In memory of Myroslaw Smorodsky

Михайло

Andy J. Semotiuk, U.S. and Canadian Immigration Lawyer.

I first met Myroslaw Smorodsky in the mid-1970s, over 45 years ago, when we met to defend dissidents in the former Soviet Union. At that time, I was in Toronto and a member of the Committee for the Defense of Valentyn Moroz, a Ukrainian historian who was imprisoned in Vladimir Prison, just northeast of Moscow. Myroslaw was a member of the Committee for the Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners (CDSPP) based in New York. Our initial contact was to explore whether our groups could work together and how to coordinate our activities. Shortly after that in 1975, I moved to New York to work at the United Nations as a correspondent and also for the World Congress of Free Ukraine in its Human Rights Bureau with Stephan Welhasch and Oksana Demchyshyn. Before long, I became a member of the CDSPP and we started meeting regularly on Friday nights at Orchidea, a restaurant on Second Avenue and 9th Street in the Ukrainian Section of the East Village. All the regulars were there: Roman Kupchynsky, Victor Rud, Adrian Karatnytsky, Alex Motyl, Marusia Proskurenko, Ludmila Thorne, and Stephan and Oksana, to name just a few.

Myron, as we called him, was someone who became close to me because he was a fellow lawyer, he was a techie and often offered me advice on computers and new technology that was becoming popular. He told me his mother had been in UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, that fought both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks during World War II. She trained soldiers on how to shoot weapons. For him, Ukraine was not some distant country or abstract idea – it was something he cherished deep inside his soul. He loved Ukraine as much as he loved America – just as one can love one’s mother and father at the same time.

Myron was very thoughtful and supportive. He saw the usefulness of my U.N. work. He valued me as a fellow attorney and I valued him likewise. When he called me on the phone, he always used the diminutive “Andrijcheku,” and I would call him “Myroniu.” He was also someone who worked closely with Roman Kupchynsky and Prolog, a center of much Ukrainian activity that provided information and resources we could use in our work. We bonded closely because of Roman, someone we both admired. We got things done. Myron was someone who could write a good political article that made sense and was often the first to criticize U.S. foreign policy initiatives that were harmful to Ukrainian interests. We knew we could rely on his sound arguments to make our case. He was the real McCoy.

As the U.S.S.R. began falling apart and Soviet dissidents started arriving in New York City, the Committee became more active, holding meetings with them. We also initiated talks with Ramsey Clark, President Kennedy’s former Attorney General, and a prominent lawyer named Melvin Wolfe, to begin working with them jointly to help liberate more Soviet political prisoners. In time, Leonid Plyushch appeared, the first Ukrainian political prisoner released from the U.S.S.R. Other Soviet dissidents followed, among them Pavel Litvinov, Valery Chalize, and ultimately, Valentyn Moroz himself. Our work was bearing fruit.

By 1978 my work at the United Nations was ending and I decided to return to Canada. When I moved to Western Canada in 1979, we stayed in touch sporadically almost losing touch. Then one day in the early 1980s, Myron called me. He was very excited and wanted to talk about a project involving Volodymyr Talanchuk, a Ukrainian who had moved to Canada from Poland and who was then building ultralight airplanes. The discussion led to an initiative involving Chinese diplomats at the United Nations who took an interest in the new plane. I flew to New York to meet with Myron and Roman Kupchynsky to discuss the prospects of building these airplanes in China. Before long, I was on a plane traveling to Beijing with Talanchuk to discuss opening a factory there. Myron and Roman even flew once to Edmonton to meet with us to facilitate the project. After several trips, we reached an agreement to start a factory. Indeed, the Chinese prepared a building and even laid down airstrips for the airplanes to use.

But then tragedy struck. First, Talanchuk announced that despite all the plans and agreements, he refused to go to China. He would not budge, despite our exhortations and pleading with him. He was afraid he would not be able to function in their communist system. Coming from Poland, he pointed out, he knew what it meant to work in such a system and concluded it was impossible, despite all the preparations that were done for our arrival. I had the unpleasant duty of informing Myron and through him, our New York partners about the bad news.

This is where the old Ukrainian saying that Krashche z rozumnym zahubyty, nizh z durnym znajty – it is better to lose with someone intelligent than to win with someone stupid, came to mind. We were lucky to be working with Myron and Roman. To say that I delivered some bad news would be an understatement. It would fall on Myron and Roman to mend fences and try to buffer the blow with our Chinese counterparts. It was ugly, but somehow they managed. Then, soon after all that, Talanchuk suddenly died of a heart attack. He left his wife with two small children. Any hope the project could still be saved was lost. Myron and I were left picking up the pieces. Myron used his diplomacy and tact to get us out of a bad situation. But I have to say I never saw him lose his temper, or blame anyone for this, during this project or any other setback. It was part of the emotionally mature person he was. He could accept setbacks without resentment or recrimination.

We met again in San Francisco a few years later. Myron was there helping Ukrainian political prisoners make presentations to the American Bar Association (ABA). I traveled there with Danylo Shumuk, who was once the world’s longest imprisoned prisoner of conscience according to Amnesty International. Shumuk was scheduled to present to the ABA and I was to act as his translator. The night before we were to present, we met with Myron to prepare.

Myron warned me that Shumuk only had ten minutes to speak and that I needed to prepare him to be concise in what he said. We did warn Shumuk together about the timing as well, but, I have to admit, I did not do enough to prepare him. Shumuk wandered around all over the place for ten minutes and then suddenly, the ABA Chairman cut him off. That was it! We were stunned. If only I had listened to Myron and done more to prepare Shumuk!

Shumuk was shaken but managed to recover and then dictated a letter to me on the plane while flying home that made all the points he wanted to make with the ABA. We sent it off to them from Canada and it was well-received.

In the years that followed, Myron and I worked on estates involving decedents who died in the U.S. but left Ukrainian beneficiaries. We worked together while I was practicing in California for ten years, and later when I was in New York and finally after I returned to Canada again. Myron was very knowledgeable about wills and estates and litigated Ukrainian estate cases successfully in the U.S. He helped to defend Ukrainians that were wrongfully accused of collaboration with the Nazis, a task that was not always easy. He worked on recovering damages from Germany for those who had been taken into forced labor during the war, and those who were incarcerated in the camps. He worked with people from all backgrounds: Russians, Jews, Armenians, Poles, Balts, Hungarians, you name it – he got along with all of them.

He was the kind of person who showed up when he said he would, did what he promised, finished what he started, and meant what he said. He was completely reliable, strong-willed decent, and unwilling to compromise his principles. We had our differences, of course. He definitely saw things from an American viewpoint, whereas I saw them from a Canadian one. But these were minor differences because we both had strong Ukrainian roots. When we met as individuals, or with our wives, we always enjoyed each other’s company.

About a year ago, after Myron and his wife Zirka moved to Southern New Jersey, she died from a long battle with cancer. Losing Zirka clearly shook him to the core. He seemed to lose his sense of direction. He started losing interest in his law practice and began writing poetry. While he responded to calls and emails, he was not as diligent as before. He seemed lost without Zirka. Then last Thursday, April 30th, 2020, he died of surgical complications following a heart attack.

It is impossible for me to pay the full tribute I would like to this beautiful human being. But let me try with the following story. It is one of the most beautiful stories I know, and it comes from the opera Madame Butterfly.

The opera is the story of Chio Chio San, that is to say, “Butterfly,” a Japanese Geisha girl who falls in love with an American sailor, named Pinkerton, who was stationed in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. He leaves to return to America, not knowing that she is expecting his child. Years pass while she faithfully waits for his return. Eventually, he comes back to Japan with an American wife but then learns that Butterfly has given birth to his son. They struggle with the question of who will best be able to raise the child, and where. Butterfly realizes there is no future for a son of a Geisha girl in Japan. She agrees to let the son go to live with his father in America. In the final scene, Butterfly parts with her young son, about four years old, for the last time. In her final words, she says to him, “Look at this face. Remember it. It is the face of your mother. You will never see it again.” After the son is taken away by Pinkerton, she commits suicide.

And so it is, that we will never see Myron again. Yes, his sudden death was a shock to all of us. But instead of mourning his loss with bitter resignation, lamenting that his life was interrupted too soon, instead, let us think of his life as a shooting star, a momentary dazzling burst of brilliance, a fleeting fragment of life suddenly appearing out of an eternity of nonexistence. Let us celebrate that we were able to at least seize and enjoy that miraculous moment of time together with him, during his brief stay on this earth with us.

SHARE