A Ukrainian Garden Tells the Story of a Violated Country

As pastoral idylls become sites of war, gardens evoke political memories for Ukrainians and Russians alike

A Ukrainian Garden Tells the Story of a Violated Country
A Ukrainian tank crew fights by a sunflower field in eastern Ukraine’s Bakhmut on Oct. 19, 2022. (Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The flowers and redcurrants are long gone, but their dried-out stalks keep sticking out from a fresh layer of snow. All the other plants in my garden are peacefully waiting under a frosty white blanket, but these remnants of flowers that once bloomed unsettle me. They come from a show garden, displayed over the summer at the Hampton Court Flower Show in the U.K., in an exhibition titled “What Does Not Burn.”

The exhibit recreated an idyllic summer landscape that appeared to be somewhere in northern Europe. It reminded me of my own childhood summers in Russia, my country of birth. But as my eye followed the dirt road flanked by grass, hollyhocks and yarrow, a charred cottage adorned with symbols of Ukrainian folk culture jolted me into a painful recognition. This is no place to contemplate a rural idyll in the spirit of Sir Walter Scott or William Wordsworth; it is a reminder that the full-scale war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine almost exactly one year ago, on Feb. 24, 2022 is still ongoing. For the organizers, “What Does Not Burn” celebrated “the spirit of a people deeply connected to their land who are willing to sacrifice what is most sacred to remain an independent nation.”

One element that struck me as charged with meaning is barley. As the most resilient of the edible crops, it symbolizes both the fertility of Ukrainian soil and its traumatic past. During the 1920s and ’30s, a combination of Soviet central planning, deportations and social engineering brought about a famine which wrought devastation in all regions of the USSR where affluent former peasantry and bread-producing lands fell victim to the policies of de-kulakization (the killing or deportation of well-to-do farmers as part of wider land reform and resource extraction measures). Ukrainians, with their fertile chernozem soil and developed farming, were harmed by these policies more than any other ethnic group of the USSR. This famine, known as the Holodomor, is rightly called a genocide. In the 21st century, Ukraine remains one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of grain, including basic commodities such as wheat, corn, sunflower oil and barley. Before the escalation of the current war, Ukraine was exporting between 13% and 17% of the world’s barley.

A garden that embodies national symbols resonates with a British audience, though their gardens have traditionally been more festive than traumatic. Only the red poppies, evoking the bloodied fields of Flanders during World War I, have become symbolic of patriotism and resilience. Meanwhile, it is the style of gardening which makes it such a subtly political art in the U.K. Gardens in Britain come in two kinds: They are either spaces connected to the political authority of an aristocrat, king or ruler, or they reveal the personal identity, typically, of a middle-class owner, someone who is happy to display their home to visitors at a June Open Day or a local street party. Shows such as Chelsea or Hampton Court bring together both kinds, often showcasing work that speaks to a broader theme. A few years ago, there was a new category: Global Impact. One of the designs was a garden formed around a crashed plane, to symbolize the precarious status of nature and the threat of extinction. On the day that I visited, the Ukrainian garden was competing in this category, as well.

The charred cottage of the garden exhibit “What Does Not Burn.” (Maria Savoskula)

Gardens are so historically important to Britons’ understandings of their identity that even the unofficial national anthem, Rule Britannia, was first presented to audiences in a public garden in 1740 — not, as one might expect from the words, on a boat or by the sea. During that period, the British established their style of displaying power in gardens, described as the jardin anglais, as it was admired by international observers including Marie Antoinette. It drew a strict contrast to the French style, which emphasizes control over plants, nature and territory. While the British style — which lives on in today’s international style of natural, or “post-wild,” gardening — appears as if nature has taken over, the owner is always in control of knowledge of the plants’ natural behavior and interaction in changing seasons, as well as the visitor’s perception.

The idea for a garden at war emerged when Carrie Preston, an American-Dutch landscape designer, saw an ad in a Royal Horticultural Society newspaper offering an unexpected opening after one show garden had dropped out. She reconnected with her Ukrainian colleague Victoria Manoylo, who owns a landscape design business near Bucha, called “Your New Garden.” The two had known each other before the war and met up again shortly after Victoria had left Ukraine. It was then that they decided to collaborate with a Russian-born garden designer, Anna Andreyeva. Her main responsibility was the garden path, an important feature of the installation, which directed the viewer’s gaze toward the ruined cottage.

Carrie, Victoria and Anna are all adherents of the natural planting style, which, though it was once perceived as uniquely British, is now as international as modernism itself. The most iconic example of the approach is the New York High Line, a masterpiece of natural experience transposed onto a disused railway line floating above Manhattan. It is the work of Peter Oudolf, a Dutch landscape designer known for promoting the idea that gardens should be a source of emotion for people, rather than a place for the contemplation of beauty.

Natural planting also created a way for landscape designers working in the post-Soviet world to escape the ideologically regimented planting of their youth. While Bolshevik propaganda portrayed the Russian Revolution as a follow-up to the French Revolution, Soviet landscape designers looked to Louis XIV-style controlled design for inspiration. Many planted flower beds of pansies to convey Soviet acronyms (such as VDnKH, “Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy”) or ideological expressions, such as Hero City or Friendship of the Peoples.

In the wake of perestroika, which lessened the state’s grip on many aspects of life in the USSR, late-Soviet gardeners began to collect and exchange wild seeds, brought home to the cities of the USSR from their own country and beyond. Natural planting became a favorite pastime of some private gardeners and even, increasingly, those working with public spaces. The new nursery market helped gardeners break free from the constraints of the Soviet planting style with the use of seemingly wild, often blossomless plants that are more about texture than flower. The style brought nature into the city in an effortless way, creating beautiful patterns of walking and looking at familiar buildings. The newly landscaped ensembles married Stalinist or brutalist architecture to memories of steppes or meadows, which allowed people to experience their city in a new way, as they skated or ran to their office jobs, returned from a concert, or engaged in leisure activities like treasure hunts for adults on a weekend. But it was, of course, a freedom that only some could afford.

Anna discovered natural planting as a child, thanks to her mother’s work for the United Nations in 1990s New York. In the 2000s, she pioneered the natural planting style in some of Moscow’s most visible public spaces, including Muzeon park in central Moscow, which features the discarded monuments of former Soviet leaders. Anna is aware of the fact that Moscow’s chic new public parks were instruments for distracting the new middle class from their increasing dissatisfaction with the government, which began to manifest itself at large protests in 2011 and 2012. But she could never envisage things would reach this stage.

“Of course, we never knew there was going to be war, it is something we cannot process or believe,” she told me. “It’s like our country was taken away from us. It is no longer there. We no longer have a home. It’s a different country now, and God knows when we will get it back. And all the landscape you remember, it connects you to it, but it is incredibly difficult. You can’t go back, because how can you be in a country that supports the war?”

Parks like Muzeon were meant to appease the public over political decisions, such as the annexation of Crimea of 2014, a violation of international law which generated only modest opposition within Russian public opinion. For many, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a shocking wake-up call. Still others question them, asking, “Where have you been for these past eight years?”

“It was very difficult for me to work on this landscape, because these dachas, they are just like my landscape, the dachas I remember in Russia,” Anna continued. I wonder if it is even possible for a Russian to speak of a memory of a landscape shared with Ukrainians, given how caricatured notions of a common history have been weaponized in Putin’s rhetoric. Confused between recognition and ownership, memory itself seems to be a war zone and a no-man’s land waiting to be claimed by the Russian warlords. Having left Russia as a child with my parents, long before this war, I cannot speak of my own absence from Russia as any sort of political act, as I have lived most of my life outside the country. But even if I did face a choice whether or not to stay in Russia now, I would probably recognize that leaving is more often a privileged opportunity than a moral choice.

Should Russian visitors recognise this landscape as “their own”? Or is it intended to reach a western European or North American public, instead? The annually flowering cosmos, which was so prevalent throughout the exhibit, is a plant which originally came to Europe from Mexico, allegedly thanks to the interest of a British diplomat’s wife, before spreading across the U.S.

“This country road you see there is like the place where Victoria used to walk her dog in Bucha. It is not very different from where I walk my dog, or where a lot of people watching this walk their dogs.” Indeed, this landscape could be anywhere from the American Midwest to western Europe and even Russia. What made the Ukrainian garden so impactful is that it looked like many people’s gardens, save for the charred cottage. Only specific symbols, such as the rushnyk (embroidered cotton) or the tryzub (a trident), a medieval heraldic symbol that was revived in 1918 as a national emblem of Ukraine by the historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, mark its national character. However, both the ryshnyk and the tryzub precede the idea of the nation-state by centuries, and can therefore also be found in Belarus, for example, a country which is associated with the Russian perpetrator, despite its own recently failed revolution.

On a midsummer’s day at the Hampton Court Flower Show, I watched the landscape designers and volunteers deconstruct the exhibit. I thought about the ideas and words whose meaning has shifted with the war. Retreat. Suburbs. Throughout European history, gardening has been presented as an antidote to war and trauma, a source of calm, harmony and peace. “You’ve got to tend your garden,” says Voltaire’s Candide, having heard accounts of the horrors of wars, pestilence and the world’s injustice. A garden retreat is what, in European culture, is associated with pensive types, such as the philosopher Democritus in his suburban garden at Abdera, also recalled in Robert Burton’s 17th-century “Anatomy of Melancholy.” The pleasant garden of Epicurus, which he bought and built in the suburbs of Athens, became an allegory of his entire school of thought. Perhaps it could be seen as one of the prototypes of the idyllic university campus. When Seneca advised the fellow Roman Lucilius to visit Epicurus, he said, “Go to his Garden and read the motto carved there: ‘Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.’ The care-taker of that abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: ‘Have you not been well entertained?’

“This garden,” he continued, “does not whet your appetite; it quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst by a natural cure — a cure that demands no fee. This is the ‘pleasure’ in which I have grown old.”

Just like the barley fields, retreat, too, has a different ring today, thinking of the way the Russian army retreated from the small suburban towns near Kyiv, leaving behind looting and devastation. One of Victoria’s clients had a garden nearby, idyllically placed on the floodplains of the river Irpen. It had just been burned down, cottage, trees and all. A week later, she learned that one of her planting volunteers, 24-year old Dima, had been killed in the Bucha massacres.

The Ukrainian garden exhibit at Hampton Court won the Global Impact award, and Anna’s carefully designed pathway received a special mention. The path supported the original vision of the war garden as both beautiful and shocking. Her deep knowledge of the natural growth patterns of plants enabled the team to assemble a seemingly perennial ensemble over a remarkably short time period of a mere few weeks or even days. In some ways, the project became more personal to her than the public or private gardens she had previously helped design.

“For example, I included cosmos bipinnatus, which is such a childhood plant for me. We brought it from the garden center and the Ukrainian designer couldn’t believe it when I showed it to him while exclaiming, ‘My childhood plant!’ He said exactly the same thing, but in Ukrainian.”

Some supporters of the initiative were deeply unhappy that a Russian was coming to help out. “There are no good Russians” is a statement often heard nowadays, not only from Ukrainians but also from people coming from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia or Georgia, to name just a few of the national groups that are trying to draw lessons from Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine. Many of them refuse to engage with Russians, no matter how public their anti-war or anti-government stance may be. As a result, Anna’s name and photo were left out of the official acknowledgements.

“Anna’s work is very impressive,” Victoria told me. “Personally, I don’t yet have this feeling inside me that I cannot work with a Russian. But I must say, I understand those people who have been closely touched by the war, who have spent most of the war in Ukraine. They feel differently.” When approaching this project, just at the time of the Bucha massacres, Anna and Victoria preferred to stick to the practical questions, discussing topics such as what kinds of plants would grow there during the summer, rather than the war. Thinking about this way of engaging with state-directed mass killings, I was reminded of a project by the Polish artist Łukasz Surowiec, called “Herbarium,” a radical reimagining of a range of war crimes in Eastern Europe, from famines to executions and the Holocaust, symbolized with a dried-up plant marking the location of each atrocity. The difference between the two exhibits is that the Herbarium was made over 70 years after the traumatic events in question, while “What Does Not Burn” was produced simultaneously with the crimes. Yet, similar to the Herbarium, this garden did not forge an imagined community of designers and volunteers, despite the fact that all worked with dedication and actively condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine from the start. Each of the team members, in the end, was left to their own thoughts, of plant memories, childhoods, gardens lost to war or no longer accessible.

There is a cruelty to the way plants just grow anyway, no matter what happens, as expressed in a song learned by all Ukrainian children, by Taras Shevchenko, from 1838:

There’s life… then there’s death… As here blossoms a one,
Another there withers beyond a returning…
Its yellow leaves fall, to be green never more.
But still the bright sun will come up in the morning,
At nightfall the stars will come out as before

Another song, a Cossack one, very popular in Russia as well as Ukraine, goes like this: “No, not for me, will flowers bloom, no, not for me, the Don will overflow … For what awaits me is a piece of lead piercing through flesh, till bitter tears flow.” Until recently just a popular cell phone ringtone among both Russians and Ukrainians, frequently mocked in pop culture, suddenly this song has become poignantly relevant.

Tacitly, I expected to find in this garden some kind of relief or promise in the face of this brutal and lawless war, but what I saw was a project fraught with pain and difficulty. The way this garden effectively imbued the wild plants and memories of a generic European landscape with a national identity jarred with my cosmopolitan sensibilities. Yet, on reflection, I realized it drew attention to the way Ukrainians as a nation (as opposed to another group of people) became the primary victims of this senseless and ruthless war. If this landscape of cosmos and yarrow was not essentially or inherently Ukrainian, in the course of this war it had certainly become that. I could also see how the garden executed Oudolf’s idea perfectly, prioritizing an emotional experience for the visitor, as opposed to the mere perception of beauty. While the rest of the garden had a pastoral quality to it, Anna’s pathway leading to the charred cottage made the experience terrifying and shocking, first luring the viewer to the beauty of the space before confronting them with its destruction — which was based on a real home, burned and disfigured in a suburb of Kyiv. Far from providing horticultural therapy or aesthetic pleasure, this garden was in some ways truly terrifying. I recalled Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling … terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.

What happens if the war is not over, not last summer, not this winter? I wonder if grass will keep growing where a rocket just fell, around the unburied dead bodies, the charred houses still standing. Without doubt, some of the flowers will bloom again, come springtime. Will the wheat and barley blow in the wind, unreaped, long after harvest time? Everywhere there will be silence, and waiting, and behind all the courage and the fear and the states in between, there will be the awe of daily horrors settling into a kind of routine. In Russia, people will have spring and summer, flowers and harvests, as if no war had happened, as if it were not their war, in fact a war against them, too, fought in Ukraine, but really somewhere else. For Russians like me and Anna, how easy will it be to say that this is not our war, not one fought on our behalf, since we had already uprooted ourselves? Victoria is certain that a garden may be a place of resilience but not reconciliation. For her, the work of reconstruction in Ukraine is already beginning. Next year, there will be little time for show gardens. Her client from the town near Bucha has been in touch and wants to resume work on his plot, and several other private commissions await.

“Unremembered pleasures” is what Wordsworth called a forgotten landscape after a long absence which used to sustain him. “Unremembered pain” could be a way to capture some of the feelings these gardener women have shared when talking about their own separations from their home landscapes. What happens when the war which Russia unleashed over Ukraine is finally over? Grass will grow over the ruined houses, the dead will be found and reburied, the houses will be rebuilt, the devastated landscape will be transformed into spring, as flowers will bloom again. Come summer, the wheat and barley will blow in the wind, ready to be reaped. As some people return home, there will be silence, and pride, commemoration and celebration, and tears, while, over in Russia, silence and resentment, shame and punishment, and the beginnings of a new, different kind of devastation.

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