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Passion Led American on Road to Kiev

Times Staff Writer

When she was growing up in Chicago, an all-American girl who liked school, dancing and boys, they called her Kathy. These days she is known as Kateryna Chumachenko Yushchenko, and if election tallies are certified, she will be the first lady of Ukraine.

During the election campaign of her husband, Viktor Yushchenko, critics tried to make an issue of her American citizenship and implied that the CIA was trying to manipulate the election results.

But those who knew Katherine Chumachenko when she was a public liaison official in the Reagan White House remember a fervent anticommunist who was passionate about bringing democracy to her parents’ homeland -- a consummate Cold Warrior.

“She was extraordinarily dedicated and energetic,” said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who served with her in the White House. Hired by Rebecca Range, now Cox’s wife, Chumachenko served as liaison to American voters with roots in Eastern Europe.

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When Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited, Chumachenko reassured Americans who were worried that he would retreat on human rights. “In high school, she was voted most likely to succeed,” said Lydia Moll, Chumachenko’s older sister, who lives in Woodstock, Ga. Moll used to tease her much younger sister about keeping her room clean.

“I told her, ‘You better learn to clean up your room, because you won’t have maids when you grow up,’ ” Moll recounted in an interview. “And she’d say, ‘Oh yeah? Watch me.’ ”

Katherine Chumachenko graduated from Georgetown University and became, her friend Bruce Bartlett said, one of the few nonprofit management majors at the University of Chicago School of Business, known for its commitment to freewheeling capitalism. Bartlett, a fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank in Dallas, said Chumachenko’s feeling for Ukrainian democracy was “the zeal of the recently converted. I remember her complaining that Lydia’s children didn’t even speak Ukrainian.”

Katherine was close to her father, Mikhailo Chumachenko, an electrician who had been forced to work in Nazi labor camps during World War II.

He “really spoiled her,” Moll said. “She was on his lap all the time, learning the history of Ukraine.”

Mikhailo Chumachenko died in 1998 and was buried in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, next to his wife’s parents. “My husband was very much like her; she looks like him,” said Sophia Chumachenko, Katherine’s mother, who lives in Spring Hill, Fla. “He told her everything about the kind of life we had. We had a very bad life because of the Communists.”

Shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Katherine and her parents visited Ukraine, reuniting with relatives whom her parents had not seen for 50 years. A month later, after Ukraine declared its independence, Katherine called her father.

“I was jumping around the room screaming, ‘Tato, we’re free!’ That is how I remember Aug. 24, my father and I over the telephone, both weeping. It was truly joyful,” she said in an interview with the Ukrainian Weekly.

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Eager to contribute in her parents’ homeland, she left her Washington job for Kiev. In 1993 she became country manager for KPMG, an American consulting firm that provided training and technical advice for Ukraine’s financial managers. One of them was Viktor Yushchenko, then governor of Ukraine’s central bank.

Kateryna, now 43, and Viktor, 50, have three children: Sophia, Christina and Taras.

“She is smart, charming and capable,” said Rudolph G. Penner, her former boss at KPMG and now a fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. “Viktor was something of a hero to most Western bankers. When he was governor of the central bank, he controlled inflation. It was enormously courageous.”

It was also courageous, Penner said, for Kateryna to marry a Ukrainian politician. “You’re in trouble all the time,” he said.

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Doctors in Vienna recently determined that Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxin. Kateryna has said that she tasted something strange on his lips when she kissed him on the night he fell ill. The poison disfigured Yushchenko’s face, but Kateryna predicts that it will heal once the poison leaves his body -- much as the country will recover from communism, she adds.


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