One of Kyiv's oldest gardens brings peace to the war-weary

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, May 30, 2024

One of Kyiv's oldest gardens brings peace to the war-weary
Volunteers collect branches at the A.V. Fomin Botanical Garden in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 28, 2023. The A.V. Fomin Botanical Garden is one of Ukraine’s oldest; it has stood in the center of the capital, Kyiv, for nearly two centuries. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)

by Cassandra Vinograd

KYIV.- Just steps away from rush-hour traffic on Kyiv’s busy Taras Shevchenko boulevard, a handful of retirees pruned bushes in a quiet, green oasis.

“They started coming when the war broke out,” said Natalia Belemets, the curator of this small botanical garden. “They wanted to help.”

The A.V. Fomin Botanical Garden is one of Ukraine’s oldest. It has stood in the center of the capital, Kyiv, for nearly two centuries.

Members of the garden’s staff were encouraged to leave Kyiv or work remotely when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But soon afterward, the need arose for seasonal work and garden maintenance, so volunteers organized on social media and came to help.

“This botanical garden is a pearl of Kyiv, a green jewel in the city center,” Belemets said on a recent morning. It is important to keep it beautiful, she added, “not only for us, but for the city and the country.”

The volunteers do simple garden work, like digging, collecting branches and watering. At one point, there were about 20 people volunteering on a weekly basis. These days, the numbers have dwindled because many people have returned to full-time jobs.

Still, new faces are always coming. As Belemets spoke, two women arrived and were led over to a bush by a longtime volunteer. They got right down to work, one of the women pulling at the branches of a low bush, a brown leather purse slung over her shoulder.

Svetlana Sitko, 62, has been volunteering in the garden since April 2022, when the horrors unleashed by Russian troops in the suburbs of Kyiv, including Bucha, in their failed attempt to seize the capital were only just becoming clear.

“After Bucha, after Kyiv, we had to do something,” Sitko sighed. She pointed to her chest: “It starts in the heart. We wanted to do something in the city, for people, to help.”

Her hands, clad in blue gardening gloves, gestured animatedly as she spoke about the orchard she and her husband have planted at their cottage outside Kyiv: pears, apple trees, blackberries, blueberries, currants and honeysuckle.

A retired child psychologist, Sitko said that when she left the garden, she would change out of her purple leggings and dirt-stained shoes and head to another wartime volunteer job: making camouflage nets for snipers.

Her husband of 36 years, Yuri, was tending flowers nearby. He is the true gardening enthusiast, she went on. They were born four years apart on Feb. 24. That is the same date that Russia launched its full-scale invasion last year.

Last May, she said, a soldier came to the garden with his wife and a small child in his arms. He told her that he had a few hours’ free and that he wanted to see “something beautiful” with his family.

“I definitely believe that these guys who are at the front need this very much,” she said. “They will come back after the war.”

Finding beauty in the garden, she added, is “important for the soul — and the eyes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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