By Michael Willard
On what promises to be a chilly night in Kyiv a small group of Ukrainian friends will gather in late November in Dom Kino, a Soviet-era cinema building, and toast a glorious past of which they were a significant part.
Call it a tradition, perhaps an institution. Maybe such formal designations are piling too much sentimentality on a group of 20-somethings that grew to middle-age in the wink of an eye and the turn of the calendar page.
I regret I will not be there.
In fact, I will be 6,000 miles away, hunkered down under the warmth of a Florida sun in a gated community about 20 miles from a monument to a rodent, Disney World, amid a smorgasbord of other tourist attractions, some rather tacky.
Orlando has been home-base for four years, and a launching pad for work my wife Olga and I do around the globe with USAID programs designed to make the world a better place, despite some current trends the opposite direction.
But, I will raise a glass or two of cheer to a defining period of my life when I led this group of smart and rebellious Ukrainians in moving a nation to action and toward a vibrant market-oriented economy.
I readily admit that exciting is too sterile a descriptor for this snapshot in time. It was an adrenalin surge with snap, crackle and pop.
It was my fourth career packed into — at the time — less than 50 years on earth, and a chapter to which there can never really be a bookend. Fast friendships and a life-time of allegiances were formed and never sunset.
The group has held these yearly sessions for the greater part of two decades, a night of camaraderie sitting around a table dominated by vodka glasses, course upon course Ukraine food and conversation looking back to the future.
This was a group that produced emotion-packed commercials, stimulating television and radio shows, and even put out a newspaper for the cause of market reform. We held events in all regions and had offices in seven.
The theme was most always: “It’s their future”, focusing on a new generation who would benefit from an open, market-oriented nation that cherished democracy and freedom. It was to be everything Russia is not today.
It was called the Ukraine Market Reform Education program, with about 75 people located in Dom Kino offices and another 30 or so in the regions, including a handful of especially picked expatriates. At the helm, I felt the work I directed was like precious glass: Woe to me if I broke it.
Instead, I reshaped it, cherished it and helped built on it.
I had been plucked figuratively from the Potomac River where I lived on a 39 foot boat in Washington, DC , wiling away the days as a senior VP for a giant PR company and, at night, pursuing artistic endeavors with oils and canvas.
At the time I thought it was the capstone of a rather interesting career that had taken me around the world to meet with world leaders, to cover civil disturbances and to chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of mankind.
But, truth was, I was more bored in the corporate PR job than the comedic Maytag washing-machine repairman who sits idle, twiddling fingers until the next call comes in.
I had previously owned an ad and PR company and wasn’t terribly challenged in a large organization filling out time sheets to the half hour. Then the call came from a benevolent boss who sympathized with my restlessness.
“How would you like to go to Ukraine and lead a large market reform program,” he asked.
“Where’s Ukraine?” I questioned.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Somewhere near Russia.”
“Okay, when do I leave?
I packed a big suitcase, said goodbyes and headed east. I had planned to stay in Eastern Europe for at most a year or two, but the seasons rolled passed. It turned into nearly a quarter-century.
I put a fresh coat of varnish on my dreams.
When the program wound down, I opened a company, in essence privatizing many of the talented people who worked with me. Eventually, I added to the Kyiv office by opening one in Moscow and Istanbul.
Freedom and democracy for Ukraine haven’t been easy. There have been two revolutions in which I participated and now a war in the far east of the country with Russia.
Thirteen thousand Ukrainians have died and about two million displaced.
On a Saturday night in a couple of weeks, I will raise a glass and toast the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people, and wish I were with them as the struggle continues.