The sunflower with the Ukrainian ribbon is in my kitchen since March 8. I came downtown Rīga to see if there was any need for volunteers at the Refugee Support Center and I ran into an acquaintance carrying what looked like a poster. I guessed that she was on her way to join the pro-Ukraine/anti-Russia meeting and my guess was correct. The demonstration had a specific focus – solidarity with the women of Ukraine since March 8 was International Women’s day. Would I like to join? Sure, why not?! I quickly made a sign “Standing with the women of Ukraine” and joined the crowd gathering across the street from the embassy of Ukraine. Then some stranger stuck the sunflower in my backpack and tied the blue-and-yellow ribbon around it. In the evening going home by public transport, I was so proud of the tall sunflower. I did not stare at the people on the bus, but I hoped they were staring at me. I hoped that most felt encouraged by this small sign of solidarity with Ukraine. If there were any who disapproved or felt annoyed, well, I hoped this would get under their skin.
The sunflower is a national flower of Ukraine and it has become a symbol of worldwide solidarity and resistance against the Russian invasion and war of aggression. The golden sunflower fields in Ukraine – it is a beautiful sight in the summer. The tall plants with big flower heads, full of seeds, facing the sunrise in the east, sunflowers long for the sun. The symbol of beauty, strength, yearning as Ukrainian people long for a good and beautiful life in their land.
These days it is impossible to escape the metaphor of the seeds when reflecting on the Russian attack on Ukraine. First, it was the video – the brave Ukrainian woman who taunted the Russian soldiers by telling them to put sunflower seeds in their pockets. She said, “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets. At least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.” These words had a strange mix of sarcasm and challenge, but also a picture of the deep connection of the fallen body to the land and the flower to the darkness of the grave.
As I was writing these words, it dawned on me that someone else had already described this strange, powerful connection. Simon Wiesenthal, the well-known Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor, wrote many books, including “The Sunflower”. His account of meeting a dying young SS soldier who on his deathbed asked for forgiveness led to lifelong wrestling about the dynamics between repentance and forgiveness as Wiesenthal chose to stay silent and not to express forgiveness. In his account, Wiesenthal also described a particular episode of seeing a military cemetery where “on each grave there was planted a sunflower, as straight as a soldier on parade”. He wrote: “I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun’s rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave. It seemed to penetrate the earth and suddenly I saw before me a periscope.” Wiesenthal envied these soldiers who had “a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave.” He knew that his most likely fate would be a mass grave with piles of bodies.
I think of two kinds of seeds and plants growing from the soil – those that will grow despite not being intentionally planted and those that will grow because they were intentional. Jesus taught his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) It speaks of the kind of intentionality which Jesus himself expressed. His followers understood this as modus operandi of Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection. Also, they understood this as a future modus operandi for themselves. The seed has only one good purpose – to be planted and preferably in good soil.
There is a wonderful Latvian poet, Knuts Skujenieks, who wrote some of his most powerful poems while imprisoned for anti-Soviet activities in a Soviet prison camp in Mordovia, Russia. One of my favorites is his poem called “Thanks to the world”. The first verse reads: “Thanks for being born at a time like this/ Thanks for the seed I have to plant/Thanks for my two hands/and the world I get to hold with these”
Time like this? Certainly, the suffering people in Ukraine did not choose it as they are trying to hold their world with their bare two hands! Certainly, they did not seek to become heroes or martyrs, but thousands of lives have been taken already. Of course, there is also the tragedy of the thousands of Russian soldiers who should not have needlessly died for the mythological, perverse idea of the “Russian world” (Russkiy Mir).
Different people groups, including Ukrainians, have claimed as their own the words of a Greek poet who wrote: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” We know instinctively and deeply that these words are true – the will of the Ukrainian people will prevail as will their sunflower fields.

2 thoughts on “They didn’t know we were seeds

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