Ukrainians no longer pray to pagan gods, believe in the evil eye, or see danger and demons lurking in every corner of the natural world. Nor do they depend on fortune-tellers or prophetic dreams to guide their future. Nonetheless, Ukrainians the world over, however modern they may be, cling passionately to traditions that retain external similarities to, if not the internal
Nowhere is this more true than among Ukrainians in the international diaspora. But in post-Soviet Ukraine, a significant renaissance of folk traditions is also under way. Ukrainians are proud to live in Ukraine, a free and sovereign nation now that their homeland is no longer labeled “the Ukraine” and regarded as a mere republic of the USSR. Their foremost challenges in rebuilding their country since independence have been political and economic. But more subtle and perhaps more difficult is the challenge of reestablishing Ukraine’s languishing cultural identity, an identity in which folk traditions play a pivotal role.
These traditions reflect the legacy of the Ukrainians’ long history as a people. That history can be directly traced to the Kievan state in the ninth century a.d., but archaeological evidence also suggests that what is now Ukraine has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era. The Trypillian culture that flourished from 4500 to 1500 b.c. between the Dnieper and Dniester rivers (in Ukrainian, the Dnipro and Dnistro), left fragments of decorated female figurines, incised mammoth tusks, tools, and petroglyphs. FOOTNOTE: * Subsequently, the Cimmerian culture occupied the region, and by the seventh century b.c. the Scythian people dominated the coastal plains from the Black Sea to Belarus. This vast territory became known as Rus and later Ukraine, as the eastern Slavic tribes gathered around Kiev and the Dnieper by the seventh century a.d. The Kievan state spread from western Ukraine to Novgorod when, in 988, Vladimir (Volodymyr) the Great proclaimed Christianity the state religion.
Much of the symbolism of Ukraine’s folk heritage derives from this transition from the nature-worshiping world of the early Slavs to Orthodox Christianity. A long period of dual belief ensued as people struggled to grasp Orthodox practice while retaining emotional commitment to customs and traditions held fast for untold generations. Many pagan holidays and old beliefs were quietly folded into Christian calendar and canon. Even today, folk custom reflects the close connection to nature felt by pre-Christian Slavs. For example, the earth itself was considered holy, and oaths may still be solemnized with the ritual eating of soil. “What? You don’t believe me?” goes the saying. “Should I eat some soil?”
Ukraine’s traditional celebrations mark the annual cycles of planting and harvest, the wet and dry months, times of leanness and abundance, of fasting and feasting, the coming of the new year, and the rebirth brought each spring. Elements of the ancient winter festival, Kolyada, when people gathered outdoors to feast and sing, can be found in contemporary Ukrainian celebrations of Christmas, and the midsummer bonfire festival, Ivana Kupala, also retains pre-Christian elements. But it is in celebration of the great events of human life–birth, courtship, marriage, and death–that anciently derived customs may have survived. Rural people maintained traditions in their purest or most authentic forms, but urban dwellers and intelligentsia, though keeping the forms, lost the original content of folk ritual over time.
Birth.Childbirth was a time of rejoicing for the whole community in pre-Christian society. A feast was offered to the gods, who had dominion over the destiny of the newborn. Seers looked for unusual birth signs, and kumy, ceremonial godparents who undertook lifelong obligations to the child, were chosen. Priests and prayer givers would weave a complex network of rituals to protect the child from the evil eye, demonic possession, and death.
Many of these practices were incorporated into early Christian ritual, and the feasting and choosing of kumy persist as christening customs to this day. Moreover, the child’s first haircut (five to seven months after birth) is now part of sanctioned church ritual. The baby is placed on a soft cloth, and the kum (male godparent) trims the hair. The father then throws a few coins on the cloth to ensure the child’s prosperity and happiness.
Wedding.The favored time of year for weddings was after the autumn harvest, and marriage ritual recognized three distinct phases: svatanya (courtship), zaruchyny (engagement), and vinchannya (wedding). The single most important event was pobrannya, the pairing of marriageable youths in elaborate, supervised courting games. The bride and groom chose each other. Marriages were not arranged, although the eldest daughter married first. Sometimes, courting couples who had publicly chosen one another lived together before the engagement and wedding. However, the marriage was not valid until the vinchannya ritual had taken place.
In the Christian era, although wedding ceremonies became exclusively a church sacrament, vestiges of ancient practices were incorporated into the ritual. Today’s starosta, an elder who conducts rituals on behalf of the family, is a throwback to an ancient caste of ritual sacrifice givers called zhertsi. The vesillya (wedding feast) was considered the happiest time in a person’s life, and the customary offering of wedding bread by the bridal couple is of ancient origin. Vesillya literally means “making merry,” and wedding songs are among Ukraine’s happiest music. The parents of the bride did not attend the wedding but waited for the bridal couple to return home and then sprinkled them with grain.
Today, ritual aspects of wedding customs are upheld in courtship and engagement ceremonies and the church wedding and feasting that follow. In the United States, some elements of Ukrainian custom are blended into the traditional American wedding ceremony and make for an unusual but delightful amalgam of traditions.
Death and burial.
Death required a dramatic, ritualized system of ceremonies to bring resolution and closure in the family and the greater community. It was also a final opportunity to acknowledge someone’s power and rank. The ancient Slavs believed in an afterlife and that the human soul was eternal. It was the community’s duty to help the deceased live comfortably in the next world and attain paradise as quickly as possible. The dead were cremated, buried, or laid on top of the ground and covered by mounds. Cremation was popular in some regions because of the belief that the fire purified and the deceased went straight to heaven.
A wealthy man was prepared for burial over a period of ten days. One-third of his wealth was given to the family, one-third for the preparation of burial clothes and objects, and one-third for the beverages consumed on the day of burial. There is evidence of voluntary “sati” (ritual suicide) in pre-Christian Ukraine as well as ritual murder of the widow. In some cases, the body was carried to the burial site on a sleigh. Burial was accompanied by ritual lamentations and songs, called plachi, rendered by lamenters called plakal’nytsi. Both words derive from the word meaning “to cry.”
The tryzna (a post-burial ceremony) was both a memorial feast and an occasion for play and war games. The Christian church fought against this ritual, but it was preserved and exists to this day (without the war games). The feasting and memorial aspects are preserved by visiting the grave, spending time remembering the deceased, eating from a dish of grain and honey, and drinking in his memory. Sometimes, blessed foods are left on the grave and spirits are poured onto it.
Today all such rituals and traditions are part of the fabric of national custom and accepted within the church calendar. Although few folk customs survive in unadulterated form, a fundamental sense of Ukrainian self-definition has grown out of their persistence. Despite terrible oppression and massive migration to distant lands, Ukrainians simply won’t let their folk culture and identity die.
Ritual in turn called for ceremonial clothing. Consequently, embroidered handmade linen and homespun cotton clothing was fashioned for ceremonial, holiday, and everyday use. Heavy outer clothing was made from wool and sheepskin for severe weather. Ornamental embroidery was also considered to protect against evil spirits. All edges of a garment–neck, wristbands, front openings, and hems–were embroidered to prevent spiritual access to the wearer.
Regional variations are found in clothing style, color, and ornament. Dyes were made from vegetables and plants. Headdresses were made of flowers and ribbon for children and maidens and decorated linen for married women. Men also wore elaborate headgear, adorned by feathers, tassels, and beads. All decorated clothing was produced within the household.
Bright colors and ornamentation came to typify what was acclaimed the world over as “high folk” culture. With the onset of the Soviet era, craft traditions began to die out except as a narrow field of study for ethnographers and preservationists. Machine manufacturing took over, and modern styles supplanted traditional costumes. Much of the folk tradition was preserved only in the diaspora. Today, however, Ukrainian folk arts are experiencing an amazing revival. Thousands of people are relearning their cultural history, reconnecting with their roots, and recharging their ethnic batteries.
Embroidery.By far the most popular Ukrainian folk art is embroidery. Its colorful designs reflect regional styles, motifs, and stitching. There are more than one hundred types of stitches. One uniquely Ukrainian stitch, the nyz or nyzynka, is an imitation weaving stitch. The basic design motifs, with thousands of variations, fall into several categories of ancient origin. For example, solar symbols, in the form of a simple circle with rays or hooks, provided a powerful talisman against the evil eye as well as protection from illness.
Meander symbols, known as “snake” and “gypsy road,” invoked prosperity and everlasting life. Botanical symbols in the form of stylized leaves, flowers, fruit, and entire plants expressed a connection to and love of the earth. The cherry tree symbolized beauty; roses meant love and caring; sunflowers stood for the warmth of the sun; pine branches called up youth and everlasting life. Animal symbols and totems were meant to provide the owner of animals with strength and endurance and provide health and fertility to his livestock. Sometimes, only a part of an animal’s anatomy was depicted: a foot, horn, tail, ear, or neck. The ram stood for wealth and prosperity, the bee for spiritual purity.
Geometric symbols provided a rich field of possibilities for pattern, ornamentation, and representation. Pagan talismans were adapted and given Christian meanings. The fish, originally a symbol of health, came to represent Christ, as did the cross, also an ancient image. Dots symbolized the tears of Mary as “Mater Dolorosa,” and triangles represented such variations of the Trinity as heaven, hell, earth; air, fire, water; and father, mother, child. Crisscross patterns contained within triangles recalled a casting net and Christ’s instruction to the apostles to be “fishers of men.” The “forty triangles” is a design element that represents Christ’s forty days in the desert and the forty days of Lent.
Testaments in cloth.In the Soviet era, a tragic testament to the resilience of Ukrainian nationalism appeared in miniature embroideries fashioned by Ukrainian women held as political prisoners. Threads carefully gathered during hard-labor sentences and dyes made from plants were fashioned into masterpieces, picture-poems of a people’s religious and political longings. Under Stalin, thousands were imprisoned for merely owning embroidered articles that demonstrated a national consciousness. Such “heresy” was ruthlessly punished. But we now know that among the most cherished possessions preserved by Ukrainians condemned to exile and hard labor in Mordovia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan were embroidered blouses and shirts.
Today, embroidered cloth can be found in almost every household where Ukrainian is spoken and national traditions are recognized and practiced. It is proudly displayed in places of honor in the home, and rushnyki (ritual cloths) are used during holy and solemn occasions. The rushnyk is the single most important ceremonial cloth in a Ukrainian household. Simply described, it is a homespun piece of linen or cotton, three or four yards long and twenty-four inches wide. The ornamentation, either woven or embroidered, is on both ends. Sometimes, designs run along the long edges. In ancient times, ritual cloths marked the trees where pagan ceremonies took place. The cloth itself was regarded as a protection from evil, and every home had a special hook for the cloth. All the symbols discussed might be embroidered on the rushnyk in red, the color of life, blood, the sun, strength, and vitality. Black was the color of mourning.
Later, colored embroidery was introduced as various regions developed their own motifs and color schemes. The rushnyk was used from cradle to grave. Newborns were swaddled in special rushnyki. Matchmakers identified themselves and their authority to bring couples together by wearing rushnyki around their shoulders. Newlyweds knelt on rushnyki while taking their vows, and brides wore rushnyki around their waists to ward off evil. New homes and their support beams were hoisted into place with rushnyki. Icons were draped in rushnyki, and coffins were lowered with them.
As a gift, the rushnyk signified respect and honor. It held the traditional greeting of bread and salt, and young girls wove and embroidered rushnyki for their dowries. Today, all over Ukraine and the diaspora, the familiar ritual cloth appears in churches and homes. Gracefully draping icons and present at wedding ceremonies and holidays such as Easter and Christmas, it is used to wrap and present food after it has been sanctified in liturgy.
Also highly developed as folk art were wood carving and ceramics. Wood items were carved and inlaid as well as painted. Musical instruments were fashioned for local amateur musicians. Carving traditions were passed from father to son to grandson. In time, the carving became more detailed and exquisite and was admired for its purely artistic value. As with all ancient art forms, decorative symbols and designs originally held ritual meaning and protected against evil.
The best examples of wood carving are found in Carpathian Ukraine. There, the mountain people called Hutsuls brought Ukrainian wood carving to its highest level of expression. Motifs are primarily geometric but include low-relief carving as well. Entire church interiors are carved and inlaid, and homes are beautifully decorated with swirling geometric designs and inlay.
Among the oldest artifacts discovered in Ukraine are ceramics dating to the Neolithic era. All regions of Ukraine have wealthy reserves of clay in different hues and textures, and pottery became a highly evolved craft. Pottery was decorated according to its function. Some objects were glazed and others left unglazed. Both monochrome and polychrome ornamentation was applied to everyday objects: bowls, pitchers, flasks, candle holders, tiles, toys, and much more. Extremely ornamented items usually were reserved for special and specific ritual use. The clay-tile stoves made in Kiev in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were masterpieces of decorative harmony and function.
One persisting tradition is that of amateur and itinerant performers. In Kiev today, the tradition of caroling is being revived after a long silence by students and faculty of the Mohyla Academy. In some localities, there are festivals and revivals of the bardic traditions and instruments. In Ukraine, the bardic tradition survived from the thirteenth century until the first decade of the Soviet era. Male children who were born blind or had congenital eye diseases that made them blind were adopted by adult blind bards who taught them the entire musical tradition. The adult teachers were masters with their own signature style. They passed on what they knew of Ukraine’s history and events of the day through song.
In the diaspora, music and instruments were preserved largely through the work of groups such as the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. This all-male ensemble performs classic Ukrainian folk, battle, and epic songs, accompanied by an ancient instrument, the bandura. Songs such as the plachi have not been revived; they depended on the existence of professional lamenters, and that skill has vanished.
Every town also had a chorus, musicians, and dancers. In the diaspora, this tradition continued in the form of dozens of amateur folk-dance and song ensembles, as well as choirs and choruses. These performed on all church and historical days of remembrance, when Ukrainians would gather to honor holy days, anniversaries of great battles, or martyrdoms of patriots. In the Soviet Union, musicians and dancers were encouraged. They were an endless reservoir of talent for the great, state-controlled showcases of Soviet talent, like the world-renowned Virsky Ensemble and Veryovka Choir, named for their director and conductor, respectively.
Loss, persistence, and revival
By the twentieth century, most surviving pre-Christian traditions were virtually indistinguishable from the Christian practices into which they had been incorporated. But in post-Soviet Ukraine, things that were once part of the spiritual and emotional fabric of a people now must be taught all over again. It will take time, but there is definitely an interest in recovering that which was lost, eradicated, or forbidden under repressive Soviet Russification, homogenization, and urbanization policies.
Moscow pursued policies designed to crush any sense of Ukrainian national identity. Officially, Slavs were considered one people and Russia the repository of all Slavic culture. Ukrainians, although fellow Slavs, were considered inferior–as was their language–and were targeted for discrimination. Stalinist policies engineered periodic brutal repressions and a widespread famine that claimed over seven million lives. The human cost of the Soviet occupation exceeds ten million deaths.
In Soviet Ukraine, demonstrations of Ukrainian identity were unacceptable unless serving the purpose of the Communist Party. Anyone who was not a linguist or philologist had no reason to aspire to mastery of Ukrainian, because Soviet policy was to create a “Soviet Man” who conversed only in Russian. Many educated urbanites, fluent in Russian as a first language, chose to distance themselves from Ukrainian.
But the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and Canada is rooted in hundreds of years of dogged cultural survival. The same can be said about western Ukraine, especially in rural regions. Self-awareness persisted there despite a succession of Austrian, German, Polish, or Hungarian rulers, or the proximity of Catholic Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians. If compromise of any sort was made, it is found in the unique form of Ukrainian Catholicism, which recognizes both Rome and the pope but practices Eastern Orthodox rites.
Probably the diaspora’s greatest contribution has been the preservation of language. Among immigrants to the West, for example, one’s “Ukrainianness” was totally intertwined with language. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, emigrants from Ukraine who spoke Russian, the language of the state-controlled schools, as their primary tongue usually made a decision of convenience to join the Russian community. At that time, the Ukrainian diaspora would not accept Russian speakers into its fold, as it does today. Then, the signifier of one’s Ukrainianness was language. Today, that definition has broadened.
Diaspora’s contribution.The diaspora preserved many important institutions and created others that would help constituents survive and prosper in their “nationless” world. The Enlightenment Society, or Prosvita, was nurtured, and cooperatives flourished. Free scholarship and independent scientific and academic research blossomed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and Germany after World War II, as well as in American, Canadian, and Australian universities and museums established solely to preserve Ukrainian culture. The church, whether Orthodox, Greek Catholic, or Protestant, remained active. The diaspora made possible the existence of independent political thought and dialogue, as Ukrainians in diaspora did not recognize the legitimacy of the “criminal” Soviet regime. The governments of the world would not have known about the special needs and concerns of Ukrainians were it not for their participation in the political process of the countries in which they settled. Most Ukrainian immigrants to the United States achieved citizen status as quickly as the law allowed, usually in five years.
The Ukrainian diaspora community also made generous financial bequests to endow chairs of Ukrainian scholarship at institutions like Harvard and Yale, and the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies in Edmonton. In 1992, in a solemn ceremony at the seat of power in the Mariyinsky Palace in Kiev, the leadership and individual members of the Ukrainian National Republic in Exile transferred all symbols of power and authority to the legitimately elected president and government of Ukraine. It was both an end and a beginning.
In many ways, the values of the Ukrainian diaspora are an object lesson in good citizenship and community building. Hard work, honesty, and sacrifice were the underpinnings of a massive effort to stabilize a nationless community with no institutions outside Ukraine. Immigrants from Ukraine after World War II put education above all else; they worked hard to educate their children to the highest level possible, sought citizenship, and were politically active and responsible. They were loyal to their adoptive country and felt it was an honor to serve in its armed forces. Many Ukrainians have risen to positions of wealth, power, and influence in all spheres of American life. Diaspora institutions serving Ukrainian American needs today include the Ukrainian National Association, the Ukrainian Fraternal Association, the Ukrainian Catholic Association, and its national aid association, Providence. The Ukrainian National Association is the proud publisher of the oldest Ukrainian-language newspaper, Svoboda (One hundred years) and its more recent English-language offshoot Ukrainian Weekly, located in Jersey City, New Jersey. The United Ukrainian American Relief Committee helped numerous displaced persons following World War II and other victims of natural and man-made disaster, including Ukrainian earthquake victims in Bosnia-Herzogovina. Ukrainian American relief organizations have also raised funds for medical and humanitarian relief to Chernobyl, and Ukrainian Americans of every description are getting involved in helping Ukraine get on its feet. Families separated under tragic circumstances are reuniting, and increasing numbers of visitors arrive to learn about Ukraine firsthand.
A historic perspective.
It is surprising how resilient the Ukrainian psyche is, given the nation’s troubled history. Between 1654 and 1991, with a brief taste of freedom from 1917 to 1920, Ukrainians endured the loss of their independence. Small wonder, then, that they consider the historic perspective as the only one to live by. In their poetry and song, a recurrent image is of a long road leading up and over a hill to the promised land. Within the Ukrainian soul is a fierce sense and need for individual independence, bordering on personal and even general anarchy. One poet commented that each Ukrainian county was ripe to proclaim itself a republic. In the sixteenth century, when the Kozaks (Cossacks) chose their leader and gave him the bulava, the mace that symbolized his power, they also smudged mud on his shaven head, lest he forget whence he came.
Tradition has maintained the Ukrainian love of the soil. This passion in turn translated into love of their country, its language, and its traditions. That “holy” soil, upon which the most sacred oaths have been sworn since the nation’s history began, unifies and preserves a people with a single idea: that a powerful monolith like the Soviet Union could only stifle but not destroy them.