A Personal Tribute to Vitaliy Shevchenko

Marco Levytsky (left) with Vitaliy Shevchenko in front of Ukraine’s Parliament in 1993

Marco Levytsky, Western Bureau Chief.

Instead of the usual editorials I write, I am submitting this week’s piece as a personal reflection – a personal column if you wish.

On the morning of September 20, I received the sad news that my good friend and colleague, Vitaliy Shevchenko, the father of Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, passed away. I had last met with Vitaliy less than a month earlier, during Dnipro Choir’s tour of Ukraine. He had just been diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be much more serious than we originally thought.

Vitaliy had a stellar career in journalism, politics and government agencies. (Please see the Ukrainian-language obituary here). One of the founders of Rukh, he served three terms as a People’s Deputy in Ukraine’s Parliament (from 1994 to 2005). From 2005 to 2009, he headed Ukraine’s National Council for Television and Radio (the equivalent of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission).

He was a deputy to the Kyiv Oblast Council from 1990 to 1994 where he headed the opposition to the Communists. He also worked as the managing editor of Chas-Time, which was headed by the late Rukh leader Viacheslav Chornovil, from 1994 to 1996.

A member of the Ukrainian journalists’ union since 1982, he was dedicated to his profession and dedicated to uncovering the truth – even during the repressive era of the USSR. He was one of the first journalists to expose the horrors of the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan war by running a series on the young Ukrainian soldiers who were dying in that conflict, and, in 1991, unearthed and published secret documents exposing the coverup of the actual consequences of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. That’s how our paths came to cross.

In the spring of 1991, the Alberta Friends of Rukh donated some MacIntosh SE computers to the Kyiv Regional Branch of Rukh, which at that time was headed by People’s Deputy Serhiy Holovaty, to be used for their newspaper “Za Kyivs’kym Chasom” (On Kyiv Time). They then decided to send me to Kyiv for two weeks to show their journalists how to use them. At the same time, I discovered that the Ukrainian Professional and Business Association of Toronto had initiated a six-week internship program for Ukrainian entrepreneurs and professionals to train at Ukrainian Canadian businesses. I asked whether we could piggy-back on this and I could bring one of the journalists at the Kyiv paper to Edmonton, so he could train on our own computers. This would augment whatever I could do in Kyiv.

This turned out to be a good decision since while the SE’s were in place, the printers did not work, therefore we could not use them. However, another organization allowed us to use their computer and we put out the inaugural issue of “Za Kyivs’kym Chasom”, which brought those aforementioned secret documents about the Chornobyl coverup to light. Vitaliy impressed me not only by unearthing these documents, but by demonstrating a work ethic that went far above that of everyone else at that organization. I decided he was the best candidate for the internship.

Within a few weeks he was in Edmonton. As he worked at Ukrainian News, he painstakingly translated all the English-language instructions on our computers into Ukrainian and wrote them down in a notebook so he could utilize the SE’s, which also had an English-language system. As he stayed with my family throughout that period, we developed a very close friendship. He returned to Kyiv fully prepared to operate the computers there and teach the other journalists how to do so, only to find himself locked out of the office as the managing editor had absconded with the computers.

Nevertheless, our relationship was to grow considerably. He became Kyiv Bureau Chief for Ukrainian News. At first the “Bureau Chief” title was a bit of a misnomer as he was the only member of the bureau. He used a number of pseudonyms to make it look like there were more people actually working. But it became a real bureau in a few years time when his son, Andriy entered university and began submitting stories for us as well.

I visited Vitaliy several times during the 1990s. One of those occasions was in 1993 when I was accompanied by my wife, Lesia. No sooner had we arrived than the news of my father’s passing came and we had to cut our trip short and fly to Toronto. But before we left, Vitaliy arranged for us to tour the countryside, including an open-air museum, and visit Taras Shevchenko’s grave in Kaniv. On another visit, he surprised me by arranging a tour of the Chornobyl plant itself. During that same period, he had remarried. In 1995 his new wife, Oksana, gave birth to their daughter Bohdana who has become a distinguished
photo-journalist in her own right. Although she was only nine years old at the time of the Orange Revolution, the photos she submitted to Ukrainian News of the stunning events that occurred were truly remarkable.

Vitaliy often urged me to come visit him in Ukraine, but during the Yanukovych period I was reluctant to do so. “When you get rid of Yanukovych, I will come,” I told him. Well, right after the Revolution of Dignity, he called me to say “We got rid of Yanukovych, so now you’ll have to come”.

Lesia and I did so a year ago. While we stayed with him in Kyiv, Vitaliy and Oksana took us on a whirlwind tour of Chernihiv Oblast, where he was born, showed us all the main places that were part of the Revolution of Dignity, arranged a personal guided tour of Kyiv and even took us on a tour of Yanukovych’s obscenely opulent Mezhyhiria mansion. They drove us to visit Lesia’s family members in Rivne Oblast and finally to Lviv, where we parted ways.

We met for just one day this last visit. It was a memorable day that ended with a dinner during which Lesia presented him with a special book of photographs from our September, 2017, visit she had painstakingly put together. Vitaliy and Oksana greatly appreciated Lesia’s creation. I did not think of it at the time, but it was to be our last visit together.
Vitaliy Shevchenko was a courageous journalist, a true Ukrainian patriot, and a dedicated democrat whose personal cause was freedom of speech. He fought for freedom of speech in the media, in parliament and at the National Council. He was also a very close personal friend and will be sorely missed. May his memory be eternal!

Вiчна йoму пам’ять!