Vyshyvanka: Ukrainian Outfit Becomes Symbol of Wartime Resistance
You couldn't go anywhere in Kyiv this week without seeing these shirts, which have new meaning in a conflict where the existence of Ukrainian nationhood is at stake.
For more than seven decades, Mariya Zarenska has been dedicated to the art of the vyshyvanka – the traditional folk shirt that is a staple of Ukrainian culture.
Now 84 years young, she oversees a traveling exhibition of these embroidered garments.
In the last few years, her eyesight has deteriorated to the point that she can no longer sew effectively. But she still spends her time teaching anyone who wants to know about the classic Ukrainian outfit.
And though her hand sewing days are over, she retains her role as half-entertainer, half-educator — an ambassador for Ukrainian customs.
Asked for her name, she snaps to attention and gives a crisp salute, shouting her response so loudly the audio levels on my microphone are momentarily overwhelmed.
Listen here to how she introduced herself:
Zarenska lists off her credentials and the many places her vyshyvanka exhibition has been displayed, including in Canada, France, the Czech Republic, and even Russia.
A typical vyshyvanka features colorful embroidery on a plain white background, explains Oleksandra Storchay, a senior researcher at the National Center of Folk Culture, adding that it became associated with Ukrainian culture at the beginning of the 17th Century.
"At that period, Ukrainian territory was separated, controlled by different governments,” Storchay said. “It was vital for Ukraine to have some sort of self identification, unifying Ukrainians despite being part of different geographical empires."
The outfit both unites Ukrainians and differentiates them. The underlying vyshyvanka is the same. But different regions of Ukraine have different patterns and colors associated with them. Floral patterns are typically indicative of the Kyiv region, and certain geometric shapes are typical of Ternopil, in western Ukraine, Zarenska said.
This week Ukraine marked Vyshyvanka Day, a day for those supportive of Ukrainian national identity.
During wartime it’s an act of protest and resistance: after all, Vladimir Putin doesn’t believe that Ukraine should exist as a distinct identity.
“Yes, my darling, they've been trying to do that for ages. How many times have kings or tsars been trying to destroy our culture? But they have never succeeded in this," Zarenska said. "And Putin, no matter how he tries, he won't succeed either."
The embroidery is symbolic: traditionally, vyshyvankas are worn as a sign of commitment: men and women wear them on their wedding day to signify their union, of two beings attaching together.
"We sew ourselves to this land. [Russia and others] have been trying for centuries to take it from us,” Zarenska said. “But it's impossible because we are sewed to this land."
We have more below on vyshyvankas after the news headlines, including the ones we saw in Kyiv for Vyshyvanka Day, which was earlier this week.
The Counteroffensive with Tim Mak is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber!
Good morning to readers. Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands.
But it has been under repeated Russian attack over the last few days, a continuation of the strikes that have been occurring with increased intensity this month.
According to Ukrainian officials, there have been only four nights in the month of May without Russian enemy raids.
These attacks are likely to continue for the indefinite future: Defense Intelligence Deputy Chief Vadym Skibitsky said that Russia has successfully established a production line for new munitions, and is able to produce approximately 67 missiles per month, reports the Kyiv Independent.
Russia continues its production of missiles despite European and western sanctions aiming to deprive them of this ability. “We will starve Russia of G7 technology, industrial equipment and services that support its war machine,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said today.
Recently the Russians have appeared to target air defense systems – the weapons used to shoot missiles out of the sky, which often make the difference between civilian death and a loud bang in the middle of the night.
“Attacking air-defense sites is nothing more than an attempt to keep the Ukrainian civilian population as hostages to Russian missiles,” writes Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian. “It is like murdering the lifeguard to preserve the ability to drown children.”
The bombings are happening while Zelenskyy is abroad: he has arrived in Japan for the G7 summit this weekend. President Joe Biden is set to announce another military aid package to Ukraine, this time in the amount of $375 million, Politico reports. The package includes artillery shells, armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons.
Meanwhile, the latest Institute for the Study of War update suggests that Russian forces have focused most of their remaining reserves to Bakhmut in the past 24 hours, slowing Ukrainian counterattacks. It remains the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine underway right now.
Below: a video distributed by the Ukrainian government shows the scene in Bakhmut.
I myself am starting to get used to living in Kyiv: I slept through an onslaught in the early hours, and only heard about it from Ross much later in the morning. The strikes overnight were not nearly as close as the ones that startled me out of bed earlier this week.
One of the things that I struggle to explain to those who are not here is just how much the violence in the city is punctuated by bustling, normal life. There are attacks, explosions and fires… and then there is this woman breakdancing to to Beyoncé's 'Run the World (Girls)':
As I’ve said in earlier reporting, the normalcy of the moment is upsetting some soldiers, who are deeply concerned that some of their fellow citizens are moving on from the war, and forgetting about them in the process of trying to live a normal life.
An American foreign fighter in Ukraine relayed an anecdote that illustrates his concern. He was part of a military convoy that skipped the line at a gas station in Kyiv this month, which soldiers are usually allowed to do, and always without complaints from civilians. But tensions boiled over.
"Dirtbags!" yelled one individual waiting in line. "There is no war here!"
On Thursday, Ross and I decided to make our weekend edition of The Counteroffensive dedicated to the vyshyvanka. We could not have done anything else: the city was filled with people wearing the shirt as people celebrated Vyshyvanka Day. At times it felt like there were more people wearing the outfit than not!
Thinking about it, America isn’t really nationally unified by any particular fashion item or outfit. I suggested perhaps blue jeans, and Ross said a cowboy hat or traditional Native American wear. Do you folks have any other suggestions?
Ross and I have also begun the practice of trading these burger gummy candies with each other. I, a civilized individual, eat the ‘bun,’ followed by the ‘meat,’ followed by the other ‘bun.’ Ross, ever the barbarian, bites through all three layers at once.
Our Dog of War today is Becky, who is enjoying a nice spring walk with her partner on the streets of Kyiv.
Stay safe out there.
The story about the vyshyvanka was a delight to read! I hope I am pronouncing it right: vi she vanka? This post gives me a real feel for life in Kyiv. Amidst this terrible war people are committed and determined and still finding joy in life. It's nice to see that you are too, Tim, with your trade of gummy burgers with Ross. Exactly something my sons would do. LOL I had to laugh!
Great post all around.
Love this: “We sew ourselves to this land.”
As for American nationally unifying clothing, it’s got to be blue jeans, which cross all gender, racial, cultural, regional, and national boundaries. Anyone can wear them; in fact, the whole world does. Unlike the vyshyvanka, they’re not handmade, but that’s American too.