“This fierce summer took everything extra, made me ask myself every day: what’s important? Important: people. Important: connections. Important: moments of joy and shared sadness, or – more often – shared rage that incites new actions. It is important not to give up. Important: hope. Important: beauty of life, no matter how hard it is to notice it now. Important: rituals that bring you back to life.” – Oksana Potapova, Ukrainian activist and theater artist
Fierce is the first word that I would use to describe Ukrainian people. They are a people who have been through centuries of tumultuous revolutions, the formations and destructions of civilizations, cultural decline and revival, the erasures and reclamations of land. In the old Slavic language, Ukraine literally means “borderlands”. It is a place of constantly shifting borders and yet there is still a rooted identity and deep relationship to place. It has also been regarded as ‘the cradle of many peoples and cultures’ because Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Tatars, Belarusians, Roma, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Germans and Romanians lived and worked alongside one another for centuries.
The history is wildly complicated and I can’t do it any kind of justice but I will try to summarize a smidge. Starting back 7,000 years, Ukraine was the origin of the ancient matriarchal Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, the oldest European civilization, who constructed sophisticated settlements, only to ritually burn them to the ground every 60 to 80 years, before moving on and rebuilding the same settlement all over again, perhaps to honor the life cycles of death and rebirth. They were skilled in architecture and intricately decorated pottery, were agriculturalists and hunters, and worshipped the Goddess.
Slavic tribes settled in Kyiv after the 4th century. Mongols invaded and demolished it in the mid-13th century. In the 15th century, the Cossacks, a fierce and free group of bee-keeping warriors, rebelled against the Tatars and reclaimed territories. From the 14th – 18th century it was ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It fell to Russian rule in the 18th century. After WWI and the Russian Revolution of 1917, it became a republic of the Soviet Union. Despite being the breadbasket of Europe, Stalin forcibly starved 7-10 million rural Ukrainians in 1932-33, in a largely unrecognized genocide called Holodomor, partially because one was either executed or sent to a Siberian Gulag for even speaking it out loud. Occupied by the Nazis in WWII, another 5-7 million Ukrainians were killed, 1.5 million of them were Jews. Ukraine was retaken by the Soviets in 1944 and lived under repressive Communist rule and relentless Russification efforts, determined to wipe out Ukrainian language and culture. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine finally gained Independence in 1991 and have continued to fight for their sovereignty from oligarchs and corrupt politicians, including the Orange Revolution in 2004, an uprising that contested a fraudulent election and again via the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, in which students and elders alike occupied Maidan square in Kyiv, overthrowing Putin’s puppet president, Victor Yanukovych. I recommend watching the Netflix documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, to witness the fierce spirit of the Ukrainian people as student demonstrations demanded their promised integration into the European Union. The protests grew into a people’s revolution, despite or perhaps because of the violent state crackdowns that killed over a hundred civilians and brutalized countless more. The Heavenly Hundred are still honored and commemorated all over the country.
When the government passed draconian laws that prohibited street protests and the wearing of helmets that civilians used to protect themselves from the blows of iron clubs, the Ukrainian people, young and old, were nonplussed and came out into the cold in droves, defiantly wearing colianders and cooking pots on their heads.
While the people were successful in ousting the government, in March 2014, Russian troops went to war, invading and annexing the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea. In late 2021 Russia increased their military buildup along the eastern border, and in February 2022, Russia officially invaded Ukraine, determined to claim it once more for its own. Yet again, the Ukrainian people have been forced to fight for their land and freedom. Light blue and yellow flags, billboards and murals fill the streets everywhere you go, calling upon the fierce courage and commitment of their people to stand strong for liberation and love.
I arrived two days after Ukraine launched a counteroffensive and successfully reclaimed 3,090 square miles in northeastern Kharkiv. This decisive and unexpected victory has created a spirit of renewed hope throughout the country. While bombardment and fighting continues in the east, in Lviv, the important things, the life-affirming rituals as named by Oksana, are felt as people go about their daily lives. Musicians play in the square, children run through the purple-lit fountains, teenagers hone their skills in skate parks, and couples kiss on benches in the park. On my first day, I was surprisingly swept off my feet by a dancing zebra on the sidewalk, invoking the spirit of play, perhaps as a secret weapon or simply a way to stay alive.
My lovely Ukrainian guide, Sophia, took me to a variety of historical and cultural sites throughout the beautiful city of Lviv. We visited Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church with a moving memorial of fallen soldiers and peace birds strung from the ceiling, made by the hands of children.
We went to a Psanky museum, filled with thousands of stunning eggs made by a Ukrainian nun, so I could see the one cultural tradition that was passed down to me from my mother, when she and I would create Ukrainian easter eggs in our kitchen, hand-drawn and decorated with layers of beeswax and dye. These eggs are covered in Slavic folk art motifs, imbued with spiritual representations of fertility, God and the cycles of life, ranging from suns, flowers, trees, chickens, deers, geometric patterns and religious designs. According to folklore, pysanky can help ward off evil from overtaking the world. I picked up some more tools and beeswax, so if you are interested in making psanky with me, let’s gather around the table and craft life-affirming spells for protection and peace!
We ended our Lviv tour with a birds’ eye view of the city and a visit to the wildlife refuge at the top of the hill, where wounded animals are healed and released back into the wild. Gorgeous owls, foxes, raccoons, horses, wolves and falcons filled the sanctuary and I shed tears of wonder as I looked into the eyes of these majestic beings. Life, in all its forms, wants to live and I am touched by the ways that humans nurture it. May we all continue to build cultures of care, tending to the wounded and the wild amongst us.
Sophia and her husband, Oleh, picked me up in the morning for our 4-day journey to the ancestral villages of my mother’s people. Sophia is a gentle and kind woman, a skilled translator, with a pure and sincere heart. Oleh, a vegan beekeeper and musician, also embodies a quiet dignity, committed to live in integrity with his values. I was in good hands. (If you ever want to connect with Ukrainian culture or your ancestral roots, contact them at LvivTours!)
We drove for hours through fields of farmland, evidence of the fertile soil and labor that provides much of the world with grain, corn, potatoes, sugar beets and sunflower oil. Ukraine grows enough food every year to feed 400 million people. Commonly referred to as the breadbasket for Europe and much of the world, I contemplated how this war has disrupted Ukraine’s food production and distribution (also at the heart of its economy), causing widespread hunger and food shortages within and far beyond its borders. The World Food Program estimates that 45% of the population is worried about finding enough to eat. As we drove past, I prayed for this imperial war to end, holding seeds of peace and sunflowers inside my heart.
“The war will end someday. The only question is: why can’t we end it immediately? Let’s end it right now. Let us live in peace and rebuild. We don’t need anything else. We have sunflower seeds in our hearts. We will blossom again and rejuvenate the world.” ― Bhuwan Thapaliya
We arrived first in my great-grandmother’s village of Krovinka. Our strategy was to ask the old people we encountered if they knew of the family with the surname Woroneiwicz. People were out in their fields, harvesting their fall crops of potatoes, beets, corn, raspberries, grapes, squash and pumpkin. No one had heard of them. Perhaps this was the result of Operation Vistula, which was the name of the 1947 ethnic cleansing and deportation of 150,000 Ukrainians from this region. Many people from this village were forcibly ousted by the Polish communist army from their homes, herded into transport wagons and forced to relocate to the western territories of Poland, with the aim of removing material support and assistance to any and all Ukrainian insurgents.
We went to the large and wildly overgrown cemetery on the hill, feeling a bit daunted by the task of finding anything, like locating a needle in a haystack. Sophia cried out immediately, her eagle eyes spotting an untended gravesite with a large statue of Mary, bearing the name Tekla Woroneiwicz, the 6-year-old sister of my great-grandmother Apolonia, with the dates 1883-1889. Proof that this lineage had indeed lived and died here, I pulled weeds and offered flowers, a candle and green malachite stone, known for its ability to heal the heart. I also placed a small photo of my Grandma, to welcome her spirit back to her homeland, along with a few spiraling snail shells that I found in the dirt.
After many failed inquiries about the Woroniewiczs, we were finally led to a family that seemed to be connected to the lineage of my great-great grandmother, Anna Syarka. They were out harvesting their field, so while we waited for their return, I walked alone through the village, taking photos and absorbing its rural beauty and charm. I met Svetlana, a local schoolteacher who was curious about why I was taking pictures. I had a hand-drawn family tree in my pocket, pointed to my great-grandmother’s name, pointed to myself and to the land, saying prababusya (great-grandmother) over and over. As we walked, people poured out into the streets to whisper and stare, wondering who I was. Once she explained to them the reason for my presence, their suspicion turned to warmth and I was welcomed home.
While we have still yet to confirm the connection through blood, the beautiful Syarka clan of Anna, Olla, Volodymir and Uliana all received me as family and invited me back again the next day for a traditional Ukrainian borscht, showing me their overflowing garden, sharing stories and branches of their family tree.
We walked together to see the dilapidated but still-standing home of my great-great-great grandmother Anna and wandered through the cemetery to see the family graves. Love and tears flowed as we hugged goodbye, so awed and grateful for this unexpected connection through time.
Before leaving the Krovinka village, Sophia, Oleh and I paid a visit to Lesya, an old woman we had talked to on our first day. In gratitude for her time, we brought her bags of food and in return were gifted with her life stories and an incredible exhibition of her traditional Ukrainian embroidery. She had been sent to the Siberian Gulag at the age of 9, where she endured years of brutal conditions in Stalin’s forced labor camps. She survived but lost most of her family in Siberia. As a young girl who had suffered much loss, she was moved to care for the Polish gravesites in the cemetery that no one else tended. She also became a master of embroidery, sowing delicate stitches day and night, gifting her work and capturing oral histories of the village. I was enamored by her huge heart and generous spirit. We walked out deeply enriched by her presence and gifted with precious pieces of her embroidery prowess.
The next day was dedicated to finding relatives in the village of my great-grandfather, Michael Kuznier. We started asking the old people on the streets of a town called Toeste, who pointed us right away to City Hall, where we met a tough-looking Ukrainian man who had lived for years in Michigan and California. Hearing that those were also places I called home, he got on the phone and started making calls. Apparently, there was another smaller village called Toeste about an hour away that was home to a number of Kuzniers and he sent us on our way. I loved this treasure hunt process, asking the elders for guidance and watching their faces become animated as they pointed us down the way to the next person, road or clue.
Upon our arrival in the tiny and ancient village of Toeste, we were led to the home of 84-year-old Nadia, who was extremely excited, exclaiming that she was the granddaughter of my great-grandfather Michael. We wanted to be sure and she said she had an old photograph of him somewhere in the house. Dumping out boxes, searching through Bibles, we poured through old photos and finally, she triumphantly pulled out the confirming picture with his distinct handlebar mustache, matching the photo I brought to a tee. He had two sons here in Ukraine that no one knew about. She is the daughter of one of them, the first cousin of my mother. After he migrated to America in 1907, he had started a new family and never came back.
Our tearful reunion, after over a century of time and space, was something I will never forget. Sophia had intuitively grabbed my camera a few moments before to snap some shots of us looking through the pictures, and was able to capture this sweet moment on video, when Nadia produced the photo, then wrapped me in hugs, planting kisses upon my cheek.
We spent the rest of the day together, hugging and crying, looking into each other’s eyes and laughing. I admired her garden and her deceased husband’s beehives.
I paid respects at the cemetery to my great-grandfather’s parents, first wife and siblings who had been sent to Siberia or executed in the forest by Russian soldiers. The skies opened and rain poured down while we were searching for graves. Sophia and I found sanctuary under the needles of a pine tree, giving us dry refuge and a quiet moment, creating some space for my tears to flow.
Nadia’s two daughters and son-in-law, Maria, Larisa and Olef, came over and we all shared a joyous meal, marveling at the miracle of this moment in the midst of war.
They invited me to join them the next night to break bread together once more. I met another beautiful kindred cousin, Galina, an educator and master decorator of cookies. They provided an Ukrainian feast and shared stories of village life, including the years of hunger during Stalin’s forced collectivization of their farmlands. We laughed and joked, drank multiple rounds of cognac and ate homemade cake, re-entwining the strands of our family line. They sent me off with homemade honey and cookies, making me promise to return again soon.
On my last day in Ukraine, rather than a tour of castles, I asked Sophia and Oleh if we could spend some quiet time in nature. Saturated with experience and emotion, I needed some moments to just breathe, integrate and connect with my more-than-human relatives, with the plants and trees and waters of this place. They brought me to a farm where Oleh’s friend is a passionate keeper of more than 250 beehives. Bees have shown up again and again throughout my week here in Ukraine, through the many conversations with Oleh about his knowledge of bees to Nadia’s husband’s multiple hives to this extraordinary field, filled with a wide range of bee homes, from rough ancient logs to delicate wooden houses, all carved lovingly by hand.
As I bring my ancestral pilgrimage to a close, I took in the medicine and wisdom of the bees, with their sacred balance of working hard and sipping life’s nectar, their collective consciousness, their pollination of life and creation of medicinal honey. May I, too, give my Being in service to the proliferation of life and the healing of our communities. May I, too, sip nectar, work hard and offer sweet medicine in these times.
It was a beautiful day, walking quietly through the wet green grasses, admiring insects and flowers, sitting inside the massive trunks of Linden trees, listening to crowing roosters and the distant bells of grazing sheep, relishing the kiss of a cool breeze upon my skin, picking wild thyme, and honoring the sacred waters, gurgling up from underground springs.
I have fallen madly in love with Ukraine, humbled by the fierce compassion and resilience of my people and the powerful fertility and beauty of this land. Join me in putting down prayers and taking action to bring an end to this terrible war, so that their love, creativity and freedom may continue to rise up and flow free.
“Our ancestors knew that healing comes in cycles and circles. One generation carries the pain so that the next can live and heal. One cannot live without the other, each is the other’s hope, meaning & strength.” – Gemma B. Benton, Then She Sang a Willow Song: Reclaiming Life and Power with the Ancestors
I am overflowing with gratitude for this sacred journey, to be able to reconnect with the cycles and circles of the lands, histories, cultures and people that make up the matrix of my bones. Tomorrow, I will return once again to California soil, coming home more connected and whole, having stitched back together some of the lost fragments of my lineage, blood, heart and soul. I am proud of the beauty of my ancestors and feel the depth of their roots beneath my feet. I will continue walking on my path to heal the wounds of history and transform these legacies of racism, patriarchy, denial and fear. I will continue to make love offerings and pray with my feet. I commit to be in practice with you, my friends, to become the future that we long for. Let us be present for each ephemeral moment we are given. Let us be the loving presence we need now.
“Any unhealed past is not really past; it will continually be repeated until it can be processed and integrated. Integrated history is presence. Our ancestors transmit to us an intelligence that is resilient – after all, we are here today because of the sacred lineage of life, the will that wants to live. As our karmic past is cleared, as trauma is healed and integrated, the genuine future can arrive to meet us. When we greet it from a place of presence and attunement, the world transforms.” – Thomas Hübl, Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds