Ukrainian Babushkas – A Source of Wisdom and Sunflower Seeds

“If Palace Walls Could Talk” – One old woman sweeps the Kiev streets. Another marches off to a construction site, pick axe and shovel in hand. On the corner, a third woman wrapped in a scarf sells sunflower seeds and flowers. Almost universal in their role in the family, Ukrainian grandmothers, known affectionately as babushkas are the sisters, widows, and mothers of over 20 million male soldiers who lost their lives during the Second World War and must work in the twilight of their lives.

Ukrainian women rebuilt the country after the war and raised families during the last gasp of Soviet rule. Yet, with the coming of the country’s independence, many of these women, now grandmothers in their 70s and 80s, often live on a $30 per month pension. Inventive and resourceful, some Ukrainian grandmothers supplement their incomes by selling roasted sunflower seeds, flowers, and herbs on the street or take up tools to perform work a teenager might buckle under.

The role of the Ukrainian babushka is a vital one. Raising grandchildren while mothers are working, babushkas teach folk songs, stories, and religious belief to the next generations and are a source of wisdom and comfort to many. Opening their hearts to their guests as well, Ukrainian grannies are compelled to feed anyone at their table and if a traveler is invited into the home of a babushka, one’s soul as well as one’s stomach will be replete.

Storytelling is often all these women have left to offer a fast-moving society and the Ukrainian babushka presents a rare access to the past. Most have lived under the Stalinist regime, perhaps fought as partisans, or lived lives as scientists or dissident journalists. In the face of a Ukrainian babushka, history itself has a human face, a face that will soon be gone.