In 1999 we attended the Rotary International conference in Singapore and sat on a bus next to a fellow Rotarian, a physician from Ukraine. Rotary had only established its first Ukrainian club a few years earlier and my seat neighbor introduced himself to us. A conversation and friendship ensued, and "Oleg" invited us to visit him in Ukraine if the opportunity arose. It did—later that year we had the extraordinary experience of spending two weeks in Ukraine just as the country was, it seemed, beginning a journey toward democracy and free markets.
Because Sandra practices medicine, and through my contacts with Rotary International, we had the opportunity to meet many Ukrainian medical professionals. We will never forget one evening in particular. Our hosts for the evening were an oncologist and his wife, a music teacher, and we were guests in their home—a small two-bedroom apartment where they lived with their son. The oncologist's hospital, which we had toured earlier that day, was a converted horse barn; his office was a former stall. His colleague and other dinner guest was a cardiologist who had spent a few months in the 1980s in the United States on a medical exchange program—by chance at the same hospital where Sandra had been born 40 years earlier. Both were in their early 50s and had grown up in the Soviet system. To protect them now I will call them "Sergei" and "Vlad," respectively.
Sergei, the oncologist, told us he had to lock his meager medical supplies and equipment in his office each night or they would disappear by morning. He also explained that "free medicine for everyone" meant in practice that actual medical supplies and services were so scarce as to be virtually nonexistent without a bribe or access to the black market. But it was Vlad's stories that held a special poignancy and that we especially remember now.
Vlad told us what it was like growing up in fear of the secret police. He recounted how every day as a child he would come home from school and his mother would ask him, "What did they tell you today?" and then sort it out for him: "That is true. You may believe it. But that other is a lie—say nothing to your teacher, but you should not believe it." He explained how the children's job was to wait in line, sometimes for days, no matter what product was at the end. Anything that was available had potential barter value. Vlad told us how in one generation his country's culture had devolved. His grandfather, he said, was an upright and honest man who had his farm taken from him by the State. His father would steal anything to survive and would sneak into the same fields his grandfather had once owned to purloin vegetables.
He darkly joked about the local building that was the KGB's headquarters. It is, he said, the tallest building in the city: Occupants could "see Siberia from the basement." He recounted his first experience in a U.S. grocery store, when his "KGB keeper" allowed him to go there to purchase toothpaste: "I stood in the aisle looking at every imaginable variety of toothpaste. An explosion of colors, sizes, and flavors. And I was paralyzed. I could not decide. I saw Americans walk to the display and easily make their choices—but I could not. I realized in that moment that I had never really made a choice in my life. The State had assigned me to my school, my profession, my apartment, my job. Even when consumer goods were available, I had only one 'brand' of shoes, soap, or . . . toothpaste. Standing there among these Americans so easily making decisions about matters large and small in their lives—I felt like a child among adults."
He told how, when he returned to Ukraine, he had to "put his Soviet face back on. Appearing too happy was suspicious."
Late into the evening, after entirely too much caviar and vodka, Karl asked: "Vlad, Ukraine is just beginning its journey to freedom. Do you believe it will stay the course?" This mild-mannered, soft-spoken, 50-year-old Ukrainian cardiologist was silent a long time, staring into his glass. Then he lifted his head and looked straight at me across the table. "I do not know," he said softly. "But I do know this. I will never go back. I will pick up a gun. I will fight in the streets. But I will never . . . go . . . back."
"Vlad"—If you're among those who were in the streets—I hope you are well and safe.
Note: In this collection of images from Misha Domozhilov and Katya Rezvaya, you may find among them the face of "Vlad," who apparently kept his promise.