Saturday May 29, 2010 was a sad day and writing about the passing of a friend is difficult for anyone. During the frenzy of phone calls and chatting with friends from all over the world about our common loss I was asked to write something in memory of Ilko Kucheriv for Ukraine Business, well here it is, including the Editorial note from the publishers.
[Editor’s Note: Immediately upon learning of the death of Ilko Kucheriv, we called one of his oldest friends and asked that friend, Vasyl Pawlowsky if he would be kind enough to pen an appropriate obituary. We know this was a painful exercise for Vasyl and we appreciate his efforts. Please note that Vasyl has included at the end of the obituary a note regarding funeral arrangements on June 1, 2010.]
By Vasyl Pawlowsky
On May 29, 2010, Ukraine and all those who cared about making the world a better and democratic place lost a good friend, when the life of Ilko Kucheriv, the Director of Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation, came to an end. It was an end that so many saw coming, while at the same time they all tried, in every way humanly possible, to extend the life of a man, father and friend who had so many plans, for a man who was 55 years young.
On May 15, I received an e-mail from my good friend and colleague Ilko Kucheriv that he dictated to his wife.
“Hello, Bill. Thank you for your caring and troubles. Honestly, this little surprise has substantially changed my life and priorities. I remain a cocksure optimist and am preparing to fight for my life with all my strength.”
Two days earlier a friend had called me from Kyiv to inform me that the surprise Ilko referred to was lung cancer a diagnosis he had received at the beginning of the month of May. The troubles Ilko referred to were my effort to rally his friends and acquaintances worldwide to help him in his battle of a lifetime.
The attitude and conviction I felt in his words were one hundred percent Ilko, the Ilko that many in Ukraine’s NGO community had gotten to know over the years.
While Ilko had graduated from Shevchenko University with a degree in biology following in the footsteps of his other family members, the events that transpired in the mid to late 1980s completely changed the direction of his life.
He became involved in the dissident movement in the mid to late 1980s and as part of that he made frequent train runs to the Baltic countries in order to print publications in Ukrainian that were not sanctioned by the authorities. He was on the organizing committee for the first meeting of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (for reconstruction) RUKH in 1989, and worked in that organization’s secretariat from 1898-1990 in 1992 under the encouragement of Vyacheslav Chornovil he started the Democratic Initiatives center, which later became a Foundation in 1996. Of all the people who would have crossed paths with Ilko in those early years, or those who worked with him or got to know him through the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, be they sociologists, NGO activists, journalists or simply friends, they all knew or quickly came to know one thing. Ilko was a man of conviction and vision and was one of the very few in Ukraine who did not sell out to the politicos in the country. He was tireless, professional and devoted to everything he tackled in order to make the world and his country a better place. In order to do this he used sociology and public opinion. He wanted the people leading the country to know what the people who were following thought, and from 1993 until the very end, he was editor of “Political Portrait of Ukraine” a bulletin that came out as number 37-38 at the end of last year.
Ilko was a pioneer in so many ways. I met him in Kyiv in the spring of 1999 and it was not long before he was asking me as a Canadian and native speaker of the English language to help him go over a funding agreement he had received from a major international donor to finance the Exit Poll his organization was going to conduct during the Presidential elections at the end of October of that year. This was only the second time Ukraine had ever had Exit Polls, the first were organized and conducted by Ilko and his organization during the Parliamentary Elections in 1998. In the international community, the word Exit Poll became synonymous with Ilko Kucheriv.
Ilko was a strong advocate on importing foreign know-how for the cause of improving Ukraine. Over the nearly eleven years that followed I became a good friend of not only Ilko’s but also of his co-workers in acquiring the required resources to carry out his projects and working towards the goals and objectives he had set together with his colleagues. On many occasions, we traveled together as part of his vision of gathering the experiences of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, Slovakia and Poland and partnering with leading organizations in those countries in order to learn from the very best.
Ilko was a man who was serious and had no problems in using unusual methods in order to draw society’s attention to issues that were important to him and to Ukraine. Being a strong advocate of Ukraine becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization he made a statement that caught the country’s eye, well at least it caught the eye of the Ukrainian media. During NATO’s Secretary General Lord Robertson’s one-day visit to Kyiv on October 20, 2003 Ilko presented Robertson with his personal application to become a member of NATO. He clearly had a sense of humor and this was true to the very end of his life.
In March of 2004, Ilko and I were on our way to Bratislava on business. Given NATO by this time had a new Secretary General he said to me as our plane came into to land, “Bill, you have to make out a new application for me to present to the new Secretary General, he will be at a Minster’s conference this week.” I agreed that it was a good idea and would turns heads, and he agreed that we would have to see if would at all be possible. During one of those days in mid March from up on the hill of Bratislava’s Castle Ilko and I planned an exit poll that would be as he dubbed it “a litmus test for democracy in Ukraine”. It was an exit poll in the highly contested mayoral elections in the Transcarpathian town of Mukachevo. A month later Ilko’s “litmus test” proved to be highly acidic and a great deal of what Ilko had foreseen and witnessed, played itself out during the second round of presidential elections in November of 2004. The instrument which Ilko had introduced to Ukraine, the exit poll, laid credence to electoral fraud which led to be what the world knows as the Orange Revolution.
Ilko was well traveled, well spoken and well liked by those who got to know him. While much of his travel abroad, like his projects, was funded by international donor organizations he always tried to find a manner in which he could share his experience with his family: his wife Iryna and daughters Olesia and Bohdanka.
One such journey was when he had obtained a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship and traveled to Washington, DC, as he prepared for his departure he said to me, “I have to make sure that I have my family come and spend some time with me and get to see things.” This attitude of travel did not stop with that trip. As I was preparing for my departure from Ukraine last summer, Ilko was planning a trip for his family through Europe by car. He was an avid driver, after getting his driver’s license late in life and also had to meet with colleagues in Bratislava for a project so he figured, why not make a family trip out of it.
Over the last number of years, I had consulted for Ilko and his organization, and he would often call me up on a Friday and say, “Bill, how about I pick you tomorrow morning. The family is up at the dacha and we can join them. A swim, the fresh air, it will help you think better, and we can put in a few hours of work on the project!”
The average Ukrainian probably never heard of Ilko Kucheriv but anyone who had ever met him, talked with him, asked him for his opinion or advice knew that he was passionate about what he did, and he was passionate for one single reason. He wanted to make Ukraine and the world a better place, not just for himself, but also for everyone.
Two weeks after I had received Ilko’s first little communiqué of thanks, the same headstrong and positive Ilko Kucheriv made announcement via his organization’s website. In it, he stated that he remains optimistic and shared with readers how he had come to know of his condition, his recent trip to Indonesia for a conference that I called beautiful and necessary. That conference was the Sixth Assembly of the World Movement of Democracy and he stated he wanted to share the address of President of Indonesia, the Honorable Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with his Ukrainian colleagues and he would publish the Ukrainian version soon. He closed with: “I feel colossal support from people. They call me and write to me from Ukraine, Europe and the United States…I am thankful to everyone. It is very important to me. None of us knows how much time we have. Unconditionally, there was an overestimation of all values and a personal value of time. I want to use this time in the most effective and thought out way possible. I began to practice yoga like I did in the 1980s before Chornobyl, I go to church, I think about my work and my organization and I believe, believe that people can and should change the world for the better. I remain with you, and I am sincerely thankful. Ilko Kucheriv”.
Upon hearing the news of Ilko’s passing I immediately felt a loss. Incredibly the feeling was one that I can only equate to the loss of my father that same year Ilko completed his university studies over thirty years ago. Those who knew Ilko cried out with one voice that Saturday evening, whether through statements on the support page set up on Facebook, in e-mails or in long, tearful and necessary telephone conversations of mourning.
I, together with everyone else who knew Ilko Kucheiv, will miss him immensely. May the earth of your dear country Ukraine cradle you gently and may your soul and spirit always be nearby to guide those who want the world to be a better place.
Vasyl (Bill) Pawlowsky
From DIF’s Website…
June 1, 2010
A Day of Farwell with well known civic activist Ilko Kucheriv
Program of Events of Morning
10:30 – 11:10 – відспівування, Cultural-Art Center of NaUKMA, 9 Illinska;
11:10 – 12:30 – Community commemorative service, same place панахида,
13:30 – 14:30 – Berkovetsky Cemetery, plot 87 18 Stetsenko Street
15:30 – 17:30 – A lunch of Remembrance, Shovkovhchna 1