Roman Kupchinsky was not someone easily overlooked. A great shaggy bear of a man, habitually disheveled in appearance, he attracted notice for his air of casual relaxation under all circumstances.
His gruff, joke-laced approach was the same toward everybody, whether they were government ministers or young members of his own staff.
But his Falstaffian exterior hid a sharp mind that was acute at analyzing the broader implications of seemingly unrelated events in Ukraine, Russia, and across the East-West divide. Always close in spirit to his homeland, he made through his work a lasting contribution to Ukrainian independence.
He wrote with particular authority on endemic corruption in Ukraine and in the former Soviet Union, and on Russian and East European energy issues.
A great shaggy bear of a man, habitually disheveled in appearance, he attracted notice for his air of casual relaxation under all circumstances.
Kupchinsky died on January 19 in Washington, D.C., at the age of 65 after a battle with cancer.
In a letter of condolence, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he was "deeply saddened" to hear the news of Kupchinsky's passing.
"A wonderful person has left us, a prominent journalist, a true Ukrainian patriot, who devoted his life to the service of his native land," Yushchenko said. "He did an awful lot for the development of independent Ukrainian journalism, tirelessly worked for the rebirth of Ukrainian statehood, the consolidation of democracy, and freedom of speech."
Mardo Soghom, now the deputy director of broadcast operations at RFE/RL, was a close associate of Kupchinsky.
"He made one of the biggest impacts on his own country, in terms of exposing corruption, in terms of exposing political greed, in exposing all kinds of willful governance," Soghom said. "And he was very happy that he could do that, that he could do investigative reporting, and that he could tell the people what was really going on behind the scenes, within the political-economic corrupt elite."
The current director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Irena Chalupa, confirms Kupchinsky's impact on Ukraine. She recalls an investigation he carried out linking the head of the state gas trading company to a complicated web of corruption.
"Two weeks after these stories came out, the head of the gas agency resigned," Chalupa said. "And he even made reference to the 'winds of liberty' catching up with him."
The president of RFE/RL, Jeffrey Gedmin, paid tribute to Kupchinsky, saying he had faced his final battle with cancer with characteristic bravery, charm, and humor.
Indeed, Kupchinsky's sense of humor was legendary. Here he is at his last appearance in RFE/RL's Washington Bureau, only two months before his death, when he was able to obliquely joke about it:
"I had some very bad news last night. My application to join NATO was rejected. This is the fourth time that I've been rejected, and I begin to suspect there is some plot against me. At the same time, the World Bank has not responded to my request to open a checking account...This is very discouraging. Anyway, now that you're aware of my situation, I'm not suicidal over the NATO rejection. But I plan to fight that."
Former Radio Liberty Director S. Enders Wimbush recalls that when Kupchinsky applied for the job of director of the Ukrainian Service in 1989, he listed his special qualifications as, first, a "graduate of the Army Special Forces School" and, secondly, "wife is a child psychologist."
"We considered that the perfect resume," quipped Wimbush, and Kupchinsky was hired.
Kupchinsky was born in Vienna on November 1, 1944, and migrated to the United States with his refugee parents in 1949. After obtaining a degree in political science at Long Island University near New York, he saw U.S. Army service in the Vietnam War as a rifle platoon leader. He received a Purple Heart, the decoration for those wounded in battle.
He later spent a decade at the helm of a U.S.-based Ukrainian-language research institute, Prolog. In the 1970s, Kupchinsky became a leader of the Committee in Defense of Soviet Political Prisoners, garnering worldwide support for human rights activists held in labor camps.
From 1990 to 2002, he headed Radio Liberty's Ukrainian Service. He then became a senior analyst at RFE/RL, stepping down in 2008.
Kupchinsky is survived by his son Markian.
He lived in Arlington, Virginia, and will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.
Below is video of a discussion with Roman Kupchinsky at RFE/RL, held in December 2009:
Discussion with Roman Kupchinsky -- December 2009 from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Vimeo.