Manhattan. On the small photo it was impossible to see all the details, but magnified many times it opened our eyes to exactly what was happening there in the moment. I am about three years old in the photo, I have just ripped out a telephone cord from a wall and I am laughing and running away from my father. It captures the character I have had since my childhood! (Laughs).

From unruly child to legal practitioner: the best lawyers come from trouble-makers?

A truly good lawyer understands both sides.

 To summarize: (!) At 17 years old you changed your country (I understand that your dad had friends in United States where you could stay, but nevertheless).  In my opinion (I lived there some time ago) the US must have seemed like another planet—it was very brave and bold of you! The time difference, the climate, the mentality, the culture, the food, and almost everything else, is so different from Latvia. How did your parents react to this?

My parents already knew this from my early childhood, and so it was neither a shock nor a surprise. I was six years old when I told them that I will go abroad when I grow up. I studied English and French at the English school No 40. I studied languages with the thought that I am going to leave.

Why would you need French in America?

I also obtained a scholarship to go the Sorbonne, but I decided not to go although I knew French very well at that time—many teachers at school were upset!   In fact, in the end, I chose San Francisco. As a future lawyer, I was more interested in the American legal system based on precedent law rather than the European civil-law system. There were also my father’s friends, who were ready to welcome me. In my head I had already painted a bright picture of my life in America. Europe was too small for me at that time. And so, I packed my two suitcases and left for San Francisco.

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And what was your first impression of America and the city?

I had been to the United States before, San Francisco. Dad and I went there for the New Year‘s Eve for a couple of weeks, when I was finishing up high-school. I had a feeling that I was at home already, and not abroad. I felt very comfortable in America. I said to my father that I really like it, and I’m willing to stay here. He understood me and never questioned my decision.

Of course, at the age of seventeen you are absolutely certain that you’re the smartest, you know everything, and everything will be perfect—it cannot be any other way! But soon after you move to another country, you realize that you do not know anything: not how to pay the bills, not even how to get from one place to another. Unlike in Riga, where I lived in downtown (city centre), and it only took me 15 minutes to walk to school, in America, I had to get up at 5 am to get to my University by 9 am.

The US University system is radically different from Latvian. The majority of classes in Latvia are lectures. You are told where to go, so you go, sit and listen. In America, it is more autonomous—you choose the program, consisting of credits or units. Each subject you study is worth 3-4 points. For example, every semester you study 4 subjects, so 12 points in total. Criminal justice, politics, and so on—you choose the subjects and create your own program. It is quite complicated. But I knew for sure that I will study criminology. I was most interested in criminal law. I studied law with great love and passion for over 7 years in total.

How did your passion for criminal justice come about?

I have always wondered why a person chooses to behave one way over another in a given situation and what the consequences of such actions are. Why are there people we believe to be internally “good” and those we believe to be “bad”? Does a person whom society considers “bad” have rights and what are those rights? It was with such a passion and curiosity that I began to study. And this passion led me to practise in the federal prison of San Francisco: “Saint-Quentin”.   Many of you will have seen this prison in the movies. For example, it often appears in the old movies of Clint Eastwood. This is a very strict federal prison and the inmates in there have committed very serious crimes.

There were many people willing to practice there, but just two girls were chosen, and I was one of them.

The prison has very strict rules, including a specific dress code. We had to pick carefully what we wore because certain clothes could be considered be provocative to prisoners. There were certain colours that simply could not be worn because they represent affiliation with criminal gangs. For example “Crips and Bloods”—a well-known Los Angeles criminal group, with blue representing one group and the red the other.

Anna with Prince Albert

If you wore one of these colours, would you be considered to be a representative of one of the groups?

Yes, you would be seen as supporting that group. Those who did wear inappropriate clothing had to wear a white overall jumpsuit.

Did you ever wear an inappropriate colour? Confess.

No! I thought really carefully about what to wear!

And what is the right thing to wear? A pant-suit?

There are many prisoners who are mentally unstable, so any provocation that may not seem to be much to an average person, might seem provocative to the prisoners. The ideal dress code was a pant-suit, not figure-hugging, in a neutral colour. However, I was so passionate about what I was doing that I was ready to put on any outfit necessary to continue practising, including a jumpsuit.

And you, personally, talked to many of the criminals?

Yes, I worked with some criminals who had been sentenced to death. I can tell you about a specific incident from my practice. We stood with the general prison population—these are ordinary criminals—in the courtyard of the prison during their everyday walks. There is security everywhere, but we had no personal protection. One time, the guards were transporting a criminal from the death row to another prison building. We, the interns were standing right in their passage. There are different rules of behaviour in such situations. If there is any danger or threat to life, you have to get into position with your back to the wall, so that you are not stabbed or attacked from behind. When the criminal came closer, we quickly backed up to the wall. He passed by me, all in chains and hand-cuffs, turned around and said: “What ??? Never seen a guy on a death row?” This moment remained memorable to me for years to come. I have analysed this situation for several years following. I think it was a moment of fun for him, almost flirting in some way. He saw a beautiful girl. I stood there just eighteen years old, shocked; after all, this really was the first time I saw a death row inmate. I had studied them and read about them, but it was all in theory before.

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Did you save people from the death penalty? I understand this was your job in the federal prison.

In prison, I was just an intern from the University. There’s a lot of serious work undertaken by lawyers with a great deal of experience, who dedicate their lives to representing people. We learned a lot from them.  There have been occasions when convicts, who appeared on death row (were sentenced to death), have been released because their innocence has been proven by lawyers. In my University thesis I cite statistics on such cases, since the theme of my research work was “The arbitrariness of the death penalty”. Why arbitrariness? Recently, with the new developments in science, namely DNA evidence, and on the basis of this evidence, it was shown on numerous occasions that some of the convicts were not even at the scene of the crime for which they have been convicted for. Meaning the person was indeed not guilty, yet already condemned by the sentence brought into effect. I believe in eliminating these inconsistencies and feel that we should not apply the death penalty without such issues being addressed and resolved.

Or, for example, consider the poor people and minorities, who have fewer opportunities and who cannot afford a good lawyer. They may find themselves in a situation without an adequate defence, and so they get sentenced. Another example is people with learning and physical difficulties. They also face the same legal challenges. Society initially condemns such people by their outward appearances. There is complete stigmatization. These are the issues that most interested me at the time.

I’ve realized that you’re such a utopian humanist. You went through hellfire and brimstone—I mean, you have seen so many of these criminals—but your attitude towards people remained the same as before.

Indeed we have gotten to know some of the criminals quite well. I do not believe that all people in the world are good and virtuous. I understand that this is not so. But I do not judge a person from first impressions and instead, start from a neutral position. The US legal system is based on the presumption of innocence principle. I believe strongly in this concept. Until proven otherwise, a person is considered innocent, and not vice versa.

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How did the transition from death row to the UN come about?

In America, to become a lawyer—Doctor of Law—you need to study for 7 years. A bachelor’s degree is not enough, and so I went to law school for another three years, to obtain a Doctor of Law degree. When I finished law school, I was invited to work at the Commission on Human Rights of the City and County of San Francisco. There I was involved in a legal case that became decisive in my career. It involved representing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. I was the only one in the Commission who spoke Russian. I was introduced to an elderly couple, Nina and Vasily, who had been through both WWII and Chernobyl, and had moved to the United States to have a better life, in particular to address multiple health issues. They were bullied by their landlord. He tried to drive them and other occupants out of the apartment building in order to raise the rent. Naturally, I rose up as a fighter for justice! I decided that I will not forgive myself if I do not help these people, leaving them in the lurch. So I took up their cause, we fought for a year, and we won! The landlord had a huge team of lawyers. They had never lost a case before, and they were convinced of victory. What could Anna possibly do to him/them? Well, I won the case in just three minutes, but for those three minutes I was preparing for a year! The judge ordered the landlord to pay money owed to the tenants. Nina and Vasily moved to another place and started living a normal happy life. For winning this case the municipality of San Francisco gave me an award and issued a resolution in my name, which was officially handed over in San Francisco’s City Hall, with full honours. The adoption of a resolution with your name in America is considered to be a great honour. It is a recognition that you did something important.

Did you get noticed by the UN after the resolution? This was the turning point?

For me it was a turning point. That feeling when, through my knowledge and perseverance, I won a case and, most importantly, helped people, gave me the confidence that I can help yet more people, and on a larger scale – internationally.

And the United Nations gave you such an opportunity?

Yes! Again I thought about my childhood dream to work at the United Nations. Honestly, I never thought that it would happen to me at such a young age – I was 25 years old when I started with the UN. It simply turned out this way. I contacted the Latvian Mission to the United Nations in New York and received an invitation, and so with that, my husband and I moved to the East Coast.

Anna with famous lawyer Amal Clooney and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

What citizenship do you have?

I am a citizen of Latvia and a resident of the United States, and I have a green card. In the UN, initially I was a delegate: my mission was to represent Latvia at various meetings, write reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and participate in negotiations. I met with all the presidents, princes, politicians and actors. I worked in two important United Nations Committees: legal, which works on the world’s legal issues, and in administrative & financial Committee. It was an extremely valuable experience. I am still grateful to the Ambassador of Latvia to the United Nations for what he has given me: the opportunity to participate in all this at such a young age. But at this point I no longer work for Latvia and do not represent its interests in any official capacity. Today, I work for the United Nations itself, an organization that consists of 193 countries. This is what I originally wanted to do.

It is interesting to know your opinion; of all of the people that you met, who made the biggest impression on you?

Maybe I have a very strange outlook, but I don’t believe in creating idols. Although I have met kings, princes and politicians, I do not perceive them as superior in some way to ordinary people. There were, of course, pleasant moments in communicating with certain public figures. When you’re closely communicating with them, you see them from another side and realize that they are made of the same material as everyone else. I have the same relationship with the elevator operators at the United Nations, as well as with politicians, kings and presidents, whom I met at work. I respect them equally.

Did someone stand out from the crowd?

Yes, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He has served as a Secretary-General for two terms and has held many other public positions, so he could, in principle, retire from all work all together, but he is still in politics and still continues to work actively on many causes. I admire that. I also enjoyed meeting the President of Chile, Michele Bachelet. It is very inspirational to see women succeed in such positions. I also had an opportunity to meet many women activists such as Annie Lennox. She became a Goodwill Ambassador, representing the fight against AIDS.

Speaking about women, I would like to see more women in Latvia occupy important positions. At the very least, if not holding important positions, women should have a chance to do what they like and achieve success in what they do. I’ve been involved in different projects that help young people to use every opportunity to build an interesting career. Today’s woman has no right to say that “I do not know how to find it and how to do it.” I believe that today all the doors are open, and our possibilities are endless!

PHOTOS: ROMAN YEGOROV

MUAH: LUBOV ROSENFELD

VENUE: EUROPA ROYALE HOTEL

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