At age 7, like all Soviet children, I started school. It took 30 minutes to get across Kyiv’s busy center. I first walked to my local trolleybus stop, then rode some way to the station called “University.” The huge blood-red complex of the Taras Shevchenko University made it impossible to miss. I then walked down steep, chestnut-lined streets to the three-story building with imposing columns around its front doors.
It was 1983, and there were plenty of schools much closer to our apartment. (School #6 was next door; school #25 was just around the corner. But these schools taught entirely in Russian.) My mother had a friend at the local education ministry, who got me into school #92 — where instruction was all in Ukrainian.
In Kyiv, a city of some 3 million people, there were only a handful of Ukrainian-language schools, which forced parents who prioritized the language to send their children traipsing across the city in order to learn it. In my class of 30 students, there were, perhaps, seven children who already spoke Ukrainian, which they probably learned at home.
At my admissions interview, the school director, an older lady with a warm demeanor, asked me several questions, none of which I understood. I didn’t speak Ukrainian. The director turned to my mother with a look of contained disappointment, before quickly switching to Russian to announce that they were admitting me.
After meeting my classmates, I realized that my commute was reasonable in comparison. Some children traveled for over an hour to get to school, switching between various modes of public transport: trolleybus, then metro, then bus, then back on the trolleybus.
The most important item on the teacher’s desk was the class journal. The pages of this thick book were divided by subjects — reading, writing, mathematics, nature and science, physical education, Russian language, English — and each course listed the students’ names in alphabetical order. Our grades for submitted assignments, as well as penalties for those missed, were lined up in neat rows that radiated from every name, red ink occasionally marking a term grade. Toward the end of the journal, a page listed the ethnicity of each of the students. In the Soviet Union, a person’s ethnicity was required on all official documents, from birth certificates to passports, college transcripts and job applications. The options included “Tatar,” “Jewish” and “Uzbek,” among dozens of others. I remember going down the list of my classmates’ names to find my name, with my ethnicity listed beside it: “Ukrainian.” A few students on the list were identified as having “Russian” ethnicity. “Lucky them,” I thought.
When I was a child, it was clearly way cooler to be Russian than Ukrainian. The great achievements of the USSR — the Bolshoi ballet theater, the space exploration program, the Tretyakov gallery of art — were Russian. All the famous writers were Russian, as well as the famous composers. World-renowned scientists — the polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev — were Russian, too. It was Russia, not Ukraine, that was known in world history for defeating Napoleon, and then Hitler. The Bolshevik Revolution happened in Russia, not Ukraine. I wished I could claim that heritage — to be rightfully proud, chest swelling, feet nearly floating above the ground. And it would be nice to look Russian. Their blonde hair and blue eyes made them look like the fair maidens you see illustrated in legends and fairy tales. But no. I was brown-eyed and dark-haired, like many other Ukrainians.
In 1986, the year that saw the beginning of “glasnost” (“openness”) and “perestroika” (“restructuring”), two key reforms by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev aimed at opening up and modernizing the USSR, newspapers, magazines and prime-time television broke stories about Soviet atrocities, prominently featuring the Gulag, a sprawling network of concentration camps in Siberia mostly housing political prisoners. Generations of Soviets had perished there, including millions of Ukrainian “kulaks” — landowners deemed too rich and thus enemies of the proletariat, who were, in reality, hard-working peasants like my great uncle, whose crime was owning a cow and a horse. In the early 1930s, the USSR expropriated these two animals and exiled him to Siberia, where he died. From these news reports, I learned about the Holodomor, an artificial famine orchestrated by Josef Stalin to starve several million Ukrainians to death, among them two of my grandfather’s younger siblings. Nobody had ever told me of these lost relatives; to speak of them before glasnost could very well lead to another Gulag experience.
Drip by drip, these revelations eroded my view of Ukrainian culture as inferior. I wondered how many Ukrainians who starved to death in the Holodomor could have become great writers or renowned scientists. Could those who perished in the Gulag have built world-famous theaters and museums in Kyiv? We will never know. Generation after generation, everything that could have made Ukrainians proud — productive farms, the famed Kozak military of peasant-warriors, aspiring artists — was expropriated, exiled or killed. The very memory of Ukrainian pride was scattered to the wind. After 300 years of deliberate cultural genocide by the Russians, little of Ukrainian culture remained.
Still, it couldn’t be completely eradicated. Tiny seeds slipped through the cracks of the Russian repression machine and hid deep in the crevices of everyday life, just out of reach of government officials.
They could clamp down on the Ukrainian language, relegating my grandfather, with his Ukrainian accent, to second-class citizenship — looked down upon as a “peasant” and barred from high-level jobs. But even so, they couldn’t stop Ukrainian singing at family gatherings, at weddings and on holidays. After the food had been served and eaten, after some homemade horilka, a Ukrainian liquor, had been sampled (and sampled again), a lull would fall over the long table laden with emptied dishes. Then, without announcements or preparations, someone would start singing. Other voices would join in, the harmony rolling over the room, shimmering with emotions that words alone cannot express. Strong singers carried the weaker ones. An especially drunk uncle might croak out of turn and out of tune. Too small to stand out, my voice dissolved into the song, and the melody and the unity of singing carried me like a warm wave of the Black Sea. It was nothing like the proud USSR anthem that filled city squares on patriotic holidays. But in private homes, around long holiday tables, Ukrainian culture lived in communal singing, its power to bring people together undeniable, uncontainable.
The Soviet government erased Ukrainian history, but it could not ban Ukrainian crafts, such as the “vyshyvanka”: a traditional shirt with rich embroidery in bright colors and different patterns representing specific Ukrainian regions. Every year, when celebrating Easter, my great-grandmother Hanna made a pilgrimage to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, an ancient Orthodox Christian church whose golden domes crown the plunging shores of the Dnipro River in the heart of Ukraine’s capital. The walk from her native Rzhyshchiv in central Ukraine to Kyiv took several days. Once in Kyiv, Baba Hanna stayed with one of her children long enough to embroider a vyshyvanka for a member of that household. She embroidered mine on her last pilgrimage before her death in 1980, when she was 95 years old. I remember watching her profile against the bright window of our room as she leaned over the cloth, her little claw-like hand moving in a small, precise dance: stitch, pull, stitch, pull, stitch, pull. Every so often she would lean back to examine her work, a critical wrinkle forming in the corner of her eye while her hands smoothed out the embroidery before she would launch back in again: stitch, pull, stitch, pull, stitch, pull. I was still young, and Baba Hanna had sensed that she wouldn’t be around to embroider a vyshyvanka for me when I was older, so instead she embroidered cloth for a future shirt. There were two thick bands of embroidery side by side that would make the front of the vyshyvanka, and two — far apart — for the sleeves, with one thin band for the collar. One day, years later, my mother would cut and sew a vyshyvanka out of this to fit my adult frame.
A vyshyvanka is a work of art and an act of love — living proof of an aching back and tired eyes, of the hours it took someone to stitch beauty into being. And so Ukrainian culture preserved its hard work, love and tradition in chests and drawers, waiting to gloriously unfold on special occasions.
The government in Moscow starved millions of Ukrainians, but it could not outlaw Ukrainian food. Therein, Ukrainian culture was persevered — rich, layered and beautiful. “Varenyky,” a traditional Ukrainian dish, is a kind of dumpling. Compared to its cousins — Russian pelmeni, Chinese potstickers or Polish pierogi — varenyky are truly in a league of their own. (And no, I will not change my mind on this.) First, there is the filling, as varied as the imagination can fathom. Varenyky can be stuffed with sour cherries, homemade cheese and raisins, roasted cabbage and pork, sweet poppy seeds, potatoes and fried onions, mushrooms, or — my favorite — meat.
The filling for Ukrainian varenyky is a dish in itself. It must be fully cooked, because the dough is so thin that varenyky are boiled only for a minute, not enough time to cook what’s inside. For meat stuffing, beef or chicken meat is boiled, then ground. Separately, we finely chop onion and fry it in sunflower oil, until it’s golden brown. Then we mix the meat with the onion and season it. Voila.
Then there is the dough, rolled “so thin that you could read through it” — as my mother instructed. Filling each circle of dough with stuffing (generously, “as if for yourself,” she would say), we close it into a pocket and press the sides together into a seam. Finally, the seam, a thin strip on the outside of the filled dough, gets twisted into a braid. I watched my mother’s hands, folding the corner in, then twist-and-press, twist-and-press, until the dumpling in her hand became crowned with a dough braid, sharp edges folding into one another. She did it slowly, for my benefit, but then showed how it was done fast, fingers flying, the varenyk rotating in her hands (the -y ending makes it plural). I hardly had time to count to three before she had it all braided and pretty, joining the other varenyky on the board, ready to dive into the boiling pot. When they’re cooked, we fish them out from the pan, softened and translucent, and serve them with sour cream, like almost everything in Ukrainian cuisine.
Here’s the thing: Varenyky would be perfectly fine without the braiding. The taste would be the same, and the nutritional value, too. In that vein, a shirt without embroidery is still a shirt. But the fact that such toil was undertaken — for no reason other than to show love — makes that love truer than any official declaration pronounced from a podium. The tiny stitches in the neat rows of a vyshyvanka’s embroidery relayed the character of a Ukrainian region, telling its story in colors and patterns — red-and-white roosters in Krolevets, geometric greens, oranges and blues in Karpaty, or black-and-red flowers in the Dnipro region — and transcribed a culture into the material world in a way that evaded oppressors’ capture and destruction. Through song, Ukrainian culture evades imprisonment and endures.
Even when it was hard to be proud of my Ukrainian heritage, it was easy to love.
I left Ukraine in 1994, when the country was finding its footing following the collapse of the Soviet Union three years earlier, amid economic turmoil and political tensions. Searching for my own footing at 18, I moved to the East Coast of the U.S., got a dream education, built a career and raised a family. But I tried to visit Kyiv at least once a year. My family and friends were still there, as was my heart. My three children received Ukrainian citizenship in addition to American. Their middle names are Ukrainian — honoring their ancestors and heritage. They have each visited Ukraine more than once and have come to love it.
Now that I think about it, I wonder if the Ukrainian love hadn’t had a bit of pride hidden in it. Looking at Baba Hanna’s vyshyvanka, remembering how she critically examined every few stitches she embroidered, I wonder if her heart swelled a little as she imagined a future me marveling at her skill: still able to make the tiny stitches perfect at 95, still putting together the most vibrant patterns. When Baba Hanna selected the cherry color for my vyshyvanka’s embroidery to bring out my dark hair and brown eyes, or when she stitched patterns of blue and gray to complement her Jewish daughter-in-law’s red hair, did she not give each of us a bit of pride, too? As I recall my mother’s braiding of varenyky, I bet she was taking pride in her skills — such thin dough, such a sharp braid, every link identical. The Ukrainian singing that sent my heart soaring — didn’t it carry a note of pride for how our voices wove together, slowing time itself to follow our rhythm, making the air shimmer with harmony?
As analysts continue to marvel at the Ukrainian military’s maneuvering, I contemplate the spectacular ability of Ukrainian culture — to hide the magic in the mundane, to fold cultural heritage into dough, to stitch history into embroidery, to harmonize it with song. Evading the colonizer’s capture, Ukrainian culture sent its blueprint into the future. The seeds it planted in my heart waited patiently for the right time to grow, like Baba Hanna’s embroidered cloth that would be made into a traditional shirt one day, years later, when the time was right. Now, when I witness in awe how Ukrainians stand up to a fierce and far more numerous enemy, how they volunteer, donate and support each other, pride swells in my chest, catches my breath and stings my eyes.
Now I think — maybe love is all you need.