“Hide your papers,” he advised, “under the potatoes.”

Black and white photograph of four youths climbing stairs in post-Soviet Lutsk, Ukraine in 1997.
In the Neighborhood. Lutsk, Ukraine. 1997

“A man came to the KGB office.  He looked frightened.  ‘My talking parrot has disappeared.’ The agent was confused.  ‘That’s not the kind of case we handle here. Why don’t you go to the police?’ The man frowned, ‘I know that, but I am here to tell you officially that I disagree with the parrot.’”  Viktor, dean of the law school, was a man who liked a joke.  I once read that every nation likes political jokes, but to the people of the Soviet Union, jokes were a national sport. 

On my first day at the university, Viktor took my hand and smiled,  “I am happy you are here to help us get a new perspective.  A class in comparative law is just what we need. I must warn you, though, we have no textbooks, no printer, and no computers.  Sometimes we don’t even have lights,” he laughed.  

I came prepared to teach about American and European law.  But I didn’t know much about Ukrainian law.  There was nothing  written on it in English.  I asked Viktor if he would introduce me to an attorney who would teach me a little something about Ukrainian law. “Hmmm,” he said.  “I know!  I should introduce you to Volodymyr.  He’ll know what to do.”

Volodymyr Kovalchuk was neither a professor nor a lawyer.   I wasn’t sure why I needed to meet him.  He  looked like an ordinary fellow.  About 5 foot 8 with greying hair, he looked a bit like Martin Freeman in The Hobbit.  He spoke English, but not fluently.  How was this kind, simple man going to help me?

Volodymyr Kovalchuk. Lutsk,Ukraine. 1998.
Volodymyr Kovalchuk. Lutsk,Ukraine. 1998.

A retired communist bureaucrat, Volodymyr was a member of the Communist Party, one of a chosen few.  In the late 1980s less than 4% of the Ukrainian population were members of the Party of the Soviet Union.  Membership in the Party was a hard sought after honor that brought guarantees for a better job, better living quarters, a better life.

In Soviet times, this unassuming looking man held the power to decide who got a passport or not.  Many people owed Volodymyr.  In Ukraine, who you knew and who owed you, were valuable commodities. A passport, a propiska, was a valuable asset when the State restricted personal movement.  A passport was needed not only to travel abroad (a rare privilege), but to travel within the country – to take a trip to Kyiv, Moscow, or even to your Aunt Natasha’s in L’viv.  To get a place to live, a job, or to attend a university, you needed to produce your propiska.   

I shook hands with Volodymr and exchanged the requisite pleasantries.  Before I could explain what I needed, he looked directly in my eyes as if to weigh my commitment, “So you want to meet some attorneys.  Do you also want to talk to some judges?”  This would be more than I expected!  Of course I did!  “Do you want to know how the legal system works?” he asked.  “That is precisely what I need to learn. Can you help me?” I asked.  “Well, tell me.  Do you want to know how the system is suppose to work, or how the system actually works?”  Now this was going to be fun. He turned to me impishly, “If you want to learn how the system is suppose to work, this will take a couple of months.  If you want to learn how the system really works, this could take us years.”

My idea to interview a handful of attorneys so I could make a basic comparison between Western and Ukrainian law turned out to be a complicated, sometimes unnerving, three-year journey into the bowels of Soviet and Ukrainian jurisprudence. When I needed information, Volodymyr knew who to ask.  When I needed to hear the truth, a more intricate and dangerous request, he knew who to ask and how to ask for it.

Solely  through the interview process, I gathered volumes of  information on the new legal system of Ukraine.  I ultimately compiled and analyzed the data and wrote America’s first piece of scholarship on the Ukrainian legal system, in particular its flawed court system.  Columbia University eagerly published my study under the long title, “Vestiges of Soviet Control Mechanisms in the District Court of Ukraine.”  Today, 16 years later it is still the only article written by an American scholar on the subject.  

I did all my interviewing in Volyn, primarily in its capital, Lutsk.  Between 1997 and 2000, I met with nearly 100 jurists.  I attended trials and visited jails.  I did all this knowing only bits of Ukrainian and Russian.

Volodymyr taught me how to “do business” in his culture.  He taught me to drink brandy with Judge Milishchuk in the morning.  Vodka in the afternoon with the prison superintendent.  “Chut, chut, just a little. Sto grams, 100 grams,” Volodymyr encouraged. He taught me that this was how trust and friendships were forged.  “You must bring a gift, befitting the importance of the official,” Volodymyr instructed.  So I took the de rigueur gift of Scotch whiskey to my meetings.

“Hide your papers,” he advised, “under the potatoes.” Volodymyr revealed the dangers to me that all Ukrainians knew. “Don’t carry around tapes of the interviews.  Or your photographs.  They will stop and search you.”   “Who will stop me?” I asked him.  “The KGB…I mean the SBU.  They are the same! Absoliutno!” he warned.


7 thoughts on ““Hide your papers,” he advised, “under the potatoes.”

  1. Oh so well written and what an experience this must have been. Scary but courageous to walk into the smoky plague of deceit and denial. You met amazing people who survived this hell.

  2. And she can write too! I love it, I want to read more.

    And here is our big news, http://www.nytimes.com/real-estate/usa/az/arivaca/homes-for-sale/37451-dusty-dawn-lane/1996-4332749# more pics on Trulia

    We will give this place up for a spot in the White Mountains and build a hybrid of studio / home in a cooler spot. We will then be able to have both places we can choose from as weather dictates.

    Heading up to Forest Lakes to shop next week.

    Until your next blog post,


    1. Thank you. I try.

      Wow! Big news! I can’t believe it. If I weren’t such a vagabond with limited funds, I would buy your Arivaca home myself. I felt that I had a kinship to the land there. Why did you decide to move from Arivaca and not Green Valley?

      A move to the White Mountains is a good alternative to Green Valley. We went up there to stay with Denny Massion after we left you. It snowed! A different world. Denny lives there for half the year. The Mountains are where you will find another place you can make into magic. Keep us posted. Forest Lakes. Yum. Do you have a place you have already scoped out?

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