| Boris Baczynskyj
Excerpts from a letter from
John Rogosch to Boris' sister Ulana July 2008
Boris arrived in Thailand as a member of the Peace Corps Health volunteer group, a week after I started my job as health volunteer coordinator, fresh out of grad school. Boris immediately caught our attention with his many irreverent questions, his blunt good nature, his size and voice in the quiet, more restrained Thai culture. We assigned him to a village called Baan Naa (in the central region) to work with villagers and local health workers building community latrines and water systems under the Ministry of Public Health. His quick development of Thai language fluency (with his own special imprint on the Thai tones), his interest, true empathy and concern for the needs of the villagers, and his willingness to live a life as simple as theirs made him a respected and loved figure in the area. He was given the Thai name 'Bowon Butbaanna', the 'special son of Baan Naa'. After almost two years up country, because of his insights, analytic and writing capabilities, the head of the volunteer division in the Thai department that coordinated foreign assistance asked us to transfer him to assist their office in Bangkok.
The move to Bangkok put Boris in his favorite element--he could follow Thai politics, keep close to his activist volunteer friends, and immerse himself in chess. It was during his Bangkok period that I got to know him well. We caroused regularly--he would call me: 'Rogosch--let's go out'—and that usually meant a late night with many bottles of the local Mekhong whiskey and wide-ranging, lively discussions. Like so many of his friends in the late 60's, Boris had little patience or respect for the government's Vietnam involvement and other Nixon policies, and looked askance at the Peace Corps 'bureaucracy'. But we usually got around this, respected each other, both of us sharing a deepening involvement in the Thai language and culture.
During his nighttime wanderings, Boris joined pick-up chess matches, quickly established his prowess, and often ended up in the homes of Thai notables who brought in the best players they could find to test him. They were usually no match. Boris' notoriety also attracted some Russian players, who took him to the Russian embassy to challenge their best. That encounter worried him so much that he avoided further contact.
In 1970, Boris and some of his friends created a furor in the Peace Corps and the US Embassy when they quietly picketed the arrival of Spiro Agnew on his state visit with signs “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts”. The amused Thai secret service stopped them, collecting their signs before the vice-president got off his plane, but Agnew and the ambassador were informed that the demonstrators were US volunteers. Agnew and Nixon were furious, demanding that the volunteers be sent home. The Peace Corps director resisted. Later in 1970, with the US invasion of Cambodia, like their friends at home, many outraged Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand felt they had to speak out. As one of the leaders, Boris helped plan a public march on the US embassy to demonstrate their dissent. Before they took to the streets, our Peace Corps team talked with Boris and the other leaders, finally convincing them that their demonstration would insult the Thai people and their government, which had its own troops fighting in Vietnam as US allies. Because of their respect for the Thais, the volunteers agreed to cancel the march and, instead, make their protest directly in a meeting with our ambassador.
My wife, Absara, met Boris when she worked at the Peace Corps. We still remember Boris’ appearance at my Bangkok home on Christmas Eve 1971. We had prepared a quiet dinner for two; just as we were about to sit down, we heard that unmistakable voice at the gate. Boris was embarrassed to break in, but we just laughed and invited him to join us for dinner. I visited Boris after he left the Peace Corps to spend a year as a reporter in Cambodia when the war there was getting serious. After his experience as a Yale Daily News editor, he wanted so much to be a journalist of repute—his goal was the NY Times. Boris submitted writing samples and had some interviews, I believe, but he was not able to break in. That was his great disappointment, and he returned to chess seriously, achieving the eminence we all know.
When I was on home leave in Philadelphia (where my parents then lived) from Bangkok, I called your mom and dad to give them some news of Boris. They invited me to dinner. That’s when I met you, Ulana—I believe you were 15—and Wawa, and learned more of your family history. After returning from Asia, Boris came to my parents’ home when I was visiting them again (my mother liked him immediately), and later took me on a long walking tour of his city. Later, while I was working in Northern Thailand, Absara and I—with our infant son, Alan, were in NYC, so Boris came up to visit us, with a gift for Alan. When we returned from India in the late ‘80s, he came to see us here in Falls Church, updating us on his life, chess and travels. But after that, we moved overseas for 15 years, and only exchanged occasional letters, not always answered. I will look through my boxes of correspondence to see if I still have any.
When we finally resettled here, I tried to locate Boris, both directly and through tracing you and Wawa. After finally seeing your name in a Ukrainian organization list, you helped me to contact Boris. He called us late last year, explaining that he knew I was trying to reach him, but because of his state of mind, did not feel up to calling us. As we talked for several hours, he explained his illness, his experiences in the Ukraine, his reticence to take his medicine, and his frequent down moods. His conversation became very animated when we discussed SE Asia—he had kept himself well-informed and was full of his usual questions. He invited us to visit him in Philadelphia, and we agreed to find a time. Then I took the assignment in Zambia from January to May—sadly returning too late to see him again.
We regret not being able to meet him—we always felt that there was some way we might have been able to help. We will not forget Boris: his unique talent and honesty, his curiosity and intellect, his pride in his family and Ukrainian heritage. But we remember him best from those years in SE Asia: for his humility, yet with courage to actively engage in the issues of the day, his ability to communicate across cultural gaps with good humor, and generate affection from all around him. We’re sad for his early departure from us, but we celebrate his remarkable life.
Absara and John Rogosch
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