Fertile Ukraine

[H. Joseph Ware]

The fertile landscape of UkraineToday’s Ukraine carries echoes of its status as the breadbasket of Europe, with golden fields of wheat bursting from the fertile black soil of the steppes. Ukraine has about a third of the world’s ultra-fertile black soil, and has historically been a grain exporter (Hsu, 1).  However, in Ukraine, the soil is more than just fertile. Historically, the landscape of Ukrainian agriculture has been heavily mythicized. Even today, this is reflected in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, which evokes a limitless horizon of plentiful prairies nurtured in the clear blue Ukrainian sky. The beginning of this mythmaking for modern-day Ukraine can be trace back to the early 1800s, when Ukraine was struggling to define itself against Russia. Between then and now, this original myth has spawned another site of memory in the Holodomor of the 1930s. The recent struggles of the agricultural sector in the newly independent Ukraine also offers a way of understanding the place of memory in the 21st century. This piece begins, however, with the production of the original myth.

In the 1800s, when Ukrainian writers, seeking to develop a Ukrainian national consciousness, tried to transform the peasant dialects known as Little Russian into a systematized national language, they did so, in part, by developing a national literature (Subtelny 229, 230). This literature was marked by a number of concerns, including the elevation of the Cossacks as an indigenous Ukrainian aristocracy, but it was unified by a belief that real Ukrainian identity resided in the folklore of the peasants (ibid., 226, 228).This pushed the production of this new Ukrainian national art to elevate the fertile land as a centerpiece of what Ukraine embodied as a nation.

Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s patron literary saint, is representative. Shevchenko dreamed his nationalism in the mode of the agricultural ideal:  “Let the Slavic land, covered with wheat like gold, be undivided, for ever from sea to sea” (Luckyj 1971, 143). In “Testimony,” his most famous poem, he spoke of making his grave, “In my own beloved Ukraine,/In steppeland without bound;/Whence one may see wide-skirted wheatland” (ibid., 160).  The Ukrainian national writers romanticized the idea of the idyllic countryside as a place of return. Writing in St. Petersburg, the poet Kulish spoke of his desire to live in a Khutyr (single homestead in the agricultural countryside) where life would be much simpler (Luckyj 1983, 156).

But the Ukrainian national writers had a conflicted relationship with their idyllic heritage. The writer Levko Borovykovs’kyj sounded a note of trouble in paradise when he wrote in 1834 of “the superstitious life of my countrymen—the lazy children of the fertile and blue-skied Ukraine.” (Luckyj 1971, 56). Of course, this was in the context of the wealth of folk material from these superstitious and lazy people, but Gogol, the Russian-Ukrainian author, took his frustrations a step further. He asked: “What is there that this country lacks? Rich, wonderful summer! Crops, fruit, plenty of everything that grows! But the people are poor…the inhabitants sleepy and lazy” (ibid. 108). Perhaps it was this simultaneous fascination with the natural bounty of Ukraine and revulsion at aspects of its culture that encouraged writers like Gogol to heighten the myth of Ukraine as cornucopia. For, as literary scholar Kolb-Seletski has argued, Gogol created, in his fiction, “a Ukraine that is not the real Ukraine at all…the garden of Russia, the breadbasket of Europe” (Kolb-Seletski, 38).

Ukraine as bucolic idyll as painted by Russian artist KryzhitskyThis raises another factor that helps to create the agricultural paradise of Ukraine: Russian desire. “I wanted Little Russia to be another Arcadia,” said Prince Salikov in defense of his idealization of Ukraine (Luckyj 1971, 75). In many travel narratives of the time, Ukraine was a land flowing with milk and honey (ibid.). It is also interesting to note that, at around the same time as these literatures were being produced, the last agricultural “taming of the steppe” was being undertaken (Kricsfalusy, 52).

The mass starvation of the peasants of the steppe in 1932-33 lent another inflection to the meanings of the erstwhile fertile fields of Ukraine. Because of the supposed reluctance of the Ukrainians to accede to collectivization, Stalin ordered more rigorous grain collection methods that deprived the peasants of the grain they needed to survive, even though yields were not significantly down. Whether or not this was intentional on the part of Stalin, this had a murderous effect and is remembered as genocide by the Ukrainians. It is estimated that between 3 and 6 million people died as a result of the famine. But Russia itself did not particularly suffer from the famine (Subtelny 413-416).

The black earth of UkraineAs Ukraine was one of the world’s largest exporters of grain at the turn of the twentieth century, it was assumed that it would rejoin the ranks of major grain exporters quickly after it gained its independence (Seidenberg and Hoffman, 292). This was not the case, as production continued to drop after independence to a near record low of 23.8 million tons in 2000, and Ukraine began to import more food than it exported in 1998 (Hsu, 1). This was the result of many negative factors, including dispirited workers, poor equipment, soil problems, and outright abandonment of farms (Lischka, 125). The poor winter of 2003 caused a famine that brought wheat production down to 5 million tons and forced the government of Ukraine to actively seek wheat imports from abroad (Galushko, et al, 167, 180) This was exacerbated by a shrinkage in the rural population by 22.6% between 1980 and 2008 (Moroz, 633).

But not all is dark for the future of Ukraine’s fertile plains. Some environmentalists are beginning to recognize the changes that the especially intense Soviet agriculture has wrought upon the landscape and are drawing up plans to restore the native grasslands of the steppe. It is hypothesized that such conservation efforts can move in where farms are abandoned, and, if planned and conducted correctly, can be part of efforts to improve human well being in rural areas (Kricsfalusy, 52-4).

In time, Ukraine’s agricultural abilities will most likely recover. But will the fabled agricultural image of Ukraine recover alongside of them? Perhaps the efforts to restore and conserve the pre-agricultural grassland status of the steppe are a more appropriate way of mythicizing a landscape in the 21st century. Only time will tell.


Works Cited:

  • Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: a history, Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, (2009).
  • George Stephen Nestor Luckyj, Between Gogol and Sevcenko; polarity in the literary Ukraine: 1798-1847, München: W. Fink, (1971).
  • George Stephen Nestor Luckyj, Panteleimon Kulish: a sketch of his life and times, Boulder: East European Monographs, (1983).
  • Natalia M. Kolb-Seletski, “Gastronomy, Gogol, and His Fiction”, Slavic Review, 29 (1): 35-57, (1970).
  • Axel Siedenberg and Lutz Hoffmann, Ukraine at the crossroads: economic reforms in international perspective, Heidelberg: Physica-Verlag, (1999).
  • Ignatius Hsu, “A Grain Of Hope: Developing And Managing A Sustainable Grain Storage System For Chernihiv Oblast In Ukraine,” Gnovis Journal. II, (2001). http://gnovisjournal.org/files/Ignatius-Hsu-A-Grain-of-Hope.pdf
  • Serhiy Moroz, CHANGES IN RURAL AREAS OF UKRAINE: PROBLEMS AND OPPORTUNITIES, (2010). http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/94624/2/118EAAE-PS3-4-Moroz[1].pdf
  • Gottfried Lischka,  “Farm Management Challenges in Ukrainian Agriculture,”Ukrainian agriculture – crisis and recovery, Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel, ed., Aachen: Shaker, (2004).
  • Viktoriya Galushko, Arnim Kuhn & Oleg Nivyevskiy, “The 2003 Wheat Crisis and Food Security”, Ukrainian agriculture – crisis and recovery, Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel, ed., Aachen: Shaker, (2004).