Originally published, October 12, 2012 in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Dear Mr Gorbachev, I doubt you will remember this story, but with the announcement of your death I wanted to make sure you knew what you meant to my family.
You and I are connected, we are intertwined; our stories, our families and our history. We are both romantics, we both love the beautiful country of Ukraine, have a love of history and we both are indebted to our Grandfathers. We also share a great name. Before continuing I must introduce myself, my name is Michael Andrew Walter Wilms. I was born in Winnipeg in August of 1987. Both my parents were born in this city, but my grandparents were all born along the banks of the Dnieper River, just outside of Zaporozhe, Ukraine in Lictenau and Neider-Chortiza. My maternal Grandfather grew up shoeless in the city of Nikopol. Like you, and millions of others in the 1930s, our family fell victim to Stalin’s infamous purges. My great-grandfather was arrested and deported to Siberia, when my grandfather was only 4. My great-uncle was arrested and deported to Siberia, where he later died. My other great-uncle, Andre (who is of great importance for this story), at the age of 19 was sent to Siberia as an ‘undesirable’ from the Soviet Army. He would be imprisoned there, until 1987.My grandfather, fought during the war, and later immigrated to Winnipeg in May of 1948. He would start a family in the 1950s, a construction company in the 1960s and by the 1970s was travelling the world for business. By the start of the 1980s he became the first North American business man to do business in the former USSR. With his brother, still imprisoned in Siberia, and travelling to the Soviet Union quite often for work, he began to petition for his release. He began writing letters to you, pleading for his brother’s release. It was one day, early in 1987, that you responded to one of his letters, and in the late days of August 1987, my great-uncle Andre came to Canada for the first time. It was because of your desire for change, your bravery, and your willingness to open the gates of the past that he was set free. My Great Uncle was here for my birth because of you and our family thanks you. My mother named me Michael, after you and my middle name Andrew after my Great Uncle. But the story does not end there. Just two months after my birth, my Grandfather was invited to the Kremlin for a dinner that you hosted. Following the dinner, he had an opportunity to meet you. And it was in your office that my Grandfather shared with you this story. And at its completion you tore off a note from your note pad and wrote, “From one Michael to another.”
my Grandfather with Gorbachev at the Kremlin You are a hero in our family.
My Grandfather and I, whenever we were together, loved retelling this story. It gave him such joy and energy to speak those same words. I hold a special place in my heart for what you did for our family. You were an independent voice in the crowd of conformity, a light in the dark and a hope where there previously was none.
Rest in Peace, Good Sir.