At Ukraine’s Gravesites, a Spring Ritual Hints at Renewal

STARYI SALTIV, Ukraine — The families milled about, greeting one another and exchanging news, or sitting at picnic tables laid with candy, Easter eggs and freshly baked bread, reviving village life in an improbable place: the cemetery.

Outside the cemetery’s checkerboard of graves, which were festooned on Sunday with fresh flowers and where children ran about collecting candy, the village of Staryi Saltiv is a grim tableau of ruins.

“You can see people are returning to clean the cemetery, and the village is coming back to life,” said Natalia Borysovska, a seamstress whose house was destroyed last year. She had no home to return to after fleeing — but still a family plot to tend.

Sunday was a traditional day of remembrance in Ukraine, called Provody. Families spend time in cemeteries each year on the first Sunday after the Orthodox Easter, tidying up graves and leaving food and flowers for their dead loved ones.

The traditions of life and death in eastern Ukraine carried on this year, even in villages that the war has destroyed, forcing residents to scatter.

Shura Portyanko, 70, a retired store clerk who was displaced by the fighting, returned Sunday to clean her husband’s grave and pay respects.

“We cannot live without our village,” she said. “Of course, I came and cleaned up and said hello.”

Destroyed villages, some no more than collections of jagged brick walls where debris still blows about on the streets, dot the open landscape of rolling plains in the country’s east. As the front line has shifted over the 14 months of war, it has left dozens — perhaps hundreds — of such places in its wake, forlorn scenes of empty streets, blown-up churches and countless ruined houses.

But there are signs of revival even as battles persist. The United Nations and aid groups like the Red Cross are assisting in replacing windows and making other repairs.

And paradoxically, cemeteries are one place where the revival can be seen first, with orderly graves hinting at displaced residents’ intentions to return and rebuild on land near where family members are buried. For Ukraine’s villages are cradles for a language and culture deeply rooted in rural life, and they have a way of bouncing back from catastrophe.

“This is my father and this is my grandfather and this is my grandmother,” Ms. Borysovska said, pointing at graves. She had trimmed weeds, picked up leaves and branches and dusted off a picnic table in the family plot. Her house, in contrast, was still a burned hulk of charred brick.

People bring the Easter eggs and bread to mark the day of remembrance a week after celebrating the more festive Orthodox Easter holiday at home. It is said the spirits of the dead visit loved ones’ homes at Easter, and then on Provody the living visit the dead in their spot, the cemetery.

Families sit at small tables at the gravesites and sometimes talk to their deceased relatives.

“Hi, Papa,” Ms. Borysovska said at the grave of her father, who died last year from an illness.

“I talk to him, I bring what he loved and some things I bake for him,” she said, of the chocolate candies she left. “I say hello, and that I really miss him, but that I don’t want him to come to me in my dreams.”

Ms. Borysovska evacuated last year to Kharkiv, a city about a 40-minute drive away, but has not forgotten her village, a picturesque jumble of brick homes and apricot orchards on a bluff overlooking the Sieversky Donets River.

“You spend your whole life building, you save up and build for yourself, for your children, then in one moment, boom, that’s it,” she said of her destroyed home. She said she intends to rebuild and this spring is planting her garden beside the ruin.

In the pale sunshine, bees buzzed around a flowering apricot tree. In one place, a carpet of yellow wildflowers had sprung up beside an artillery crater.

Ukrainian villages have bounced back before, from war, famine and collectivization. Their resilience has been pivotal for Ukraine. Through the 20th century, villages held on to Ukrainian language and culture while cities became largely Russian speaking until a revival of interest in Ukrainian after the Orange Revolution, which brought a pro-Western government to power in 2005.

Villages are so important to Ukrainians, in fact, that Ukraine is sometimes caricatured as a nation of bumpkins devoted to garden plots and pastoral landscapes. In reality, these days two-thirds of Ukrainians live in vibrant urban centers like Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa, even as a fondness for rural areas remains.

“Soil for a Ukrainian is very important because it is blessed with their blood and sweat,” Vitaly Skalsky, a Ukrainian historian, said in an interview, saying villages had a propensity to spring back from misfortune. “They were fighting for it, and they were earning from it. That is why people are very attached to the soil.”

The Russian invasion last year almost completely depopulated Staryi Saltiv, but it was not the first time. In World War II, too, fighting raged in and around the village. The Sieversky Donets River, which runs just to its east, forms a natural defensive line in eastern Ukraine that divided armies in both conflicts.

Last year, Russian troops held the eastern bank from May until September, while Ukrainian forces controlled the village. In World War II, Soviet troops held the eastern bank while Nazi soldiers controlled the village. In both wars, artillery shelling over the river largely destroyed Staryi Saltiv.

“It was horrible, what we had to live through” in World War II, said Lidiya Pechenizka, 92, who has lived in the village her entire life. She recalled hiding in a root cellar with her baby brother, just as residents did last year.

“We rebuilt after the war and we will rebuild now,” Ms. Pechenizka said.

Last year, about 40 percent of the homes in Staryi Saltiv were damaged and another 40 percent fully destroyed, said Kostyantin Hordienko, a member of the village council. The school, clinic and City Hall were all damaged. Only about a quarter of the prewar population of about 4,000 people has returned, he said.

But for Provody, the day of commemorating the dead, the village came back to life.

Displaced families gathered to walk about the graveyard, carrying flowers and plastic bags of food, stopping to visit acquaintances and exchange pleasantries.

After families leave the graves, children collect the candy there as part of the annual tradition. They ran about on Sunday with bags, finding goodies.

Liubov Oleksiivna, 73, was born and lived her whole life in Staryi Saltiv before she had to flee. She intends to return if she can find a way to repair her home. “I am stitched to this land,” she said.

Signs of the war scarred even the cemetery. Artillery had knocked over gravestones and left deep craters in some plots. In one, a coffin had been blown apart.

Ms. Borysovska, who was visiting her father’s grave, said she would certainly move back. She recalled summer nights when moonbeams reflected on the river. “How could I forget all this and never return?” she said. “I just sleep well here.”

Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

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