Wheat Field in Ukraine

Wheat Field in Ukraine


Ukraine, 1932-1933

I was born during the harvest, under a large oak at the edge of our family’s best field. The sun was high in the sky, the air still and hot. Cicadas were thrumming all around us.

My body was small. Delicate. Unmistakably female.

Mama peered closer, afraid I was a trick of the light, a fancy of her imagination, but I proved real enough. After six sons, two of whom were married and with sons of their own, she had finally been blessed with a girl child.

A girl child.  She felt the shape and weight of the words on her tongue. Words she wanted to shout across the field, toss up to the sky, but couldn’t. Even whispering them could be calamitous. So she sat back on her heels. Crossed herself three times. Thanked God for His gift, the Diva Mariya for her intercession, her long-dead mother for keeping her promise.

Mama wiped my face and body with the only rushnyk she had, still damp from the bread she had wrapped it around that morning, and wound me in her shawl. She smeared a little black earth on my forehead. Brushed my lips with a crust of bread. Placed me in the basket with the remnants of the kovbasa and goat cheese.

I like to think my first glimpse of the world was framed by the embroidery on the tablecloth she draped over the handle, that the air I first breathed was sharp with wheat.


The body of a young woman near Poltava, Ukraine during the man-made famine in 1933.

Read the basic facts of the Holodomor, also called the Terror-Famine, on The Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) website.


A city on the right bank of the Vorskla River and now the capital of Poltava province (oblast).  In 1912, it had a population of 60,100 and was the capital of Poltava gubernia.

The archeological evidence indicates that the site was inhabited as early as the 7th or 6th century BCE. The city was first mentioned as Ltava in the Hypatian Chronicle in 1174. In 1240 it was captured by the Mongols and from the second half of the 14th century it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

During the Russian-Swedish War (1708–9)  Peter I won a decisive victory over Charles the XII at Poltava. Two hundred years later Nicholas II visited the town on the anniversary of that battle (see video below).

In the 19th century the old fortifications were leveled and the new town was laid out around a circular plaza.  At the beginning of the 20th century Poltava was still semi-rural but an important cultural and educational centre.

This is an excerpt from a much longer article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine.


Kyiv, the capital and the largest city of Ukraine, is located in the north central part of the country on a series of bluffs above the Dnipro River.

Founded in the fifth or sixth century as a trading post, it acquired eminence in the tenth to twelfth centuries a capital of Kyivan Rus', a medieval East Slavic state. Destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1240, it was a provincial capital of marginal importance until the city prospered during the Russian industrial revolution in the late nineteenth century.

Kyiv became the capital of the independent Ukrainian People's Republic in November 1917. It changed hands 16 times from the end of 1918 to August 1920.[  After the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was formed in 1922, the capital was moved to Kharkiv but it reverted back to Kyiv In 1934. The city boomed again during the years of the Soviet industrialization. At that time, many old churches, such as St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral and the Fountain of Samson, were demolished, while others were confiscated.

In the 1930s, recurring political trials were organized to purge the city of Ukrainian nationalists and opponents of Joseph Stalin. At the end of the decade, thousands of intellectuals and party activists were arrested in the night, hurriedly court-martialed, shot and buried in mass graves.

The German Army entered Kiev in September 1941.  The Red Army had planted more than 10,000 mines throughout the city which were detonated after the invaders had settled iin, killing a thousand soldiers,  destroying major buildings and setting the city ablaze for five days.

That same month, the Nazi Einsatzgruppen massacred at least 33,771 of Kyiv's Jews in the suburb of Babi Yar.  Over 60,000 Soviet citizens were murdered there in the two years that followed. The Soviet Army liberated the city in November 1943.

For more recent history and more information on the city of Kyiv, please read the full article In the New World Encyclopedia.



Archeological discoveries in Ukraine indicate that embroidery has existed there since prehistoric times. Embroideries are found on drawings and on the oldest pieces of extant cloth.

Cloth embroidery was first inspired by faith in the power of protective symbols. Most of the symbols originally came from Asia, arriving in the Dnieper River valley through war, trade and migration, but later transformed under Byzantine influence.  

Centres of church embroidery developed in the monasteries while certain cities (such as Kyiv and Lviv) became centres for the embroidery trade, producing cloth for the Cossack starshyna and the nobility.

Embroidery designs were used mostly on clothing. A traditional form of embroidery was used on shirts and blouses. The collar, the front, the cuffs, and the bottom hem—had narrower bands of embroidery, which complemented or harmonized with the main motif on the sleeve.  The head covering of a married woman was meticulously decorated. Sleeveless jackets had intricate motifs of branches and flowers and outer garments were decorated with various finishing stitches. Sheepskin jackets (kozhukhy) also had very intricate ornamentation.

Special significance was attached to the embroidery on rushnyky (towels) and kerchiefs used in folk customs and rites of passage such as as births, weddings and funerals.  They were also used to decorate holy icons.

Church embroidery

Albs, chasubles, stoles, and veils were embroidered. The albs were embroidered usually on linen cloth in a broad band. The design was bordered on both sides by a chain stitch while scattered flowers were embroidered above and below. The stitches used on the albs were either the Poltava or old Kyiv types. The chasubles, stoles, and veils were embroidered with gold or silver thread. . Factory-made brocade later replaced church embroidery. Under the Soviet regime the art of church embroidery almost completely disappeared.

Article on Ukrainian embroidery written by Demian Horniatkevych and Lidiia Nenadkevych
from Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine

Video of Czar Nicholas II visiting Poltava in 1909 on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava


Lesya Ukrainka (1813-1871) was a poet, dramatist, short story writer, critic, essayist and activist in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire).  She is considered one of the foremost poets of her generation.

Contra Spem Spero

Thoughts away, you heavy clouds of autumn!
For now springtime comes, agleam with gold!
Shall thus in grief and wailing for ill-fortune
All the tale of my young years be told?

No, I want to smile through tears and weeping.,
Sing my songs where evil holds its sway,
Hopeless, a steadfast hope forever keeping,
I want to live! You thoughts of grief, away!

On poor sad fallow land unused to tilling
I'll sow blossoms, brilliant in hue,
I'll sow blossoms where the frost lies, chilling,
I'll pour bitter tears on them as due.

And those burning tears shall melt, dissolving
All that mighty crust of ice away.
Maybe blossoms will come up, unfolding
Singing springtime too for me, some day.

Up the flinty steep and craggy mountain
A weighty ponderous boulder I shall raise,
And bearing this dread burden, a resounding
Song I'll sing, a song of joyous praise.

In the long dark ever-viewless night-time
Not one instant shall I close my eyes,
I'll seek ever for the star to guide me,
She that reigns bright mistress of dark skies.

Yes, I'll smile, indeed, through tears and weeping
Sing my songs where evil holds its sway,
Hopeless, a steadfast hope forever keeping,
I shall live! You thoughts of grief, away!

(translated by Vera Rich)

Short video biography of Larysa Petrivna Kosach who wrote under the pseudonym Lesya Ukrainka.




On February 25, 2016, there was a Google doodle to celebrate Lesya Ukrainka's 145th birthday.