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To (and From) Russia, With Love

Romance and a common cause keep this bicultural couple jetting between L.A. and Moscow.

November 28, 2000|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It sounds like the scenario for some half-forgotten Cold War spy thriller: Former FBI top gun found in suburban love nest with Russian engineer! Couple swapped inside information!

Joe McCarthy and Nikita Khrushchev would be spinning in their graves.

But this isn't 1955. Nor would people be likely to peg this unusual L.A. power couple, Tom Parker and Marina Pisklakova, as transatlantic operatives in a field where both courage and risk are commonplace.

Scrunched together on a sofa in their comfy Agoura Hills home, Parker, 56, and Pisklakova, 39, seem like any other blissful newlyweds. He praises her; she blushes. He kisses the top of her head; she smiles. You'd guess this pair spent their days shuttling kids to soccer practice and prowling the aisles at Ralphs, not jetting off to Johannesburg and fielding urgent e-mail from Moscow.

So what was the first thing Parker noticed when he met Pisklakova three years ago at a private party following the annual Human Rights Watch "Voices of Justice" dinner at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel? When this steely but soft-spoken Soviet air force colonel's daughter was honored by the New York-based humanitarian agency for setting up Russia's first battered women's hotline and organizing its first women's crisis center?

Her tenacity? Her formidable intellect?

"The first impressions were that, obviously, she was a very sexy lady," Parker begins earnestly. "Oh, c'mon!" Pisklakova protests, not totally displeased.

Truth is, Parker can't help himself. When it comes to his new wife, this tough-minded career cop and former deputy chief of the FBI's L.A. office is as proud and giddy as a high school senior squiring his date to the prom. He can't hold back his admiration any more than Pisklakova at dinner that first night could help noticing the streak of closet liberalism lurking inside the conservatively dressed businessman across from her.

"Tom was giving me so much support," Pisklakova recalls in her accented but emphatic English. "We gave each other a goodbye hug," Parker remembers glowingly, "and you could feel the chemistry."

Two years and several round-trip L.A.-Moscow plane tickets later, they were married. This week, they'll be back in Russia, helping her homeland take a few more small steps in the difficult march toward equality for women. The couple will be giving speeches, meeting with women's crisis center staffers--many of them originally recruited and trained by Pisklakova--and holding talks with Russian police about developing a domestic crisis intervention training program. Pisklakova says her husband's law enforcement background has helped open doors in dealings with the former KGB agents now working with Russia's national police.

It's all in a typical week's work for the couple, whom friends and Human Rights Watch colleagues describe as a tireless and dynamic tandem.

"There is a kind of gentleness and a fundamental decency about each of them," says actor Mike Farrell of "MASH" fame, who has been friends with Parker for several years and helped inspire him to become a Human Rights Watch supporter. "I think they complement each other. Marina's the grass-roots person and he's the inside man."

"The commonality for them is a shared set of values about the importance of making this world a better world," echoes Victoria Riskin, who with her husband and fellow screenwriter David Rintels hosted Parker and Pisklakova's wedding a year ago in their Brentwood garden.

Even so, the journey often has been a harrowing one, particularly for Pisklakova, whose efforts on behalf of women have been mocked by some Russian journalists and prompted death threats from irate husbands and boyfriends. Designated a "monitor" by Human Rights Watch, which investigates and exposes human rights violations around the world, Pisklakova says of her advocacy work that, "If I had known that path at the beginning, I don't know if I would go there. I've been several times severely burned out."

*

Trained as an aeronautical engineer at the Moscow Aviation Institute, Pisklakova became interested in domestic violence issues while conducting economic research for the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the newly formed Center for Gender Studies in the late 1980s.

At the time, Russia was in the throes of glasnost, but domestic violence was still a taboo topic. When a few women wrote to Pisklakova describing their wretched home lives and abusive mates, she says, "I didn't know what to do. They were asking for help and I didn't know what to respond. But I felt that I should respond."

She went to the center's director, who told her that in the West these abuses were known as domestic violence. "That was the first time I'd heard the term," says Pisklakova, who later coined the equivalent Russian phrase, domachnee nasilie.

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