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My Friend, Roman

The late Roman Kupchinsky, former director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
The late Roman Kupchinsky, former director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
The following is a tribute to the late Roman Kupchinsky, former director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

It was early fall, 1993, and I had just arrived in Munich, Germany, to start at my new position as acting director of the Armenian Service of Radio Liberty.

I had worked for the company for six years as an ordinary broadcaster in the New York bureau. Munich was something else. There were rumors and legends about how hard it would be to get things done as a supervisor and middle manager in need of higher-management support. Some colleagues advised me to meet with a few other service directors to solicit advice and guidance.

It was a nice sunny morning when I walked into a large office where I was to meet with the director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. I found Roman Kupchinsky, a large and healthy-looking man in his late 40s, behind the desk talking to someone on the phone. I waited and looked around, as one usually does in such a situation. I noticed it was not a neat office. Papers, recording tapes, and pictures were everywhere. But that’s how the office of a chief editor should look like, I thought.

I introduced myself. He looked at me with a naughty smile and said, "Armenia? Is that a real country?" But there was no malice in the way he uttered these words. I felt it was pure humor and I replied, "Well, it is a smaller version of the Ukraine." He started laughing wholeheartedly and we both realized we would be friends for a long time.

Roman can best be described in terms of three of his greatest attributes: Humor, hard work, and humanism.

His sense of humor was legendary among friends and colleagues. But he was not your typical joke teller, who recycles what he hears. He had his own unique talent of instantaneous witty remarks and observations that sometimes one remembers for years.

I recall one particular editorial meeting in the late 1990s, when the director of a broadcast department went on and on about how messy things were in his country. Roman was smiling under his bushy mustache. Then, he opened the microphone and with a measured and serious voice said, "This is not a country, it is a goat farm." On another occasion, a high-ranking Ukrainian official had been found dead with multiple stab wounds. Roman described the case to his colleagues as follows: "Yes, the official version is that he committed suicide by stabbing himself eight times in the back."

Roman and I traveled to Beirut in September 2004 so he could research a thriller he was writing about a young terrorist from Lebanon (never completed). In his adventurous nature, he bugged me constantly to take him to the Hizballah neighborhoods. While we were driving in the southern suburbs of Beirut, his phone rang. A State Department official wanted to ask him questions about an article he had just published about corruption in the energy business. The official was shocked to hear that Roman was in Beirut. "Is it safe there?" he kept asking. Roman laughed and said, "Right now I am in Hizballah territory, riding on a white horse, fully armored in my crusader outfit. I am carrying a huge cross and urging the people to convert before it is too late."

Now that he has departed, I can reveal a little secret. Roman had his own occasional funny Samizdat publications at RFE/RL, which he sent out to less than 10 people perhaps. He used his sharp sense of humor to describe bureaucratic or silly trends and phenomena in the company, which sometimes became a little unbearable.

Here is a snippet of one of Roman's leaflets from 2006:
I am proud to announce that as of today, I have unexpectedly assumed the position of President of RFE/RL.

My first act will be to eliminate the rather pompous title “President of RFE/RL Inc.” My advisors suggested that I be called “Caudillo”, but I prefer something more modest, something which fits my shy, withdrawing and contemplative nature – so I chose the title of “Generalissimo.”

Henceforth, when an employee sees me in the corridors of power, he/she will bow and grovel.

The days of lewd anonymous essays which maligned our hard working and dedicated management team are over! Beware of the consequences of frivolous cynicism!

Furthermore, the 10:00 o’clock meeting will no longer be a ventriloquist show. We shall all take part in free discussions before I make the final benevolent decision.

As you might have heard, I have submitted an application to personally join NATO. Some of you do not appreciate the seriousness of this undertaking and what it means to the continued existence of RFE/RL... I’m not really sure that even I understand this, but it’s too late for that; the application is presently under review in Brussels.

As Roman charmed his colleagues and friends with his sense of humor, his diligent work ethic (buttressed by his impressive intellect) was also an integral part of his personality.

Through his untiring efforts, he was able to make the Ukrainian Service an important part of the country's post-Soviet media scene. He achieved this by putting together a cohesive team and by developing contacts in Ukraine, which gave him a solid network of sources and affiliate stations. At the same time, he did not shy away from investigative reporting, which often revealed the dark side of the country’s politics.

Certainly, Roman's long years of experience as an activist and investigator of human rights abuses helped him tremendously in his position as director of the service. But more than that, it was his dedication to the cause of building a better Ukraine.

His hardworking nature became even more evident after he left the Ukrainian Service at the age of 58. Usually at that age, an individual hangs on to a temporary position in the organization until he retires. But Roman did not take his analyst job as an entitlement. He reincarnated himself as a top expert in energy and corruption issues in former Soviet countries and went on to publish original investigative reports, one after another, bringing prestige to the organization he loved so much.

However, what was less evident perhaps to many people was Roman's humanism. Although his humor was not always politically correct, just below that surface he had a very soft heart that always beat for the weak, the underprivileged, and the underdog. For a man who for all of his adult life could be considered a foreign-policy hawk, Roman was more to the political left on social issues. He had a sharp instinct to see the weaknesses or errors of Western democracies, as much as he was dedicated to expose the corruption eating away at the fabric of newly independent countries. He was instinctively suspicious of all-powerful elites and big business. The recent economic crisis only strengthened his skepticism.

Everyone knew about Roman's heroic military record in Vietnam, but he rarely talked about it. Many times I had to pry open his mouth for small tidbits about his experiences. Then I realized why he was reluctant to talk about Vietnam -- he disliked wars having seen firsthand the suffering of soldiers and civilians in war zones.

I bid farewell to a brave soldier who started his adult life in Vietnam, but went on to fight for the freedom of his ancestral land and for the freedom of countless others suffering under the Soviet regime. Farewell, to a dedicated father, friend and colleague who belonged to the phalanx of a few who had a dream.

-- Mardiros Soghom