Ukrainian vyshyvanka shirts in Soviet Pamir (Tajikistan)

The object I have chosen to share with you is known in Tajikistan as a ‘Ukrainian shirt’. In Ukraine and Belarus it’s a vyshyvanka. Although embroidered folk-style shirts were worn in the Soviet republics from the very beginning of Soviet rule, the popularity of long-sleeved shirts made from silk, linen or rayon, with embroidered geometric designs on the front and round the collar and cuffs, reached its peak between the mid 1950s and mid 1960s. This period coincided with Nikita Khrushchev becoming First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR.

Ukrainian vyshyvanka

The Soviet ruling elite always attached great importance to their attire and Khrushchev was no exception. He favoured simple suits in light fabric, worn with a shirt embroidered in the Ukrainian style and no tie. He often appeared in public dressed like this and all the leaders, including those in the Muslim republics, had these shirts hanging in their wardrobes. In fact, vyshyvanka shirts became part of workwear for party apparatchiks during this period. Following their leaders, the wider public, children too, soon copied the new fashion.

People often adopt clothing that endorses an ideology and denotes a particular political orientation. But ‘Ukrainian shirts’ were by no means alien to Tajik tastes. The art of embroidery among the Tajiks has its roots in the pre-Islamic era, and the history of the famous embroidered silk shirts of Kushan and Sughd predates our times. Embroidered designs were used to decorate many items of women’s clothing, including the full veil paranja. Another item popular with Tajiks is the suzani, a hand-embroidered fabric panel which forms an essential part of the furnishings of Tajik homes and is often regarded as having the qualities of a protective charm. In our family, for example, we have carefully preserved a unique suzani embroidered by my grandmother in the early 20th century for my mother’s wedding.

There are plenty of similarities between the vyshyvanka and Tajik embroidery. For instance, geometric cross-stitch designs worked in red thread on white fabric are popular motifs with the embroiderers of Darvaz and Badakhshan. Apart from its attractive appearance, the Ukrainian shirt was valued as a garment that was both practical and comfortable to wear. The shirts went well with pale-coloured loose-fitting trousers and light fabric shoes. This sort of clothing was ideal for the hot climate of Central Asia and also bore a passing resemblance to Tajik traditional dress.

The new fashion for embroidered clothing replaced the previously widespread sombre, semi-military jacket with breeches and boots. The vyshyvanka captured the spirit of the period known as ‘The Thaw’ which was characterised by a liberalisation of political and social life, greater scope for artistic expression and more freedom of speech. It was greeted by the people like a breath of fresh air.

After Khrushchev and with the beginning of the Brezhnev era in 1964, the popularity of Ukrainian shirts waned in Tajikistan and throughout the Soviet Union. However, at the turn of the 21st century, there was renewed interest in the vyshyvanka. In Ukraine and Belarus, for instance, the shirts underwent a rebranding in the mid-2000s and for Ukrainians they became a national symbol.

Rather surprisingly, a similar revival was seen in Tajikistan, where satin stitch chakan embroidery on women’s dresses became symbolic of the nation. While in Soviet times the loose, tunic-style chakandresses were particularly popular in Kulyab Oblast, the home region of Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, nowadays the chakandress has evolved from a garment worn by women from the south to become the official ceremonial dress for all Tajik women.

The shirt displayed here belongs to the author. I wore it between the ages of 9 and 12 on special occasions and holidays, including the religious festivals of Idi Qurbon (Eid al-Adha) and Idi Ramazon (Eid al-Fitr). The shirt was made by my mother, Fotimakhon Mannonovaya (1921-1986) in the town of Khorugh, some time around the late 1950s or early 1960s.

At that time my father, N. P. Abdullaev (1917-1982) was working as first secretary of the regional party committee of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). As a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR he travelled to Moscow twice a year where he met party leaders and members of the government, including Khrushchev. Naturally, my father also wore an embroidered shirt. When he went to Moscow he would return to Pamir with multi-coloured embroidery threads and materials that were difficult to obtain locally.

There were six children in our family and, as well as making clothes for all of us on her sewing machine, my mother would do embroidery in the evenings. She found the designs in specialist magazines and also got them from her Ukrainian friend, Aunty Lena, wife of the second secretary of the GBAO regional party committee, Georgiy Klimenko (Uncle Zhora). Aunty Lena was born in the city of Kramatorsk in Soviet Ukraine. She taught my mother various techniques, including the use of embroidery frames. These were new methods for most Tajik women who were used to their satin stitch embroidery. Once she’d mastered these new skills, my mother didn’t just embroider shirts, she also decorated table cloths, napkins and towels.

Embroidering clothing and textiles in the European style required patient practice to learn the techniques and it also involved additional costs. It therefore only became widespread among those social classes able to afford the requisite time and money. The Tajik children parading around in Ukrainian shirts during that period tended to be from the urban elites.

Once I grew out of the shirt, my mother put it away in a chest. Together with other embroidered items made over the years by the women in our family – suzani, scarves, prayer mats and tubeteika skull caps – the Ukrainian shirt is a precious heirloom that conjures up images of times past and important events in our family history.

Dr Kamoludin Abdullaev, historian, Dushanbe, Tajikistan