All the Pysanky in One Basket

By Jheri St. James

     The etymology of the Ukrainian name Ukrayina stems from the old Slavic root *kraj-, meaning “cut”. Opinions vary as to the immediate derivation: 1) Borderland, frontier; 2) Ukrainian krajina (country); 3) Ukrainian verb krajaty “to cut” indicating the land the Ukrainians carved out for themselves. On the map, the present Ukrainian border outlines the shape of an animal, with a bulge on its back, moving away from Russia.

     Human settlement in the territory of Ukraine has been documented into distant prehistory, from c. 4500 BC to 3000 BC. Between 700 and 200 BC, the southeast part of today’s Ukraine was populated by Iranian nomads called Scythians. In the third century, the Goths arrived, calling their country Oium, forming the Chernyakhov culture before moving on and defeating the Roman Empire. In the 7th century, Ukraine was the core of the state of Great Bulgaria, with its capital in the city of Phanagoria. The majority of the Bulgar tribes migrated in several directions at the end of the 7th century and the remains of their state were swept away by the Khazars, a Turkic semi-nomadic people from Central Asia, which later adopted Judaism. The Khazars founded the independent Khazar kingdom in the southeastern part of today’s Europe, near the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus, also including territory in what are now eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, southern Russia and Crimea.

     During the 10th and 11th centuries, the territory of Ukraine became the largest and most powerful state in Europe—Kievan Rus laying the foundation for the national identity of Ukrainians, as well as other East Slavic nations. Its capital was Kiev, the capital of modern Ukraine. According to the Primary Chronicle, the Kievan Rus’ elite initially consisted of Varangians, or Vikings, from present-day Scandinavia.

     Kievan Rus was then incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and eventually into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The cultural and religious legacy of Kievan Rus laid the foundation for Ukrainian nationalism through subsequent centuries. A new Ukrainian state, the Cossack Hetmanate, was established during the mid-17th century after an uprising against the Poles. Despite continuous Muscovite pressure, the Hetmanate managed to remain autonomous for well over 100 years.

     During the latter part of the 18th century, most Ukrainian ethnographic territory was absorbed by the Russian Empire. Following the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine was able to bring about a short-lived period of independence (1917-20), but was re-conquered and forced to endure a brutal Soviet rule that engineered two artificial famines (1921-22) and (1932-33) in which over 8 million died.

     In World War II, German and Soviet armies were responsible for some 7 to 8 million more deaths. Although final independence for Ukraine was achieved in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, democracy remained elusive as the legacy of state control and endemic corruption stalled efforts at economic reform, privatization and civil liberties. A peaceful mass protest “Orange Revolution” in the closing months of 2004 forced the authorities to overturn a rigged presidential election and to allow a new internationally monitored vote that swept into power a reformist slate under Viktor Yushchenko. The new government presents citizens with hope that the country may at last attain true freedom and prosperity. (CIA World Factbook) At this writing, the Ukraine is at odds with Russia regarding use of its gas pipelines into Europe.

Russia Cuts Natural Gas Supplies to Europe as Cold Snap Worsens

Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- OAO Gazprom, Russia's natural gas export monopoly, cut supplies to Europe today for the second time this month as plunging temperatures in western and central Russia boost demand for the fuel at home. State-run Gazprom, which supplies a quarter of the continent's gas, reduced shipments to Hungary and Italy. Gazprom, which owns a sixth of the world's known gas reserves, rattled Europe on New Year's Day by reducing exports to the continent for the first time over a price dispute with neighboring Ukraine, the main outlet for Russian gas. Hungary, like Ukraine, is a key transit point for Gazprom, feeding pipeline networks in the former Yugoslavia. A cold front from western Siberia descended yesterday on Moscow, sending temperatures plunging by more than 20 degrees to minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit), the coldest in half a century. That boosted demand for gas, used by utilities to produce electricity and heat, and prompted national power grid RAO Unified Energy System to cut power to non-essential users.

     Ukraine is bordered by Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania (south), Romania (west), Russia and Slovakia. Most of the country consists of fertile plains (steppes) and plateaus, mountains being found only in the west (the Carpathians), and in the Crimean Peninsula in the extreme south. The northeast Ukraine continues to suffer from radiation contamination from the 1986 accident at Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant as well as deforestation, air and water pollution and inadequate supplies of potable water.

     “Nuclear power is one hell of a way to boil water.” Albert Einstein

     On April 26, 2006, the Ukraine Chernobyl Survivors mark the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Ukraine is still caught in the conundrum of energy needs versus human safety, nearly two decades after the reactor explosion sent the roof of the power plant and tons of radiative particles into the atmosphere. The lives and health of some 3.5 million people were affected by radioactive contamination. The U.N. has called for the international community to raise $9.5 million for health and ecological projects in the impoverished region. U.N. data show that millions of people still live on contaminated land in Belarus, which bore the brunt of the disaster, and in Russia and parts of Western Europe. Ukraine’s five nuclear power plants produce about half the national’s supply of electricity, which is erratic across most of the country due to payment arrears and aging infrastructure. “Of course I am for closing Chernobyl but it should have been done long ago. It’s not so simple, and God forbid there should be any accident when they shut it down,” said Nadezhda Matyash, head of a group of mothers of children with cancer.

Your glance will trip on my shadow
and the shadow
will thrust itself
into the leafy shade.
The pale sun will shine over us,
a lantern
scorched by the burning question . . .
Caught by the gravity of the light,
breathing is choked, lips are pressed,
but there is no answer, no answer
to this light in the violent night.
But freed from gravity our shadows
shook the jasmine bush,
they will drift apart,
breathe night haze at our backs.
And the yellow leaf will fall exhausted,
it will take unbearably long to inhale.
As if the wisdom of autumn
Were to catch us by surprise . . .

From: Chernobyl Poems by Liubov Sirota,

* * *

     Common Ground 191’s soil collector in this country of ancient history and complex change is a lady named Katalin Alter, who lives in Budapest. Her parental home is in Munkacheve, Ukraine and her significant soil came from the fortress of Munkacheve, a hilltop construction that has played an important role in Ukranian history.

     “Munkacheve was part of the Kievan Rus State taken by the Hungarians in 1018. It became a dominant center of the Hungarian Kings. Later in the 15th century, it developed into a prominent trade and craft center, then was subject to many wars and revolutions. For 900 years, before the end of the First World War, the land was taken away, given to Czechs, then occupied by Germans and Soviets and today is finally part of the Ukraine. In the 20th century only, this small town was part of five different countries.”

* * *

     The Ukrainian flag is made up of two equal horizontal bands of azure at the top and golden yellow on the bottom, representing grain fields under a blue sky. There is a reason for this. After Russia, the Ukrainian republic was far and away the most important economic component of the former Soviet Union, producing about four times the output of the next-ranking republic. Its fertile black soil generated more than one-fourth of Soviet agricultural output, and its farms provided substantial quantities of meat, milk, grain and vegetables to other republics. Likewise, its diversified heavy industry supplied the unique equipment and raw materials to industrial and mining sites in other regions of the former USSR. Ukraine depends on imports of energy, especially natural gas, to meet some 85% of its annual energy requirements.

     The lack of significant structural reform has made the Ukrainian economy vulnerable to external shocks. After 1991 the government liberalized most prices and erected a legal framework for privatization, but widespread resistance to reform within the government soon stalled reform efforts and led to some backtracking. Output by 1999 had fallen to less than 40% of the 1991 level. Loose monetary policies pushed inflation to hyperinflationary levels in late 1993.

     The current government has pledged to reduce the number of government agencies, streamline the regulatory process, create a legal environment to encourage entrepreneurs, and enact a comprehensive tax overhaul. Reforms in the more politically sensitive areas of structural reform and land privatization are still lagging. Outside institutions—particularly the IMF—have encouraged Ukraine to quicken the pace and scope of reforms and have threatened to withdraw financial support. The GDP in 2000 showed strong export-based growth of 6%--the first growth since independence—and industrial production grew 12.9%. The economy continued to expand in 2001, as real GDP rose 9% and industrial output grew by over 14%. Growth was undergirded by strong domestic demand and growing consumer and investor confidence. Rapid economic growth in 2002-2004 is large attributed to a surge in steel exports to China. (Wikipedia)

* * *

     It is said that even the most hardened criminal or heroic soldier at the moment of confronting death will involuntarily cry out, “Oh, God!” Perhaps the centuries and centuries of warfare, endless friction with borderlands, and millions of deaths from famines, warfare and nuclear “errors” have birthed the passionate spiritual life evident in the exquisite church architecture, gorgeous frescoes and artworks, active canonizing of a myriad of saints, and other sacred activities of the Ukraine. The dominant religion is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which is currently split between three church bodies. The distant second is the Eastern Rite Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which practices similar liturgical rite to Eastern Orthodoxy, but is in communion with the Catholic see and recognizes the primacy of the Roman Pope as head of the church. There are smaller Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities.

     “As the papal visit to Ukraine draws nearer, the Vatican has been engaged in what some say is a flurry of activity designed to promote good will and, in some cases, mend some bridges. The Pope himself yesterday received in audience people who had taken into the homes the child-victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to thank them and to let everyone knew he is eager to “kiss the Ukrainian soil” in June. The latest act of the Vatican with respect to the Ukrainian Catholic Church is certainly noteworthy. The Vatican announced that the Pope will beatify no less than 30 Ukrainian Catholic martyrs during his visit. ‘Beatification’ is the Roman Catholic canonization of a saint . . . ” ( Thirty more saints will add to a long, long list of Ukrainian saints including St. Sophia, St. Nicholas, and St. Martin of Tours. St. Sophia is memorialized in St. Sophia Cathedral, designed to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and symbolizing the “new Constantinople”, capital of the Christian principality of Kiev, which was created in the 11th century.

     Regarding St. Sophia (d.c.126), "Sophia" means wisdom in Greek, and for this reason this saint is often regarded as a personification of the wisdom of God, rather than an actual person. This is further enhanced by the fact that she is the mother of three other saints by the names of Faith (Pisti), Hope (Elpida) and Love (Agape). Legend, however, tells us that these four women all were martyred for their faith Roman Emperor Hadrian. St. Sophia was supposed to have been a widow from Milan who gave away all her worldly goods after her husband's death. She then went with her three daughters to Rome, staying with rich lady called Thessaminia. All the women were tortured and killed for their faith. St. Sophia died of natural causes three days after she buried her daughters. She is considered the patron saint of widows. Her Orthodox name day is September 17th. There are churches named for her all over the world.

     The world renowned St. Nicholas also has a church built in his honor in Kiev, but according to Ukrainian folk tradition, there are two figures known as St. Nicholas. One, “warm Nicholas” celebrated in the spring, and the other “old Nicholas” in the winter. Warm Nicholas is the patron saint of agriculture, walking the land, examining freshly sown fields, “drying places over-damp, and dampening those over-dry” after the winter. On festival, householders lead their horses into fields for the first night’s grazing, shear sheep, and sow buckwheat. St. Nicholas protects livestock from wolves, and his name appears in shepherd’s prayers. Ukrainian Cossacks considered St. Nicholas to be patron of the seas. When venturing out to sea Cossacks held a church service in his honor and carried icons with his likeness, praying for salvation if caught in violent storms. According to folk tradition the old Nicholas brought the first snow “by shaking his beard,” and was considered the patron of spinning, yarns and thread, brought to church on his festival to add to his beard. In Western Ukraine gifts are given to children on the eve of his feast day. St. Nicholas often appears in carols and legends. His image is greatly cherished and found in virtually every home flanking Jesus, the Mother of God, or the patron saint of the church. St. Nicholas was so popular that over time the functions of other saints (St. Michael the Archangel, St. Andrew, St. George, and St. Barbara) were ascribed to him.

     The ultimate goal of Common Ground 191 is the creation of a fresco on canvas composed of the collected soils of the 191 United Nations member countries. Ukraine is an inspiring repository of mosaic and fresco art, dating as far back as the 11th century:

     Among traditional arts in the Ukraine, Easter egg decoration has been cherished for generations, and is now famous all over the world. The Ukrainian Easter egg is called Pysanka (singular) or Pysanky ( plural). People believe that "big power exists in an egg", and ornament them with intricate colors and designs used long  
before the birth of Christ. The egg releases the earth from the long restraints of winter, and symbolizes the beginning of spring and the promise of new hope, new life and prosperity. Today, Pysanky are still exchanged as gifts, or used as decorations.

     Big power does exist in an egg. Is the bulge on the back of the outline of Ukraine a basket of eggs? If so, the eggs in the basket are an assortment of elements that comprise much of life on our planet earth. St. Sophia gave birth to the embryonic Faith, Hope and Love. The years of bloodshed and travails of war in Ukraine are a metaphor for broken and scrambled eggs. Some of the lost eggs of the nuclear reactor deaths exist only symbolically; others await an unknown “birth”. The appreciation for art and color in the lovely frescoes, mosaics and egg-shaped folk art are living, unbroken ovum. New political “eggs” have been added to the basket by the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people and their leaders. And all these eggs are nestled in the basket of Ukraine’s soil, the originally rich black loam that for centuries has nurtured Europe with crops and livestock. But baskets are not impervious to damage. The Kievan-Rus basket is old and has developed some weak spots, as baskets do. The earth is old and has its flaws, many caused by human beings. Thank you, Katalin Alter, for your important contribution and story for our Common Ground 191 project. This soil contains DNA that is unique in all the world. The word for peace in Ukrainian is Mir.






All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved