Sunday, May 25, 2014


So Ukrainians are voting today.  Except in the terrorist-occupied regions (it's amazing how a few terrorists can threaten so many people), the voting turnout is great.  More power to them!  The line-ups in European cities where Ukrainians are working are also long.  Nice to see the members of the present government lining up with everyone else.

One thing that stands out -- so many Ukrainians have turned out to vote wearing their vyshyvanka, the traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt.   This is something you wear for special occasions, for feasts, weddings, for Sviata.   I have written a few articles on the vyshyvanka and its symbolism.   The following is one of them.  It appeared in my column in The Ukrainian Weekly in September 2008.
 photo from Telekanal Ukraina


Orysia Paszczak Tracz

Oleh Skrypka sure got it right.  His Vyshyvanka [traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt] Parade in Kyiv in May was a huge success, as is his established festival Krayina Mriy [Land of Dreams]. In each, Ukrainians are encouraged to wear their embroidered/woven folk finery, creating an event of all-encompassing beauty.

To someone other than a Ukrainian, the embroidered sorochka [traditional folk shirt] is something pretty. To a Ukrainian, putting on that sorochka is special, emotional, and spiritual.  It means so much more than a piece of clothing.  It means everything – everything good.  It symbolizes love, well-being, health, family, decency, festivity, beauty, tradition – and patriotism.  And it is this last attribute that Skrypka and others want Ukrainians in Ukraine to regain.

The sorochka in its simplest form was the earliest piece of fabric clothing worn by our ancestors.  As linen and hempen cloth weaving developed among the agriculturalists (the Trypillians, in the case of Ukraine, approx. 7-6,000 to 3-2,000 B.C.), a long folded over piece of fabric with a cut-out for the head was the thing to wear.  Echoes of this tunic-style knee-length sorochka are seen in the hip- and knee-length men's shirts of certain regions of western Ukraine.  The tucked-in sorochka for men became common in central and eastern Ukraine.

In time, ornamentation with darkened and then dyed threads developed into the weaving and embroidery designs which make the sorochka such an amazing thing.  These designs and their placement were not random, but were there to protect the wearer from all the unclean and evil spirits and powers out there.  They also symbolized specific motifs of the earth, fertility, nature, the celestial bodies, and ancestors.  As with the motifs in pysanky, woodcarving, weaving, metalwork, and all the folk arts, the symbols are rarely realistic, but are quite stylized and even abstract.  This makes these designs so much more fascinating.  And, of course, the regional differences of cut, placement of ornament, color, and the designs of the ornaments vary so greatly, creating a wealth of beauty and meaning.

The  Scythians (at least the horsemen) were not our direct ancestors. Most probably some of the agricultural Scythians mentioned by Herodotus were.  That small gold figure of the dancing Scythian in a squatting position wearing his geometrically-ornamented shirt sure tells us he's one of us.

There is very much information out there on Ukrainian folk costume, and the embroidery and ornamentation of the sorochka. It helps if you read Ukrainian, but there is more and more material appearing in English.  The Ukrainian Museum Gift Shop inNew York [   ] carries books on Ukrainian folk costume, as well as their own fine exhibition catalogues.  Ukrains'kyi Narodnyi Odiah – Ukrainian Folk Costume   (Toronto-Philadelphia:  World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations, 1992), available at this shop, is a bi-lingual Ukrainian-English volume on the costume in all regions of Ukraine.

There are more and more fine books on folk costume being published in Ukraine.  Zinaida Vasina is the author of the two-volume Ukrains'kyi Litopys Vbrannia (Kyiv:  Mystetsvo, 2003-2007).  These are very large volumes extensively and beautifully illustrated.  There has been some controversy about the author's depiction of the clothing of the prehistoric peoples on theterritory of Ukraine.  How could she be so sure this is what they wore, some reviewers wrote.  Vasina discusses the sorochka and its ornamentation in detail.

Another very richly illustrated book on folk costume is Ukrains'kyi Striy by Maia Bilan and Halyna Stel'mashchuk (Lviv:  Feniks, 2000).  It covers the history of the costume from the earliest times, as well as detailed information about each piece of clothing and accessory, as well as regional costumes.  The book is practically overflowing with photographs and illustrations. One very interesting photograph shows a man's sorochka from the Borshchiv region from the turn of the last century.  The trident, the present symbol and seal of Ukraine which originated with the kings (kniazi) of Ukraine in the 10th century, is embroidered in gold thread within the traditional multicolored floral design both on the front panels (three times) and on the cuffs.  This is certainly a most patriotic gesture of the embroiderer, and of the wearer of the sorochka.  That the sorochka survived Soviet times is also remarkable. 

Reverend Oleksander Harkavy of Winnipeg first arrived in the city in early August 1991 to perform at the Folklorama Festival. At the time, he was a Narodnyi Artyst Ukrainy, an honored nationally-awarded artist-performer, and only years later moved toWinnipeg to study theology.  We met on the Saturday before the putsch of August 19, 1991.  At one point, conversation turned to the sorochka, and O. Harkavy remembered how in Ukraine in the 1970s a student could be expelled, or persecuted for wearing a vyshyvanka publicly.  It was a dangerous piece of clothing. 

An image that remains in my mind from childhood is something I saw in a history book, The Black Deeds of the Kremlin:  a white book, I think.  The chapter on the Soviet massacre of Ukrainians in Vinnytsia in 1937-38 includes many photographs. The one I remember shows a victim wearing his vyshyvanka.  The pamphlet Crime of Moscow in Vynnytsia (Edinburgh: Scottish League for European Freedom, 1952) states:  "Naturally, being buried for years [uncovered in 1943], the features of victims had very much changed, but they were recognized by the clothes, y the Ukrainian shirts embroidered with love by the mothers and wives of the victims, and by the documents found in their pockets."

"Sorochku maty vyshyla meni….. "   My mother embroidered me a sorochka….  I wonder if someone other than a Ukrainian would, first of all, compose a song about the sorochka, and then have that song known and sung around the world decades later. 

The vyshyvanka is worn for the most important personal and national occasions, whether a private event, or one of Skrypka's festivals.  The late Bill Hanischuk, a descendant of pioneers of the Vita/Gardenton area of south-eastern Manitoba, told me how he wore his sorochka for his party upon retiring from the University of Manitoba.  The sorochka had been embroidered by his mother and wife, and this was the best and most important thing he could wear.

There was a human interest article by Gordon Sinclair in the Winnipeg Free Press about the late George Dmytriw ofWinnipeg (Nov. 15, 2007).  His wife Debbie wrote in to thank the policemen who assisted Dmytriw when he died at work.  The accompanying photo shows Mr. and Mrs. Dmytriw at some special event, and he is wearing his vyshyvanka. 

When a woman from one of my tours finally met a distant relative in Staryi Kosiv, he and his family later traveled to Kolomyia to spend more time with her.  The whole family dressed up for this event, and the elderly gentleman came in his vyshyvanka – he was honoring his Canadian distant cousin.

A poignant symbol of how important the vyshyvanka is happened at the funeral of Dr. Alexandra (Lesia) Pawlowsky inWinnipeg earlier this year.  In planning her funeral, one of her requests was for the pall bearers and honorary pall bearers to wear their sorochky.  Lesia, who passed away much too early at 55, knew and believed in the symbolism of the vyshyvanka.

Ukrainian Weekly.    Sept. 2008.