In Memorium – Volodymyr Kovalchuk

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

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.

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“We Ukrainians are depressed. So we smoke and we drink coffee. Unless we drink vodka. But, I don’t have any vodka today.”

Two girls peeking around the corner of a dilapidated stone wall.
Friends. Lutsk, Ukraine. 1998

Nora puts herself in her art. Pointing to her sketch of a pregnant woman sitting on a turtle, she said,  “See here. It’s my nose. I can’t paint without putting it in.” I bought this sketch, The Spanish Lady, from Nora in 1998.  For a $100.  I smuggled the piece out of Ukraine, rolled up in my guitar case.   

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

“Is OK. I speak English. Not very well, but we will be fine. We will talk photography.”

Volodya - Volyn Studio. Lutsk, Ukraine. 1997
Volodya – Volyn Studio. Lutsk, Ukraine. 1997

“Hey, Volodya, take care of this American lady,” Borys hollered down the hall.  A gangly young man peered around the corner.  Grunting to Borys in a “Ja, ja,” but smiling at me like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a young man took my hand and guided me down and around into a long narrow room soaked with the smell of chemicals.  “Is OK.  I speak English.  Not very well, but we will be fine. We will be friends.  We will talk photography.” Pointing to the enlargers, he said, “These are old Russian machines.  Not bad.  Nothing like you have in America, I bet.”

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