Lilia Hrekul
Lilia Hrekul ()

Lilia Hrekul knows first-hand what it looks like when Kalisnikov-wielding troops come marching through town. The 2011 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law was a child when she saw troops patrolling her hometown in the then-Soviet republic of Moldova, 60 miles from the Ukraine border

These days, she is watching from afar as her now-independent homeland again serves as a front line in the showdown between Russia and the West.

In March, Russia announced it was annexing Crimea from Ukraine, prompting sanctions from the U.S. and some European nations and filling much of the world with concerns that Moskow wouldn’t stop there. On May 9, a holiday marking the anniversary of Russian victory over the Nazis in 1945, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Crimea had shown loyalty to a “historical truth” in choosing to be part of Russia. In turn, the Ukrainian government protested Putin’s visit to Crimea, the first since the region was annexed, calling it a “gross violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Hrekul, 30, was watching the news closely. Having moved to the United States in 2006 to marry her husband, she keeps in touch with her family and friends in Ukraine and Moldova using Skype to make video phone calls. She has tried to visit her parents at least once a year. But with tensions high between the U.S. and Russia, she doesn’t think that will be happening this summer.

“I’m not sure how someone coming from America would be [viewed],” said Hrekul, who now lives in Farmington. “I’m not sure that will be possible because of all that’s going on.”

At the same time, she added: “I am concerned about my family.”

‘Unimaginably Violent Acts’

Hrekul grew up in small town outside Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. The pro-Russian breakaway state bordering Ukraine separated from Moldova in 1992. The road from that industrial area to an insurance coverage law practice in Glastonbury was a long one. “I am a bookworm,” she says. “And I have always wanted to find work that is interesting.”

Her father is Moldovan, her mother Ukranian, and at home with her older brother they all spoke Russian. After the Soviet empire crumbled in 1990, Moldova declared itself an independent nation, eager to be part of western Europe.

But two years later, the pro-Russian sliver of Moldova where Hrekul’s parents lived broke away, leading to a brief but bloody war. About 1,500 people, including many civilians, were killed. The conflict ended when Russian troops arrived and restored order. “There were soldiers were everywhere; it was a war time,” Hrekul said. “My brother, neighbor boys and I would meet the soldiers everywhere, in the streets.”

Sometimes, Hrekul said, she and the other children would talk with the soldiers; she thinks they were mostly separatist forces. “They would give us bullets,” Hrekul recalled. “I don’t know why anyone would give a little girl bullets, but they did.”

Even though she was sheltered from the violence then, being sent to live with her relatives in Ukraine for a month while the fighting was going on, Hrekul was shaped by the conflict she saw all around her as a child. “I think that generally, my background made it easier for me to empathize,” she said.

“What happened in Transnistria, and what is happening in Ukraine now, has opened my eyes to how important order is. People are capable of committing unimaginably violent acts when they know there is no punishment or retribution otherwise,” she said. “That commonly happens in times of social and political unrest. It also made me realize that security in one’s country, and own life, is not achievable without the rule of law and without curbing corruption.”

Her parents still live in Transnistria, about 60 miles west of Ukraine. Many political scientists have begun speculating whether Russia, following its annexation of Crimea, will push west to absorb Transnistria.

Hrekul said many of the people living there think Russian annexation would be best for the region, in terms of stability. Her main position, she said, is one of non-violence. If Transnistria wants to be annexed and become part of Russia, she has no problem with that. But she doesn’t like the idea of Russia using military force in Ukraine.

“Personally, I believe that Transnistria may well be better off with Russia,: she said. “But I see Crimea as a different scenario, than Transnistria. Not everyone does.”

Legal System Differences

Hrekul spent five years studying at the Mechnikov National University, Odessa, Ukraine. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English language and foregin literature, and also minored in Spanish. While studying, she met her husband, whom she dated for two years.

She moved to the U.S. in 2006 to get married, intent on further study.

After working for Berlitz, the language school which used to have an office in West Hartford, she enrolled in law school at the University of Connecticut School of Law. While there, she spent six months working for the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. She also interned for then-Superior Court Judge Michael Sheldon, one of eight internships she participated in while in law school.

Hrekul’s first law firm job was with Gordon & Rees in Glastonbury, where she handled insurance coverage and business litigation. She is starting a new job on May 12 as an associate with Howard Kohn Sprague & Fitzgerald. Her practice will again include insurance defense.

Hrekul says the legal systems of the U.S. and Ukraine are vastly different. While U.S. legal tradition relies heavily on caselaw, Ukrainian society is governed almost exclusively in codified law. “Caselaw was a big shock for me when I first came to law school,” Hrekul said. “It is easier to take a code and look the relevant law up. But caselaw certainly provide more flexibility and is capable of accommodating more nuances in individual cases than a code would.”

From her perspective, the experience of living in the former USSR gave her an understanding that is useful in her profession.

“I think ithas given me appreciation of how complex, ambiguous and gray the relationships between these countries and their people can be, or any other issues for that matter,” Hrekul said. “I tend to not jump to conclusions and judge, but understand that there may be multiple perspectives, causes, interests, and goals to each problem.”