Sunflowers in your Pocket: An Exploration of the Tales of Ukraine
How folk stories have found a new home on social media in the middle of world conflict
Written by Cara Robbins
NOTICE: This article was written in early March 2022
Putin seems to like digging up the past. After all, his invasion of Ukraine feels uneasily familiar to Hitler’s annexation of Poland. He has no hesitation in reviving Cold War tensions with a renewed fervor, and romanticizes the re-establishment of the Soviet Union. It’s almost as if he’s following the playbook of every totalitarian before him word for word — his behavior is almost cartoonishly villainous.
Yet in the middle of the first European war between two formal state militaries (rather than insurgencies, civil war, and ethnic conflicts) since World War II are the people of Ukraine, defending their country and their homes from one of the most powerful militaries in the world — using molotov cocktails and hit-and-run tactics. They have captured the attention of the international community, uniting most countries around the world in condemning the actions of Putin — an especially difficult task, considering the current political climate of contention and disagreement. It seems that Ukraine has also re-discovered a relic from conflicts of the past — the emotional impact of warzone folk stories.
What is a war story?
War is such an emotionally volatile thing. Often, public support or contempt for a war comes from a sentimental place — so, it only makes sense that war encourages storytelling. Stories have long been the favorite way to communicate emotional ideas between people, especially with the purpose of changing minds and rallying support. And war stories can capture the imagination like no other story can — whether they really happened or not.
These stories are haunting in their ability to provide eye-opening (sometimes even painfully unblinking) proof of the undeniable consequences of war.
Sometimes the most powerful stories come from the unfiltered and raw truth provided through nonfiction first-person accounts, such as in World War II memoirs like Elie Wiesel’s “Night” or “The Diary of Anne Frank.” These stories are haunting in their ability to provide eye-opening (sometimes even painfully unblinking) proof of the undeniable consequences of war.
Yet many great war stories also do not have to be historically or factually accurate to possess the deep and profound truth that all good war stories do. For example, many Vietnam-era works like Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” or Francis Ford Coppolla’s “Apocalypse Now” feature people that never existed doing things that never happened, yet their stories are still deeply moving and important representations of the Vietnam War. Sometimes, when people are recounting the terrible things they did and saw in the name of war, it is easier and more effective to substitute fictional characters and events in place of facing the petrifying absolute truth.
Yet many great war stories also do not have to be historically or factually accurate to possess the deep and profound truth that all good war stories do.
And in some cases, war stories become a strange blend of truth and fiction, all rolled into one person. Take, for example Harriet Tubman, who has a whirlwind of stories flying around about her exploits. Some are undeniably true, such as her escape from slavery, her rescue of many other enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, and her rank as the first woman in U.S. history to lead a major military operation. Other tales are cloaked in mystery, but ultimately, likely untrue: such as rumors that she once shot out her own teeth with a pistol in order to relieve a toothache.
War stories that are told during active conflict often serve the purpose of boosting morale and gaining sympathy from allies. Countless legends still live on from World War II — a cigarette-smoking bear carrying ammo for Polish troops, an impromptu armistice on Christmas Eve, and more.
Sometimes, when people are recounting the terrible things they did and saw in the name of war, it is easier and more effective to substitute fictional characters and events in place of facing the petrifying absolute truth.
War stories are, for better or for worse, propaganda. They have a way of reframing an entire global conflict and boiling it down to a person or a small group of people. It creates an intimate and personal connection between the audience and the storyteller. And it is through this medium that Ukraine succeeded in maintaining morale for so long while simultaneously serving as a plea for international help.
The Stories of Ukraine
The Ghost of Kyiv
In the first days of the invasion, an awe-inspiring video began making rounds on social media. In it, a shaky phone appears to capture a fighter pilot making daring and impressive evasive maneuvers while single-handedly taking down a Russian plane. The mysterious pilot, who has since gone viral on TikTok, was supposedly able to take down 6 Russian planes in the first 36 hours of the invasion, which if true, would make the Ghost of Kyiv the first European ace since World War II.
However, the footage that has become so famous has since been debunked as a clip from a video game, and other supposed evidence (including pictures of his face and other sightings) have been proven to be falsified or misleading.
Therefore, since there is no other confirmation yet that proves the existence of the Ghost of Kyiv, the character is likely a made-up story to boost morale. But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean that the story has no value. It points to the truth that despite all expectations, Ukraine has held its own for more than three weeks (as of this writing) against one of the largest militaries in the world. Though it may be a strange romanticization of the situation, people do tend to love an underdog story — and especially when so many civilians are caught in warzones, the idea that there is a protector in the sky making a sizable dent in Russian forces is an invaluable boost to morale.
War stories that are told during active conflict often serve the purpose of boosting morale and gaining sympathy from allies.
The Ghost of Kyiv certainly invites questions as to whether or not it is moral to create entirely fictional stories and claim they’re true — if the story's intention is to provide hope to what can easily feel like a hopeless situation.
In the span of a few weeks, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine became a household name, one that many spoke about with respect, admiration, and solidarity. This is a particularly strange turn of events, seeing as many Americans only really recognized his name before the invasion because of Trump’s phone call with him that led to the former U.S President’s first impeachment charges.
Yet the character that Zelesnkyy portrays feels worlds different from the character of 2019 — he has been praised for his military leadership, his resolve to stay in Kyiv despite multiple countries (including the U.S.) urging him to escape while he still can, and his overall bravery and successful leadership.
In fact, his ability to effectively command a military is particularly surprising, considering that he has no political or military experience prior to serving as president. Before being elected to office, he was an actor and comedian — where he was most well known for his role on a comedy TV show in which his character, an average man with no political experience, is propelled to the position of the President of Ukraine through popular vote.
War stories are, for better or for worse, propaganda.
So, “character” might not be a bad word to describe Zelenskyy currently. He is an actor, and he’s very likely playing the part of a fearless leader with far more military experience than he actually has — and that is far from a bad thing. His past means that he has more respect and popularity than any of his presidential predecessors, and is successfully using that leverage to maintain Ukrainian solidarity and morale — something that is absolutely necessary when defending critical civilian infrastructure and buildings from foreign invasion.
But the respect he has earned on the global stage has, in some areas, begun drifting away from admiration and more into glorification. Rumors about Zelenskyy fighting on the front lines with soldiers have gone viral, despite the famous pictures of him on the “front line” actually dating back to 2021. And in some circles, people have begun to think of him as romantic figure, with more and more social media posts on Twitter and TikTok dedicated to describing the sex appeal that his leadership and charisma has. It’s a bizarre and uncomfortable situation — on one hand, it is certainly a blow to Putin, who has unapologetically attempted to make himself a sex figure within Russia through propoganda, photo shoots, and songs, yet being largely unsuccessful globally in this respect. On the other hand, Zelenskyy’s life is undeniably in peril, and the fetishization of him can become dehumanizing and problematic in a time where humanization is absolutely vital.
The Sunflower Woman
Another video that has gone viral on TikTok features an older Ukrainian woman approaching a fully-armed Russian soldier and offering him sunflower seeds — telling him to take them so at least when he lies dead in Ukraine sunflowers will grow where he once was. This story is the most strikingly similar to old folk-stories — it has the same allegorical imagery, the same essence of the macabre, and like all traditional folk stories, seeks to teach a moral lesson.
And just like Zelenskyy, her story has become so popular that it has turned her into a folk-hero of the war, one who represents the average Ukrainian citizen. If Zelenskyy has become a figure for bravery on the international stage, then the Sunflower Woman represents domestic bravery.
The White Victim Effect
These days, Americans can’t agree on a single issue. Yet within political structures of the country, it seems that people have finally found something they can all get behind — supporting Ukraine and condemning Putin’s actions as cruel, unfounded and power-hungry.
But just because it’s made up doesn’t mean that the story has no value.
Even more shocking is the fact that most of the world agrees with America. Poland, in a display of solidarity, has already taken in over 2 million Ukrainian refugees — a particularly staggering number, considering that they seemed so hesitant to take in any refugees before Russia’s invasion.
In fact, many countries around the world have found room for Ukrainian refugees, despite curiously saying they were not willing or able to take in any refugees in the 10 years prior to the invasion — even though plenty of refugee crises have surfaced in Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and other countries.
The difference is undeniably clear. The countries with the most power are led by white people, and these countries show far more support to white victims than to people of color. The hypocrisy is especially clear when considering that Western countries have had an active hand in creating these refugee crises, like America in Syria.
And this preference is clear through the stories told. It is easy to find powerful war stories from Ukraine in America today. They’re on social media, on the local news, and written in countless online articles and print newspapers. Yet it is rare to hear the powerful stories of refugees coming from non-white countries.
That doesn’t mean the stories don’t exist. They certainly do — people will always have stories to tell. Western countries have simply turned a deaf ear because they don’t sympathize with the stories of non-white victims of war.
The Significance of Social Media
In wars before the popularity of social media, war stories took a long time to travel from country to country. Oftentimes, these stories would be told through word-of-mouth, though some would end up on national radio or TV broadcasts, or could sometimes be published in print journalism. Overall however, access to these stories took much longer and was much more limited in who had access to them.
Yet with the prevalence of social media in the modern world, stories from war can travel around the world in a blink of the eye. While this means that war stories can have a much grander impact on the outcome of a war, it also means that anyone at all has the ability to create narratives about a conflict. And if that narrative is false, it could end up in the imaginations of millions of people before it is fact-corrected or debunked.
When dealing with war stories on social media, it is important to remember that any story, whether moral or immoral, is propaganda.
When dealing with war stories on social media, it is important to remember that any story, whether moral or immoral, is propaganda. It is content that is meant to have a strong bias and is willing to manipulate or misrepresent the real world in order to make that bias more believable. The most effective way to detect when propaganda is being used in unethical and controversial ways is to be able to recognize and think critically about propaganda in all its forms — who benefits from you internalizing their story, and how?
So the next time that a story from Ukraine pops up on your For You page, make sure to lend them an ear — someone wants you to listen, and it is up to you to figure out what to do with the story that has been entrusted to you.