Sunflowers have long been a beloved symbol of Ukrainian national identity. Now, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stretches into its second month, the flower—soniashnyk in Ukrainian—has taken on new layers of meaning, emerging as a “global symbol of resistance, unity and hope,” writes Jennifer Hassan for the Washington Post.
The sunflower movement began with a viral video shared by UkraineWorld on February 24, the first day of the invasion. In the clip, a Ukrainian woman in the southern port city of Henychesk gives sunflower seeds to armed Russian soldiers. “Take these seeds so sunflowers grow here when you die,” she says, per a translation by BBC News.
Ukrainian woman confronts Russian soldiers in Henychesk, Kherson region. Asks them why they came to our land and urges to put sunflower seeds in their pockets [so that flowers would grow when they die on the Ukrainian land] pic.twitter.com/ztTx2qK7kB— UkraineWorld (@ukraine_world) February 24, 2022
Over the past few weeks, demonstrators from Chicago to Mexico City to London have wielded Ukraine’s national flower in denunciation of Russian aggression, gathering in the streets while holding up sunflowers and wearing sunflower crowns. Some critics of the war have added a sunflower emoji to their social media profiles or sold paintings of the bright yellow bloom in support of Ukraine.
According to an entry in the 1993 Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Spaniards brought sunflowers from the New World to Europe in the early 17th century. The flowers were subsequently introduced in Ukraine in the mid-18th century. Ukrainians snacked on the flower’s seeds or crushed them into oil. Used in cooking or exported to other countries, the oil proved popular in the Eastern European country as an alternative to butter and lard, which were prohibited by the Orthodox Church during Lent, reports Joe Sommerlad for the Independent.
Today, sunflowers are a key component of the Ukrainian economy, with Ukraine and Russia contributing upward of 70 to 80 percent of global sunflower oil exports. The flowers are abundant across Ukrainian villages, gardens and fields; Jennifer Cole of the Star notes that locals feature sunflowers as woven decorations in clothes and wear them as headdresses during celebrations.
For Ukrainians, sunflowers’ cultural significance goes beyond their prolific growth and role as an economic driver. As Olivia B. Waxman writes for Time, the flower has historically represented peace. In June 1996, ministers from the United States, Russia and Ukraine marked Ukraine’s nuclear weapon disarmament by planting sunflowers at the Pervomaysk missile base. As U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry said at the ceremony, per the Washington Post’s James Rupert, the three nations’ shared goal was “ensuring that our children and our grandchildren will live in peace.”
Another link between sunflowers and nuclear weapons dates back to 1986, when an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine released radioactive material into the environment, killing 31 people within a few weeks. After the disaster, scientists planted sunflowers—hyperaccumulators capable of extracting toxins from soil—to remove radioactive elements from surrounding soil and ponds. A similar planting project took place in Japan after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The Russians captured Chernobyl on the very first day of the ongoing invasion, holding the technicians who oversee the now-defunct power plant hostage. This week, reports BBC News, Ukraine’s state nuclear company announced that most of the occupying Russian forces had left Chernobyl after being exposed to “significant doses” of radiation.
“There is no scenario, however grim, in which those now being written in the shelled and traumatized streets of Ukraine will be forgotten,” writes Jeremy Cliffe for the New Statesman. “Sunflowers will grow, somewhere. Bright yellow sunflowers against a deep blue sky.”