Among the many heartrending images from the Russian invasion of Ukraine this week, the one that stands out and haunts me is of a woman confronting heavily armed soldiers on a city street. Upon finding out that the soldiers are, in fact, Russian citizens, she queries them as to what they are doing on her land and justifiably calls them occupants and fascists. Next, the conversation takes an unexpected turn. The woman says: “Take these seeds and put them raw in your pockets. At least, sunflowers will grow there where you fall on our soil.” This is the only thing she will insist upon in the brief exchange: “Guys, put these seeds in your pockets. You will lie in the earth with the seeds.”
Flowers as symbols of resistance to military operations are quite familiar. The term “Flower Power” was coined during mass protests against the US invasion of Vietnam, when George Harris put carnations in gun barrels during the 1967 march on the Pentagon. This act was repeated in Europe, on April 25, 1974, when the dictatorial Estado Novo (“New State”) in Portugal was peacefully overthrown by the Portuguese military. The event became known as “Carnation Revolution” because “flower sellers in Lisbon donated carnations for soldiers to insert into the barrels of their guns. It is said that the idea originated with one Celeste Caeiro in a restaurant in Lisbon. She began to hand out carnations from the restaurant, and the idea caught on.”
The anonymous and brave Ukrainian woman, who addressed Russian soldiers, did something else, though. She did not cull flowers in a symbolic gesture of peaceful resistance to military onslaught. She did not offer the life of these flowers as a secular sacrifice on the high altar of human coexistence. Instead, her gesture was oriented toward the postwar future, the germination and growth of sunflowers (that are, by the way, Ukraine’s national flowers) nourished by the Ukrainian soil and… the dead bodies of the Russian invaders. The seeds will outlive those who put them in the pockets of their military fatigues. They will live on and flourish as flowers, fed by the death of the occupiers, who will enrich with their decomposing corpses the soil of the country they invaded.
There is, more surprisingly perhaps, also a moment of posthumous redemption for the Russian soldiers themselves in the woman’s offer. Despite cursing them and cursing at them, she suggests that the seeds will “at least” make sure that they do not die in vain. Not only will the bodies of soldiers stimulate plant growth, but also a part of them will survive in and as the flowers, rooted in the earth they treaded in tanks. Their vegetal afterlife will partly atone or compensate for violence and destruction wrought in their human incarnation. (In the meanwhile, it is unclear how many Russian soldiers would be buried in Ukrainian or any other soil, since the troops have entered Ukraine with mobile crematoriums, likely intended to mask the extent of Russian losses in active combat.)
It bears mentioning that, for both Ukrainians and Russians, sunflower seeds are a common attribute of everyday life. People pass spare time nibbling on them (насіння лузати / лузгать семечки) together with others while carrying on an unhurried conversation. In this cultural context, it is not at all necessary to specify what kind of seeds they are: “seeds” (насіння or семечки) mean by default “sunflower seeds.” Often, they mediate the coexistence of families, friends, and neighbors. Nevertheless, seeds are first roasted in their shells before being consumed. By emphasizing that soldiers need to put them raw (hence, with germinal potential intact) in their pockets, the Ukrainian woman obviously excludes them from the communal exchanges mediated by sunflower seeds. And, less manifestly, she is willing to admit them into the more-than-human community of a local ecosystem in the guise of the flowers they would metamorphose into.
So, unlike the gestures that hers is analogous to, from American protests against the Vietnam War to the Portuguese Carnation Revolution, the Ukrainian woman’s conduct is not merely symbolic. It provides a vital material path toward the senses of peace and life, existence and coexistence, where, whatever the atrocities human beings commit, plants quietly prevail. In the same vein, my brief analysis of the current situation is neither allegorical nor metaphoric. It is necessary to tarry with the small, seemingly marginal, aspects of events in order to interpret what is going on “on the ground” and, more obscurely, “in the ground” whence future growth arises.
I want to conclude with an excerpt from “So I’ll talk about it” by contemporary Ukrainian poet, Serhiy Zhadan:
“Music beyond the cemetery wall.
Flowers that grow from women’s pockets,
schoolchildren who peek into the chambers of death.
The most beaten paths lead to the cemetery and water.
You hide only the most precious things in the soil—
the weapon that ripens with wrath,
porcelain hearts of parents that will chime
like the songs of a school choir.
I’ll talk about it—”
Let’s, indeed, talk about it. And when we quiet down, when the last sound of words dies out, let’s listen to vegetal “music beyond the cemetery wall.”