Resilience blooms in Ukraine | WORLD
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Flowers of the field

Ukraine’s resilience blooms amid Russia’s ongoing invasion

Ukrainian flags fly over soldiers’ graves at Cemetery No. 18 in Kharkiv. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Flowers of the field
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A small band of black-clad families treads with slow steps across a massive burial ground outside the city of Kharkiv. The graveyard is known simply as Cemetery No. 18. Up a slight incline, soldiers’ graves fill part of the grounds, and Ukrainian military and national flags blaze in a forest of color. The plots with the freshest dirt have headstones dated from the spring and early summer. The most recent grave is less than 1 week old.

Flowers, fresh or fading, cover them all.

Other families already cluster around headstones, getting their shoes dirty. They cry, or comfort each other. Some stand numb. One family is visiting the grave of their son to mark the one-year anniversary of his death. They lay out new flowers, along with his military fatigues. His mother adjusts her black blouse under the oppressive June sun. One man, perhaps an uncle, nurses a flask. They weep, reaching out their hands to the casket resting below the earth. The father covers his face in grief.

A few rows from the grieving family, Antonína Telná approaches her husband’s grave with a large bottle of water. She has visited almost every day, in all seasons and weather, since he died last November.

“This is so the flowers don’t die,” she murmurs as she tips the bottle with care. Telná prefers petunias, and their colorful petals spill over her husband’s grave: yellow, blue, red, and a purple so dark it’s almost black.

Antonína Telná brings water for the flowers at her husband’s grave at Cemetery No. 18.

Antonína Telná brings water for the flowers at her husband’s grave at Cemetery No. 18. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Flowers in Ukraine are more than just decoration. They’re a poignant cultural image, given and received more than in the United States, to mark celebrations and important days. They are worn in Eastern Europe’s traditional vinok, or floral wreath headdress, by young girls and unmarried women to symbolize innocence and vitality. Flowers also serve as patterns for the vyshyvanka, or embroidered traditional shirt, worn by Ukrainian women and men alike. Flowers in Ukraine signify life and the sweetness of living. And amid the daily struggle against Russian aggression, flowers have become symbols of Ukraine’s resilience and hope for the future.

Telná’s husband, 35-year-old Yuri Telnóy, was a professional soldier before the full-scale war began. He was also a brand-new father. The couple’s infant son, Seménn, was just 15 days old the day his father died. Telnóy, unable to leave the front, never got to see or hold his newborn son.

“At first it was unbelievably painful,” Telná says, ­moving her head in a gesture of agony. It’s gotten better in the months since, though of course the hurt persists, she says, speaking with a strength and calm that belie her enormous loss. While Telná attends to the grave, Seménn—Ukrainian for Simon—waits with his grandmother in the car parked nearby.

Near Telnóy’s grave lies that of Telná’s cousin, Oleg Yankovsky, a history professor killed at the age of 45 last March—on the war’s sixth day. When Telná is done at her husband’s grave, she turns her attention to the vases adorning her cousin’s headstone.

Amid the daily struggle against Russian aggression, flowers have become symbols of Ukraine’s resilience and hope for the future.

THE VILLAGE of Derhachí sits just 20 miles from the Russian border. Dramatic reminders of Moscow’s war on Ukraine mar its otherwise bucolic setting. On one day last May, a pair of Russian rockets hit the town’s recreation center—then a hub for humanitarian aid, now a heap of shattered bricks.

Outside the village, a country road winds its way to a flower farm. The sun shines warm and white in a brilliant blue sky. Yet again, the day’s loveliness clashes with surrounding signs of war. At a juncture, past which a dirt path curves off toward the farm, a ­soldier emerges from a fortified hut to check our documents and the reason for our visit. Two hundred feet on, another soldier stands at a camouflaged gun nest, giving a wave as our car bumps along the path.

Dmitro Taranenko, 56, the flower farm’s owner, remembers the start of the war with stoicism. Russian tanks began appearing in the Kharkiv region at 4 a.m. From his home in the suburbs of Kharkiv city, Taranenko gathered his family and essentials. They had to fight traffic, and general panic, to leave town.

“By 4 p.m., we were on the farm,” he says, in a matter-of-fact tone. Now they live there.

Taranenko looks the part of a farmer, with his blue jeans and plaid shirt, tanned forearms, and even the glint of a gold tooth. But he didn’t always work the land. He started his career in pediatrics, and took over the farm from his grandfather, who died in 1983. Taranenko left medicine in 1999 and transitioned to farming full time. He grows various crops, from flowers like irises, tulips, peonies, and dahlias, to larger plants like dwarf pines and Douglas fir trees.

But irises are Taranenko’s passion, as became clear during an extended tour of his property. The 2.7-acre plot boasts 1,200 different types of irises. Taranenko says it becomes a local tourist attraction when the flowers are at peak bloom. The plants’ monikers have the eccentric flair of thoroughbred horse racing: Care to Dance, Dash of Burgundy, Fancy Stuff, Slice of Heaven, Why Be Normal.

Taranenko even bred his own iris, giving it a name worthy of the Ukrainian soldiers defending the nearby border: Glory to Heroes, he calls his flower. The slogan is a common one, and predates the war, for showing respect to Ukraine’s armed forces. These words have taken on new gravity in light of the ongoing conflict.

Taranenko’s reasons for the name extend beyond a new sense of patriotism. “This variety doesn’t lie down,” he explains, referring to other flowers’ occasional habit of drooping—the result of heat, bad soil, or other adverse conditions. Glory to Heroes stands firm.

“Like Ukraine,” he says.

Dmitro Taranenko tends to his irises at his flower farm.

Dmitro Taranenko tends to his irises at his flower farm. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Despite his flower’s resilience, Taranenko describes the present moment as the worst in a string of difficult years for his business. COVID-19 put a drag on Ukraine’s flower industry. People stayed home, held fewer parties, and pared back expenses. The flower market is “recovering gradually,” he says, but “still suffering.” He sells irises and other flora to local parks, online boutiques, and customers in Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

Flowers provide a case study for Ukraine’s broader economy. That’s certainly true in Kharkiv, the northern region that borders Russia and has suffered more than some other parts of the country.

Taranenko continued to operate even when the fighting arrived at his doorstep. He points to two mounds of earth across the field from his house, describing how Ukrainian soldiers installed a howitzer artillery gun between them early in the war. The soldiers manning the gun nicknamed it “peony,” after the flower-like shape it took when fired: a long barrel like a stem and a burst of perfectly round fire—like peonies’ petals before full bloom. The farmer points to a patch of newer, black dirt, now filled in, where a Russian rocket fell a year ago, no doubt aiming for the “peony” and its artillery crew.

Even before the full-scale war began, Taranenko says, the smaller conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula, put a damper on a once-robust flower economy. The Nikitsky Botanical Gardens in Yalta, on Crimea’s southern coast, is a world-famous center for flowers and botanical research. Taranenko used to visit the gardens and vacation in Yalta every year with his family.

But after 2014, “all connections stopped,” Taranenko says. He hasn’t returned to Crimea since.

When I ask what he expects in the next year for his business, Taranenko’s words suggest that despite his love for cultivation, his mind is on bigger things than flowers.

“Next year? Victory.”

Maya Karpétta arranges a bouquet.

Maya Karpétta arranges a bouquet. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

BACK IN KHARKIV, florists take the blooms birthed at farms like Taranenko’s and turn them into works of art. At a photo studio used by Menta Floral Design, a local Kharkiv business, Maya Karpétta unspools and cuts ribbon with one hand, while the other holds aloft a pink and white bouquet-in-progress. At just 24, the young florist has already notched five years of ­professional experience. She made a bold, unsolicited pitch to work for Menta while still in school. The store’s owner, 34-year-old Anna Levchenko, liked Karpétta’s pluck and hired her. Karpétta is now Menta’s head florist.

Out of Menta’s six current employees, only Karpétta remains in Kharkiv. Levchenko now lives in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The others have relocated within Ukraine or gone abroad. Karpétta’s resolve, and optimism, led her to stay and keep living where she always has. In another confident move, Karpétta in January got married—a wartime wedding. The flower of choice for her own special day? Toffee roses.

The day I met her, Karpétta worked in tandem with marketing and social media consultant Lera Rosinska to showcase Menta’s best work. Like some of Taranenko’s customers, Menta does most of its business online. As Karpétta labors, 25-year-old Rosinska films the process on her smartphone. This is floristry for the Instagram age: Flower photos and videos that go viral online translate to better sales for small businesses like Menta.

Maya Karpétta with a bouquet.

Maya Karpétta with a bouquet. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Rosinska, like Karpétta, takes a glass-half-full view of the war and toward a future beyond it.

“Life goes on,” she says, punching the keys on her phone. During war, she says, people feel a renewed attraction to flowers and other markers of happier times. “People need to celebrate,” she adds.

And celebrations can mean big business for Ukrainian flowers. Karpétta describes working around the clock in the lead-up to March 8, International Women’s Day, a holdover from Soviet times that remains hugely popular. Valentine’s Day is always busy, as is Mother’s Day, and Knowledge Day on Sept. 1, when returning school children gift their female teachers with flowers bought by mom and dad. These four days generate the highest sales in a Ukrainian florist’s year.

Flower demand on these holidays has diminished but not disappeared, Karpétta says. Much of Menta’s customer base is out of town, or out of the country.

“We keep working,” Karpétta says. Smiling, she adds: “People are still getting married.”

Anna Levchenko at her home in Kyiv.

Anna Levchenko at her home in Kyiv. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Levchenko’s life showcases a similar resilience. Last March, in the first weeks of the war, Menta’s owner closed her Kharkiv flower shop and moved with her husband to the city of Dnipro, in Ukraine’s southeast. There, feeling stir-crazy from the war’s disruption, Levchenko organized a local floristry class. Fifty people signed up. Friends in Dnipro offered her a workshop rental for a nominal sum, where she prepped and sold her own bouquets.

For Levchenko, as for many flower enthusiasts, her passion has preserved a measure of sanity amid major trials.

“My work saved me from what was happening in my country,” she says. Her family later moved to Kyiv, where her son was born in February. Now, like a classic working mom, she manages Menta “while the little one sleeps.”

“I’m always on the computer, doing flower projects,” she says.

Although her war-adapted business continues, Levchenko misses the face-to-face interaction with clients and co-workers at a physical store like the one she had in Kharkiv.

Back at the photo studio, I asked Karpétta who she was making the large bouquet for. She said no one, for now. But she had faith Menta would find a customer soon. Rosinska’s online marketing would help.

As I watched, the two young women continued their work, creating something lovely for its own sake. Beauty just because, even in wartime.

Over the course of the last year, Natalia has assembled and sold more black-ribbon bouquets than colorful ones.

IN A LESS FASHIONABLE part of Kharkiv than the photo studio, on one side of a four-lane road, Natalia Chishpésh has sold flowers out of a corrugated metal stall for the past 15 years. Her stand is an ordinary part of an ordinary market, the kind seen all over Ukraine. Natalia, 46, grew up in Nova Kakhovka, in the country’s south, where on June 6 a hydroelectric dam exploded and sent walls of floodwater downstream. The flood killed more than 50 and displaced tens of thousands. Growing evidence points to Russian malfeasance, in part because the dam lies in Russian-controlled territory. Natalia and her 51-year-old husband, Vasily, run the stall together. They have stayed in Kharkiv through the duration of the war so far.

Business has been tough, Natalia says. Given Kharkiv’s proximity to the Russian border, and the intensity of nearby fighting, many local residents left. Fewer customers mean lower demand.

These days, “there aren’t a lot of reasons to celebrate,” she says with a despondency that contrasts sharply with Rosinska’s optimism.

Vasily and Natalia Chishpésh at their flower market stall in Kharkiv.

Vasily and Natalia Chishpésh at their flower market stall in Kharkiv. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

As if that notion needed emphasis, the Chishpésh family business has adjusted to a grim new opportunity: flowers for funerals. Over the course of the last year, Natalia assembled and sold more black-ribbon bouquets than colorful ones. And that was after sales fell off a cliff in the first four months of the war. The couple had no work at all then. In the long, slow period since, much of their business is “for heroes”—a euphemism for the ­soldiers buried nearby.

Lower demand for flowers, of whatever kind, continues today, as the going market price for roses demonstrates. Before the war, a single, premium rose cost 50 Ukrainian hryvnias—about $1.35. Now, a rose sells for 25 hryvnias, half its peacetime price.

Natalia and Vasily have adapted as best they can. Their stall now offers common household vegetables to complement its flower sales. The couple hopes that by selling cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and other staples, they might entice customers to buy a few flowers, too.

Vasily later shows me his cargo van full of cemetery-­ready arrangements. These are also called vinoks in Ukrainian, like the flower wreaths. He stands them up on their wire easels in the parking lot. Most have combinations of yellow and blue—the colors of Ukraine’s national flag. Others have black and red, another historical flag of Ukraine, representing blood and soil. Vasily’s face bears a mix of pride in his family’s workmanship, and the pain of needing to sell arrangements like these in the first place.

“How do you get used to this?” he exclaims, motioning to the standing flowers.

Back at the stall, a family approaches to buy some funeral vinok arrangements. They want five, but when Natalia quotes them the price, they say they can’t afford that many. Eventually, the family settles on two vinoks. Natalia gives them a discount anyway. The family thanks her and pays, taking the arrangements down from the side of the stall.

As they leave the market, a single vinok hangs against the bare metal wall.

—William Fleeson is a writer and journalist currently based in Kyiv; his work has appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic, and Newsweek. Read more about Will in Backstory in this issue.


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