Ukraine is a land that history has torn apart. For centuries it was caught in literal tug-of-wars between its surrounding neighbors. In fact, common tradition holds that the source of the name “Ukraine” comes from the Russian word for “borderland,” as it has always been on the outskirts of one nation or another.
Its people have been worn down by centuries of being conquered, and they now struggle for identity—identity that has only begun to reappear in the past 20 years of independence. For years their faith and confidence were slapped by the stern hand of communism and almost beat into extinction by famine. Yet they are resilient, though at times they may seem lost.
In 1991 the sickle and hammer of the soviet flag gave way to the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian landscape: blue for the grand sky above and yellow for the vast fields of grain and sunflowers below. When my plane landed in Donetsk in November 2006, however, a grey cloud engulfed the entire city with a drab, monochrome existence. The concrete soviet buildings, the leafless trees and the barren ground all melted into the bleakness. The country felt bare and depressed.
Any news about Ukraine that makes it to America usually shows the unsuccessful attempts of the country to be taken seriously as it tries to establish its own identity. Civil war and invasion has rocked the eastern part of the country with rocket blasts and a plane crash. The former president’s face bears the scars of an attempted poisoning by his opposing party. Numerous YouTube videos show fistfights breaking out on the floor of the Ukrainian parliament, complete with elected officials throwing eggs at their rivals.
On top of that, as preparation to host the European soccer championships several years ago, Ukraine had to pass a law at long last outlawing bars from force feeding alcohol to captured bears, a tradition passed down from generation to generation of vodka loving Ukrainians. No wonder Ukraine has long lived in the American mind as only a joke from an episode of Seinfeld.
But as our Ukrainian friend on Seinfeld tells us, “The Ukraine is not weak,” and neither are its people. Survival is an instinct for a nation which has persevered through such a tumultuous history, and the individual faces of its people tell that story. Walking out of my apartment on a bitter morning in early spring I passed a man peering into the large dumpsters in between apartment buildings. His wrinkled hands, swollen from years of exposure to the harsh winters, sorted through the discarded trash as his black eyes searched for something of sustenance.
His hands emerged from the black plastic bag holding the skeletal remains of a dried fish. Setting the trash bag aside, he began to pick away at the bones, pulling off what little meat he could. He was dressed as most elderly Ukrainian men are: old slacks and a dirty sports jacket over a stained white tank-top. His dark shoes had somehow avoided the muddy grime of the melting snow which puddled across the city streets, their cleanliness attempting to reclaim some remnant of his dignity.
I walked towards him, pulling a five hrivna bill from my pocket.
“For grandpa?” he asked, his Russian slurred in the cold air.
“Buy yourself some bread.” I held the money out towards him. He hesitated a moment before reaching for my hand. The creases in his face easily broke into a gold-toothed smile as our hands met.
“Thank you and God bless you with happiness and luck.”
“Thank you” I said and I turned back to the street.
As I walked away, his words echoed in my mind. “Happiness and luck.” Where did those words fit into this man’s life, his past, or his future? His relentless image was pressed into my memory.
But he is not the first thing to come to my mind when I think about Ukraine. Neither is it the country’s painful past, the bleak winters or the devastating poverty that is so prevalent. I remember one day of perfection—perfection in the sense of witnessing potential fulfilled.
When I think of Ukraine, I remember filling a daypack with watermelon, fresh fruit and the rich, hearty black bread Ukrainians favor to our fluffy wonderbread. I remember climbing aboard a bus and driving far past the edge of a village and out to the end of the bus line. There I stepped out into the countryside and, with a few companions, began to walk. We walked for hours. We passed small farmhouses and summer cottages. We walked past men fishing and boys swimming in ponds, the warm sun glistening golden on the water. We walked past fields and forests, past sunken homes long since abandoned. We passed over hill after rolling hill until we crested to find in the valley below us a field of sunflowers stretching to the horizon.
We stepped between the rows of towering flowers as they followed the sun’s westward journey. Finding a patch of ground large enough for us to sit, we took out our food and partook of the fruits of the fertile soil that surrounded us. Beauty was everywhere, and in that beauty was the hope of a nation. I suddenly understood much more about these people, their land and how they are able to keep such bright hope for their country than I had learned living with them for a year and a half. I had driven past fields like this in the winter only to see the dead, grey stalks of the once majestic flowers. But spring brings a resurrection of life and with life comes beauty. In that beauty we are able to find hope and purpose.
It’s no wonder such a scene inspired the Ukrainian flag. The people of Ukraine understand the beauty of their country and the potential it holds. They can see that from the pain of the past there can sprout a beautiful nation, rich with culture and confidence resurrected from the shadows of the borderland.