What traditions and customs are there in Ukraine?
Ukraine, a former Soviet country, enjoys an extensive number of customs and traditions.
Food in daily life
Ukrainians prefer to eat at home, leaving restaurants for special occasions. Meal hours are from 7:00 to 10:00 AM for breakfast, 12:00 noon to 3:00 PM for dinner or lunch, and 5:00 to 8:00 PM for dinner.
The main meal of the day is dinner, which includes soup and meat, poultry, or a fish dish with salad. Ukrainians generally avoid exotic meats and spices. A variety of soups – collectively called borshch – is traditional and symbolic, which is why it is never called “soup”.
The dishes on the restaurant menu are usually from Eastern Europe. High-end restaurants are patronized at dinner by a new generation of business executives who combine food with professional interaction.
Food customs on ceremonial occasions
Culinary traditions in Ukraine are related to ancient rituals. The calendar cycle of religious festivals combined with popular traditions requires a variety of specific foods.
Christmas Eve dinner consists of 12 meatless dishes, including borsch cabbage rolls, varenyky (known in North America as pierogi), fish, mushrooms, various vegetables, and a grain of wheat, honey, poppy seeds, and raisins dish called kutya. This last dish is served only at Christmas.
On Easter Sunday the food that has been previously blessed is eaten after the Resurrection services. It includes a sweet bread called paska, colored eggs, butter, meat, sausage, bacon, horseradish, and garlic.
On the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 19), apples and honey are blessed and eaten along with other seasonal fruits. Various alcoholic beverages complement the meals. It is customary to offer a drink to guests, who must not refuse it except for health or religious reasons.
Ukrainians favor inbreeding. Traditionally, young people choose their partners at social events. Historically, parental approval and blessing were sought. Marriages against the wishes of the parents were rare in the past, and matchmakers mediated between the two families.
Parents’ role in marriage has been preserved in contemporary Ukrainian culture through their responsibilities in organizing and financing wedding ceremonies and festivities for their children. The festivities show the social status of the family. Most marriage ceremonies today are both civil and religious.
In traditional society, public opinion pressured young people to marry early. This still leads to many marriages between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five.
It also leads to a large number of divorces, very rare in the traditional past. The Ukrainian Catholic Church prohibits divorce and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church discourages it. Civil courts grant divorce, adjudicating property and custody rights.
Social interaction in Ukraine is regulated by etiquette similar to that in the rest of Europe. Some local idiosyncrasies are personal space less than an arm’s length away in business conversations and the habit of drinking alcohol at business meetings, a relic of Soviet times.
Religious beliefs are fundamental in Ukrainian culture. Ukraine experienced a revival of many religions: Ukrainian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholics, Protestants, Jews – including Hasidism – and Islamists. The Constitution and the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion provide for the separation of church and state and the right to practice the religion of one’s choice.
Ukrainian Orthodox clergy are educated in divinity schools such as the kyiv Theological Academy. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, banned in Soviet times, is in need of priests and offers a wide range of educational programs at the Lviv Theological Seminary.
Protestant denominations, primarily Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists, train their ministers with the help of American and Western European missionary programs. The Roman Catholic clergy, numerically small, are assisted by pastoral visitors from abroad.
Rituals and Holy Places
The Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches share historical, ritual and national heritages. Popular culture incorporated many ancient pagan rituals into a popular version of Christianity. Orthodox priests still perform exorcisms by the canon of Saint Basil the Great.
The icon of the Holy Virgin and the fountain in the Orthodox Pochaiv Monastery are believed to have miraculous healing powers. Zarvanytsia in western Ukraine is a holy pilgrimage site for Ukrainian Catholics. The tomb of the founding rabbi of Hasidism, located near Uman, is a place of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews.
Death and afterlife
Ukrainians very faithfully observe ancient funeral traditions. After the funerals, a collective meal is celebrated, which is repeated on the ninth and fortieth days, and then again at six and twelve months.
An annual day of remembrance called Provody, on the Sunday after Easter, brings families together at ancestral graves to once again say goodbye to the departed. Provody is widely observed in contemporary Ukraine. Under the Soviets it symbolized an ancient tradition.
Its Christian symbolism represents the victory of Christ over death. Its pre-Christian roots are in tune with the rebirth of nature in spring and with the worship of ancient ancestors.
There are several secular official holidays in Ukraine, some of which date back to Soviet times. International Women’s Day, March 8, is now celebrated in the same context as Mother’s Day: men present small gifts and flowers to all family members and co-workers.
Victory Day, May 9, became a day of remembrance for those who died in World War II. Constitution Day is June 28. On August 24, Independence Day, it is celebrated with military parades and fireworks.
Arts and Humanities
The former Soviet Union provided government support for the arts through professional organizations such as writers’, artists’, or composers’ unions.
These organizations still exist and try to function despite a general lack of funds. Young and offbeat artists often organize informal groups funded by individual patrons and grants from international foundations.
Ukrainian literature begins with the Chronicles of Kyivan Rus and the 12th-century epic The Story of the Ihor Campaign. The main authors of the Baroque period were Lazar Baranovych (1620-1693), Ioannikii Galiatovskii (d. 1688), Ivan Velichkovsky (d. 1707), and Demetrius of Rostov (1651-1709), who wrote poetry and didactic drama.
Kozak’s chronicles from the early 18th century include The Chronicle of the Eyewitness, The Chronicle of Hryhorii Hrabyanka, and The Chronicle of Samijlo Velychko.
Ivan Kotlyarevskyi (1769-1838) first used proto-modern Ukrainian literary language in his 1798 poem Aeneid (Aeneid). He traveled to Virgil, turning the original Trojans into Ukrainian kozaks and the destruction of Troy into the abolition of the hetmanate. Hryhorij Kvitka Osnov’yanenko (1778-1843) developed a new prose narrative style.
In 1837 three Galician writers known as Ruska Trijtsia (Ruthenian Trinity) -Markiian Shashkevych (1811-1843), Ivan Vahylevych (1811-1866) and Yakiv Holovatsky (1814-1888)- published a literary collection under the title Rusalka Dnistrovaya (The nymph of Dnister).
This effort focused on folklore and history and began to unify the Ukrainian literary language. The literary genius of Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) completed the development of romantic literature and its national spirit.
His 1840 Kobzar collection of poems and other poetic works became symbols of Ukrainian national identity for all Ukrainians, from nobility to peasants. In his poetry he appears as the son of the oppressed Mother Ukraine.
Later, his own image was identified with an archetypal Great Father, embodying the spirit of the nation. This process completed the creation of a system of symbolic representations of the Ukrainian national identity.
In the second half of the XIX century, the Ukrainian writers of the Russian Empire -Panteleimon Kulish (1819-1897), Marko Vovchok (1834-1907), Ivan Nechuj-Levyts’kyj (1838-1918), Panas Myrnyj (1849-1920) and Borys Hrinchenko (1863-1910) – developed a realist style in their novels and short stories.
Osyp-Yurij Fed’kovych (1834-1888) was the pioneer of Ukrainian literature in westernmost Bukovyna under Austrian rule. Ivan Franko (1856-1916) is an emblematic figure of Ukrainian literature comparable to Shevchenko.
His poetry ranged from the most intimate introspection to epic grandeur. His prose was in tune with contemporary European styles, especially naturalism, and his poetry ranged from the introspective to the philosophical.
Mykhailo Kotsubynskyi (1864-1913); Vasyl Stefanyk (1871-1936), a teacher of psychological short stories in dialect; and Olha Kobylianska (1865-1942), all wrote in a psychologically true style.
Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913) saw Ukrainian history and society within a universal and emotionally elevated context in her neo-romantic poems such as Davnya Kazka (“The Ancient Tale”, 1894) or Vila-Posestra (“Sister Vila”, 1911) and dramas such as U Pushchi (“In the desert”, 1910), Boiarynia (“The noble noblewoman”, 1910) and Lisova Pisnya (“Song of the forest”, 1910).
Shevchenko, Franko, and Lesia Ukrainka are popularly known in Ukrainian culture as the Prophet or Bard, the Stonecutter, and the Daughter of Prometheus, images based on their respective works.
After the Soviet takeover of Ukraine, many Ukrainian writers went into exile. This allowed them to write with a freedom that would have been impossible under the Soviets.
The most prominent among them were Yurii Lypa (1900-1944), Olena Teliha (1907-1942), Evhen Malaniuk (1897-1968), and Oksana Liaturyns’ka (1902-1970). Her works are distinguished by an elegant mastery of form and depth of expression, coupled with a commitment to her enslaved nation.
Ukrainian literature showed achievements within a wide stylistic spectrum in Ukraine’s brief period under the Soviets. Modernism, the avant-garde, and neoclassicism flourished in opposition to so-called proletarian literature.
Futurism was represented by Mykhailo Semenko (1892-1939). Mykola Zerov (1890-1941), Maksym Rylskyj (1895-1964), and Mykhailo Draj-Khmara (1889-1938) were neoclassical.
The VAPLITE group (Vil’na Academia Proletars’koi Literatury [Free Academy of Proletarian Literature], 1925-1928) included the poets Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967) and Mike Johansen (1895-1937), the novelists Yurij Yanovs’ kyi (1902-1954) and Valerian Pidmohyl’nyi (1901-1937?), and the playwright Mykola Kulish (1892-1937).
VAPLITE leader Mykola Khvyliovyi (1893-1933) advocated a cultural and political orientation towards Europe and away from Moscow. VAPLITE defended national interests within a communist ideology and thus came under political attack and harsh persecution from pro- Russian communists.
Khvyliovyi committed suicide after witnessing the famine of 1933. Most VAPLITE members were arrested and killed in Stalin’s prisons.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the so-called social realist style was officially imposed on Ukrainian Soviet literature. In 1960-1970 a new generation of writers rebelled against social realism and the official policy of Russification.
The novels of Oles’ Honchar (1918-1995), the poetry of Lina Kostenko (1930-), and the dissident poets Vasyl’ Stus (1938-1985) and Ihor Kalynets’ (1938-) broke new ground. Unfortunately, some of them paid for this with their freedom and Stus with his life.
Writers of the 1980s and 1990s looked for new directions in a philosophical rethinking of the Ukraine of the past and present, such as Valerii Shevchuk (1939-), or in burlesque and irony such as Yurii Andrukhovych (1960-). Contemporary culture, politics, and social issues are discussed in the Krytyka and Suchasnist’ periodicals.
Ancient Greek and Roman paintings and Byzantine art modified by local taste were preserved in colonies in the Northern Black Sea region. Kyivan Rus’ art began with icons on Byzantine-style wood panels. Shortly after conversion to Christianity, monumental mosaics embellished churches, exemplified by the Oranta in kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral.
The mosaics were complemented by frescoes on the interior walls and on the stairs. Frescoes of the time were also created for the Church of St. Cyril and St. Michael’s Monastery in kyiv.
Medieval manuscript illumination reached a high artistic level and the first printed books retained these illuminations. Printing houses were established in Lviv and Ostrih in 1573, where the Ostrih Bible was published in 1581. In the 17th century kyiv became a center of engraving.
The Baroque era secularized Ukrainian painting, popularizing the portrait even in religious painting: The icon Mary the Protector, for example, included an image of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Kozak’s portraits of the 17th and 18th centuries passed from post-Byzantine rigidity to highly expressive Baroque.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, several Ukrainian artists worked in Saint Petersburg: Antin Losenko (1737-1773), Dmytro Levyts’kyi (1735-1825), Volodymyr Borovykovs’kyi (1757-1825), and Illia Repin (1844-1928)..
In 1844 Taras Shevchenko, a graduate of the Russian Academy of Arts, published his lithograph album Picturesque Ukraine. An ethnographic tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries is represented by Lev Zhemchuzhnikov (1928-1912) and Opanas Slastion (1855-1933).
Mykola Pymonenko (1862-1912) organized a painting school in kyiv in favor of a post-romantic style. National elements permeated the paintings of Serhii Vasylkyvs’kyi (1854-1917).
Impressionism characterized the works of Vasyl (1872-1935) and Fedir Krychevs’ky (1879-1947). The highly individualistic and expressive post-romantic Ivan Trush (1869-1941) and Oleksa Novakivs’kyi (1872-1935) introduced Western Ukrainian art in the 20th century.
The graphics of Yurii Narbut (1886-1920) combined Ukrainian baroque traditions with the principles of modernism. Mykhailo Boichuk (1882-1939) and his disciples Ivan Padalka (1897-1938) and Vasyk Sedlyar (1889-1938) combined elements of Byzantine art with modern monumentalism.
Anatol’ Petryts’kyi (1895-1964), an individualistic expressionist, survived Stalinist persecution to remain a champion of creative freedom to the end of his life.
In Lviv in the 1930s, Ukrainian artists worked in different modernist styles: Pavlo Kovzhun (1896-1939) was Symbolist and Constructivist. Several western Ukrainian artists between the two world wars – Sviatoslav Hordynsky, Volodymyr Lasovsky, Mykhailo Moroz and Olena Kulchytska – studied in Paris, Vienna, Warsaw and Krakow.
Many artists, such as the Neo-Byzantine Petro Kholodnyi (1876-1930) and the Expressionist Mykola Butovych (1895-1962), left Soviet Ukraine for Western Ukraine in the 1920s to avoid persecution. Ancient icons influenced Vasyl Diadyniuk (1900-1944) and Yaroslava Muzyka (1896-1973).
Alexander Archipenko (1887-1966), the most prominent Ukrainian artist to immigrate to the West, achieved international stature with paintings and sculptures that combined abstraction with expressionism. Like Grandma Moses, the popular painters Maria Pryimachenko (1908-) and Nykyfor Drevniak (1900-1968).
After World War II, many Ukrainian artists emigrated to the United States and other Western countries. Jacques Hnizdovsky (1915-1985) achieved wide recognition in printmaking and woodcutting.
Mykhailo Chereshniovsky’s highly stylized sculpture displayed a unique lyrical beauty. Edvard Kozak (1902-1998), caricaturist in Lviv before World War II, became a cultural icon in the diaspora.
After Stalin’s genocide of the 1930s, social realism (a kind of didactic naturalism applied to all literary and artistic mediums) became the only style allowed in the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, some young Ukrainian artists and poets, who were also civil rights advocates, rejected social realism. For some of them this turned out to be tragic: the muralist Alla Hors’ka was killed, and the painter Opanas Zalyvakha was imprisoned in the Gulag for many years.
During the 1980s, modernism and postmodernism appeared in Ukraine in art movements and spontaneous exhibitions. Postmodern rethinking infused the work of Valerii Skrypka and Bohdan Soroka. A search for identity in the Ukrainian diaspora was shown in the surrealist works of Natalka Husar.
Ukrainian folk music is highly idiosyncratic despite sharing significant formal elements with the music of neighboring cultures. Epic dumas – ancient melodies, especially those for seasonal rituals – are tonally related to medieval modes, Greek tetra-chords, and Turkish ornaments.
The major/minor tonal system appeared in the Baroque period. Typical genres of Ukrainian folk music are solo singing; partial singing groups; the epic dumas sung by (often blind) bards accompanying themselves on the bandura (a lute-shaped psalter); and dance music by troisty muzyky, a violin, wind, and percussion ensemble that includes a hammered dulcimer.
The traditional dances – kozachok, hopak, metelytsia, kolomyika, hutsulka, and arkan – differ by rhythmic figures, choreography, region, and sometimes gender, but share a double meter. Traditional folk instruments include the bandura, a variety of flutes, various violins and basses, drums and rattles, the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy, the Jew’s harp, and the hammered dulcimer.
The medieval beginnings of professional music are both secular and sacred. The first was created by the court bards and by the skomorokhy (jongleurs). The latter was created by Greek and Bulgarian church musicians. Ukrainian medieval and Renaissance a cappella sacred music was codified and annotated in various iconographies.
The Baroque composer and theorist Mykola Dylets’kyi developed a polyphonic style that the composers Maksym Berezovs’kyi (1745-1777), Dmytro Bortnians’kyi (1751-1825), and Artem Vedel (1767-1808) combined with 18th-century classicism. The first Ukrainian opera Zaporozhets za Dunayem (Zaporozhian beyond the Danube) was composed in 1863 by Semen Hulak-Artemovs’kyi (1813-1873).
The Western Ukrainian Peremyshl School was represented by Mykhailo Verbyts’kyi (1815-1870), Ivan Lavrivs’kyi (1822-1873), and Victor Matiuk (1852-1912). All three composed sacred music, choral and solo vocal works, and music for the theater.
A descendant of the old Kozak aristocracy, Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912) is known as the father of Ukrainian music. A Leipzig Conservatory graduate, pianist, and musical ethnographer, Lysenko created a national school of composition that seamlessly integrated elements of Ukrainian folk music into a mainstream Western style.
His works include a cyclical setting of Shevchenko’s poetry; operas, including Taras Bulba; art songs and choral works; cantatas; piano pieces; and chamber music. His immediate disciples were Kyrylo Stetsenko (1883-1922) and Mykola Leontovych (1877-1919).
Ukrainian music of the 20th century is represented by the post-romantic Borys Liatoshyns’kyi (1895-1968), Lev Revuts’kyi (1899-1977), Vasyl Barvins’kyi (1888-1963), Stanyslav Liudkevych (1879-1980) and Mykola Kolessa (1904-). Contemporary composers include Myroslav Skoryk, Lesia Dychko, and Volodymyr Huba.
Many Ukrainian performers have achieved international stature: soprano Solomia Krushelnyts’ka (1973-1952), tenor Anatoliy Solovianenko (1931-1999), and Ukrainian-American bass Paul Plishka (1941-).
The theater in Ukraine began with the vertep folklore show and the baroque interlude that was performed in the academies. The Baroque style, with its flowery language and allegories of stock, lasted longer in the Ukraine than in Western Europe.
Eighteenth-century classicism included sentimental plays presented by public, private, and bonded theaters. Kotliarevs’ky’s ballad opera Natalka-Poltavka (“Natalka of Poltava”) and comedy Moskal’-Charivnyk (“The Sorcerous Soldier”) premiered in 1819 and initiated an ethnographically oriented Ukrainian theater.
In 1864, the Rus’ka Besida (Ruthenian Club) of Lviv, under Austria, established a permanent Ukrainian theatre, while in the Russian Empire Ukrainian plays were performed by amateurs until banned by the Ems Ukase.
Despite this ban, Marko Kropyvnyts’kyi (1840-1910) staged Ukrainian plays in 1881 together with Mykhailo Staryts’kyi (1840-1904) and the Tobilevych brothers. The latter were known under their pen and stage names as the playwright Ivan Karpenko-Karyi (1845-1907) and the actors and directors Panas Saksahans’kyi (1859-1940) and Mykola Sadovs’kyi (1856-1933).
They created a whole repertoire of historical and social works. Sadovs’kyi’s productions marked the beginning of Ukrainian cinema: Sakhnenko’s studio in Katerynoslav filmed his stage productions in 1910.
From 1917 to 1922 numerous new theaters appeared both in the east and in the west of Ukraine. The new leading figure in the theater was Les’ Kurbas, director of the kyiv Youth Theater and, later, of the Berezil Theater in Kharkiv.
His innovative approach combined expressionism with the traditions of ancient Greek and Ukrainian folk theaters and included an acting method based on theatrical synthesis, psychologically reinterpreted gesture, and rhythmically unified acting. The expressionist style was adopted in the cinema by internationally renowned director Oleksandr Dovzhenko (1894-1956).
Berezil’s leading playwright, Mykola Kulish (1892-1937), reflected in his works the social and national conflicts in Soviet Ukraine and the emergence of a class that used the revolution for personal ends. In 1933-1934 Kurbas, Kulish and many of their actors were arrested and later killed in Stalin’s prisons.
As in any other art, social realism became the only dramatic style, exemplified by the works of party hacker Oleksander Korniichuk. In 1956 former members of The Young Theater and Berezil formed The Ivan Franko Theater in kyiv, but without the innovative character of the old ensembles.
Some Berezil members who escaped from the Soviet Union during World War II brought the Kurbas style to western Ukraine. After World War II, these and other Ukrainian actors found themselves in refugee camps in Western Europe and made theater an influential force for the preservation of national culture and the reconstitution of refugee identity after the cultural clashes of war and displacement.
Theaters run by Volodymyr Blavats’kyi (1900-1953) and former Berezil actor Josyp Hirniak continued their performances as professional companies in New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
New ideas appeared in the Ukrainian cinema of the sixties. Director Kira Muratova’s work displayed existentialist concepts. The impressionistic and ethnographically authentic work Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) by Sergij Paradzhanov and Jurii Ilienko was awarded at Cannes. Ilienko is now a leading Ukrainian film director and cinematographer in the postmodern style.
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