Volodymyr Kovalchuk of Lutsk, Ukraine, and my friend of 20 years, died on May 1, 2017.
He died of stomach cancer. “Volodymyr thought you were a very noble person,” my friend wrote me. “I saw him about 6 months ago. We stood outside my apartment and reminisced about those years when the Fitzmahan’s lived in our town. We talked about how much we looked forward to working together to help with your next book.”
Many of my friends from Ukraine are suffering. Jobs have dried up. Pensions are not sufficient to pay for retirement. Many have left and moved to other parts of Europe.
Those who can not leave, stay behind dreading the Russian invasion and fear for their survival.
I would like to return to Lutsk and conduct interviews to update the research and writing I did 20 years ago. I still have one good friend who was my mentor and guide during my last trips. I hope he is still there when I return. I would like to document in writing and photography, the life of the Ukrainians I left behind in Lutsk. Lutsk in 2017. 26 years after independence from the Soviet Union.
I will miss my friend very much. I will miss his humor, his fearlessness, and his devotion to the truth.
The following post is an excerpt from an earlier post I wrote in June 2016, “Hide your papers, he advise. Under the potatoes.”
About 5 foot 8 with greying hair, he was a facsimile of Martin Freeman in The Hobbit. Volodymyr Kovalchuk was neither a professor nor a lawyer. I wasn’t sure how he could help me. He spoke English, but not fluently.
A retired communist bureaucrat, Volodymyr had been a member of the Communist Party. In Soviet times, this Frodo look-a-like was a very powerful man. He decided 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 priceless piece of paper 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 me 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 comparison between Western and Ukrainian law turned out to be a complicated and 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 complicated 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 independent Ukraine. I gathered and analyzed the data, and ultimately wrote an article documenting the Ukrainian legal system as it worked in 1997. It turned out that I had written the first piece of scholarship on the Ukrainian legal system to be published in English. Columbia University published my study under the over-long title, “Vestiges of Soviet Control Mechanisms in the District Court of Ukraine.”
I did all my interviewing in Volyn District, primarily in its capital, Lutsk. Between 1997 and 2000, I met with over 100 jurists. I attended trials and visited jails.
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 friendships were forged. How trust was developed. You drank together. You laughed and you cried together.