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In Memoriam – Prof. Oleh Havrylyshyn

By tjmsrol, on 6 October 2020

Prof. Oleh Havrylyshyn died on the 20th of September 2020. In this piece, Elodie Douarin pays tribute to her friend and colleague, recounting her experience of working with him.

Oleh Havrylyshyn first came to SSEES in the fall in 2017. I had received in the summer an enthusiastic email from Yuemei Ji: she had had a long conversation with Oleh at a conference and they had both concluded that he needed to come and visit us in London. I could not agree more: Oleh’s expertise on the Economics of Transition was widely recognised, but he also had much broader interests covering Politics and History, thus making him a perfect match for our multi-disciplinary area study school! As we started discussing the organisation of a visit, many people came on board, and Jan Kubik, who at the time was SSEES director, was in particular very supportive. His early enthusiasm was instrumental to getting the visit finalised.

Fast forward to December 2017, and Oleh was finally here. He had come to London with his wife Natalia, and in the space of 4 days, he took part in 4 different events: speaking about his book on Ukraine with Andrew Wilson, discussing Ragusa and historiography with Wendy Bracewell, commenting on the book I had just published with Tomek Mickiewicz and finally discussing 25 years of transition in a public lecture for our PG and UG students. He was delighted by his visit: he tremendously enjoyed exchanging with Andrew, they mostly agreed in their analyses but Oleh really appreciated the intricacies of Andrew’s argumentation. The conversation around cheese and wine continued long after the event was meant to finish, with speakers and audience members exchanging anecdotes till late in the evening. The discussion with Wendy was warm and instructive. Again Oleh left enthused, he had received constructive criticism and had now new ideas to investigate further the success of mediaeval Ragusa. His presentation to our students was also a success. He had a very personal experience of transition, having worked both for the IMF and for the Ukrainian government, this gave him a lot of personal anecdotes and “small stories” to tell to liven the bigger stories of transition. Oleh’s talk ended with a standing ovation and a few audience members coming to him to express how privileged they felt to have met him, with one even asking Oleh for an autograph. Oleh was visibly touched by the recognition, if maybe a little puzzled too.

In all settings, Oleh was incredible: he was excited to exchange and argue his views and always did it clearly and precisely, with references to facts, data and sources. He was very knowledgeable and very good at structuring his arguments to maximise impact. But he would also recognise inconsistencies or areas in which he thought more work was needed, and he genuinely liked receiving constructive criticism, as an opportunity to improve and refine his work. There was not a trace of vanity or arrogance in him: he was engaging with specific academic arguments because he found them fascinating and his motivation to improve knowledge – nothing more, nothing less.

After this first visit, we stayed in touch. He had praised “Economics of Institutional Change”, and our informal discussions during his visit at SSEES had made it clear that we were very much in agreement in our views on transition. This wasn’t surprising, Oleh had been central to my education on the the subject (together with my numerous conversations with Tomek Mickiewicz and an earlier reading of Aslund’s book “How Capitalism was Built”). He continues to feature repeatedly in the reading lists for the courses I teach (Emerging Market Economies and Economic Development and Policies). Oleh had an engaging writing style, his papers and books were highly pedagogical, explicitly engaging with interpretations that differed from his own to clarify where the disagreements came from, always embedding his arguments in data, and often nuancing his conclusions to recognise areas where more research was needed. As we kept exchanging, the idea of co-editing a book together reviewing the evolution of “Comparative Economics” over the past 30 years emerged. I felt honoured that he found the idea appealing, and it took us only a couple of iterations to finalise our full book proposal: we had a truly common vision of what the book should be about. Three very detailed sets of reviews later, we had a contract signed for a Palgrave Handbook of Comparative Economics.

Working on the book was hard work, much more than I had anticipated. However, I would definitely do it all over again. We had an incredible set of contributors, who embraced our vision for the book and delivered on our expectations. And I really enjoyed working with Oleh. He was extremely reliable, never missing a deadline and always responding swiftly to queries, even the most mundane ones. We had frequent discussions, and made sure we both agreed on the feedback we sent to all our contributors. I benefited greatly from his experience, and he named me head of communication and technology, because of a slight comparative advantage in using some of the more modern tools (Oleh would smile reading this. He was often making fun of his difficulties with technology).

Oleh really impressed me with his stamina: we worked through the final versions of most of the chapters for the handbook while I was in lockdown in Italy and he was increasingly social distancing in Canada. Some collaborators were facing all sorts of difficulties in their diverse locations, as the pandemic enfolded. Our response was to increase the turnaround at which we were providing feedback: the handbook would just have to be a priority for a little while, as it was the only way we could support our contributors, to try and make the publishers deadlines, without adding pressures on others. But in his case, he was doing this after an intense period of work putting the finishing touches to another book…

“Present at the Transition” (CUP) is indeed the latest book written by Oleh. It is an engaging book reflecting on the experience of transition away from communism and towards market economies in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and it is such a perfect reflection of Oleh’s views and personality because the book does what Oleh did best, providing a detailed review of the academic literature and an astute discussion of key data, peppered with personal anecdotes which both illustrate and nuance the academic perspective. The book is both really accessible (and would make a great read for anyone interested in a detailed overview of transition from undergraduate students to early career researchers alike) and exhaustive, providing a formidable account of transition, from many perspectives. Indeed, the book presents an economic analysis of transition but also discusses historical legacies, political economy constraints, and external influences. The subtitle to the book reflects this approach well: “An Inside Look at the Role of History, Politics and Personalities in Post-Communist Countries”. It does bring together a lot of Oleh’s knowledge and expertise, providing a compelling overview. It just came out in May 2020 and incredibly, Oleh was able to finalise the proofs as we were between the first and the second drafts of most of the chapters for the handbook.

As I write today, we are also working through the proofs of the handbook, which should be released by the end of the year or early in 2021. However, Oleh will not be there to see this happen, as he left us on the 20th of September 2020, passing peacefully in the night. The news came as a complete shock to me, I had been in touch with him several times a week for the past 2 years, and pretty much every day since the beginning of 2020. He had always been warm and upbeat, often mentioning his plans for future research. He had also become a friend. In my last email to him, I had attached a picture of my newly redecorated working-corner at home, and he had informed me on the latest changes in his garden. He died just a few days after proof reading his handbook chapters: one last time delivering on time on the tasks he had committed to perform.

Oleh will be dearly missed, because he was such a knowledgeable academic who over decades had contributed to educating many, like me, to the intricacies of transition, because he enjoyed debating and honing his arguments, while always respecting and valuing the views of others and had thus earned the respect of those who agreed and those who disagreed with him, because he had a diverse experience and also wanted to embrace a diversity of points of view, making him a true advocate of inter-disciplinarity, because he was kind, generous and supportive to all, especially younger scholars. I will miss him dearly as a great colleague and a friend.

Oleh’s wife, Natalia, was always a fantastic support for Oleh. She attended some of his talks, always a supportive and loving presence at the back. She encouraged and supported his work, but also reminded him to take care of himself and stand back when needed. My thoughts are with her, as well as their children and grandchildren, in these difficult times.

The family invite friends and colleagues to submit their thoughts and reflections on Oleh’s legacy using this Google form.

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