On the afternoon of March 31 2000, Boris Pasternak, editor-in-chief of the Moscow publishing house Polifakt, drove to the suburb of Podolsk to look up one of his authors, the food writer and historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin. Pokhlebkin was late delivering the final manuscript of his new book, A Century Of Cooking, and had failed either to turn up for a scheduled meeting or to respond to telegrams. The writer had no phone. He had no fridge or TV, either, although he did have 50,000 books crammed into his apartment.
When Pokhlebkin failed to answer the door, Pasternak (grandson of the writer of Dr Zhivago) called the police, who broke in. They found the body of the 77-year-old writer on the floor, where it had evidently lain for several days. Pokhlebkin, a war veteran, had been stabbed to death with his own military dagger. Relatives said none of the valuable books or documents in the flat had been stolen. Eight years on, the murder remains unsolved.
Pokhlebkin is best known outside Russia for his history of vodka. It was his research, in 1977, that persuaded international arbitrators to strike down an attempt by Poland to claim exclusive ownership of the term “vodka” on the basis that Poles had invented it first. But in his homeland, Pokhlebkin’s famous as the author of 21 books about food and drink – mainly about the cuisine of a country that now exists only in the memories of his readers.
By chance, Pokhlebkin was last seen alive on the day Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia. It was fitting. The cuisine Pokhlebkin wrote about with such elan was the cuisine of the Soviet Union, and if the Soviet Union itself shut down in 1991, Putin’s election nine years later marked the end of the post-Soviet era. Since then, the borders between the former parts of the Union have hardened; Putin may talk nostalgically about the greatness of the USSR, but his practice towards the former fraternal republics – sometimes pragmatic, sometimes petty – has been relentlessly Russia-first.
What happens to the food that defines a world when that world vanishes? What happened, in particular, to the dish that was once the common denominator of the Soviet kitchen, the dish that tied together the peasant and the cosmonaut, the high table of the Kremlin and the meanest canteen in the boondocks of the Urals? What happened to the beetroot soup that pumped like a main artery through the kitchens of the east Slav lands? What happened to borshch?
Any quest for the origin of a quintessentially Russian dish such as borshch must begin with Pokhlebkin’s culinary masterwork, The Cuisine Of Our Peoples (“Our” meaning “Soviet”). Pokhlebkin immediately acquaints you with a crucial detail: borshch isn’t Russian. It’s Ukrainian. “One could understand and forgive foreigners for calling borshch a Russian national dish,” Pokhlebkin writes, “but when it turns out that they gleaned the information from Soviet cookbooks or from restaurant menus, one is embarrassed.”
Pokhlebkin and the Soviet Union are dead, yet Borshchland lives on. Recipes, like birds, ignore political boundaries. Just as the British empire still has a culinary pulse, beating in a curry in Scotland or in the mug of builder’s tea with sugar and milk you are handed in some roadhouse on the Karakorum Highway; just as the Ottoman empire breathes phantom breaths in little cups of muddy coffee from Thessaloniki to Basra; so the faint outline of the Tsarist-Soviet imperium still glimmers in the collective steam off bowls of beetroot and cabbage in meat stock, and the soft sound of dollops of sour cream slipping into soup, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan and, in emigration, from Brooklyn to Berlin.
One Saturday recently I went for lunch with Maria Tkach, who will be 90 this year. Maria lives with her daughter and grandson in a flat in Berlin’s Alt Moabit district. The Tkaches emigrated from Ukraine to Berlin in 1995 under a German programme offering any Jew from the former Soviet Union the chance to settle in the country that, 50 years earlier, had tried to exterminate them. More than 150,000 have done so. Maria said the antisemitism at home became worse after Ukrainian independence. “All the time you’d be asked, ‘Are you still here? Why? Why aren’t you going to Israel?'”
Maria already had a saucepan of stock simmering on the stove: two great lumps of beef bone in a couple of litres of water with a little salt. While she prepared the vegetables, Maria told me something of her life. She was born into a huge family – eventually there were 18 children, from two mothers – in a village in the western region of Zhitomir. She survived the marauding bands of Reds and Whites during the civil war, survived the burning down of her home village during the battles between peasants and communists for control of farms in the 20s and 30s, and survived the Nazi invasion of 1941. She and her family fled their home and made a three-month journey on foot, horseback and train, sleeping in woods, abandoned building sites and haystacks, to stay with Maria’s brother-in-law in Tajikistan, 2,000 miles away. The last stage of the journey was made on camels through deep snow. When they returned home three years later, their house was still standing, but of Maria’s seven brothers, three had been killed in battle and the other four came back from the front as invalids.
Maria chopped the onions and carrots very finely, then fried them in a little oil. “Real Ukrainian borshch is made with salo [pork fat],” she said. “There’s no particular Jewish borshch. The only difference is we wouldn’t use pork. But every cook makes it to her own taste.”
Maria, an iconoclast, added chopped ginger to the frying pan, to confound a borshch traditionalist, and a pinch of monosodium glutamate, to outrage a London foodie. She removed the stock bones from the bouillon, added the chopped potato and cabbage with a couple of bay leaves, and spooned a little stock into the sizzling onion, carrot and ginger mixture. She grated the beets – which were already cooked – and chopped up about 100g of salo, which she fried with garlic. She then combined all the ingredients, along with ground coriander seed and a splash of pulped tomato.
Maria’s son and daughter-in-law, Misha and Bella, arrived, and the borshch was left to stand while we ate zakuski, the east Slav tapas – ham, salmon, salad, salmon roe and Polish pâté – and drank vodka. She served the soup with a handful of finely chopped parsley at the bottom of each bowl, the soup on top and a dollop of sour cream in the soup. The velvety-sweet texture of the beetroot contrasted with the chunkiness of the vegetables, the sour cream enriched it. The colour was not the lurid purple of a beetroot salad or the red of blood, but a rusty ochre.
We talked about ambiguous feelings for the vanished Soviet world. “It wasn’t so great for the people of our generation,” Bella said. “But it was our youth.”
Maria said, “They never liked us much, the Soviets.” By “us” she meant Jews. “If Stalin hadn’t died… he had the freight wagons ready for us.” But she also said, “Our Ukrainian or Russian cooking, of course it unites us. In a sense, our motherland is there.”
“The Jews didn’t think that borshch was the basic component of domestic cooking,” Misha said. “They added something else to the menu. But in the Ukrainian tradition, borshch was the whole meal. Our Ukrainian neighbours in the communal flat would have borshch for breakfast. And three times a day. Borshch is a little fragment of the former life everyone who lived in the Soviet Union carries. Borshch existed separate from your ethnicity.”
Two days later, as my train left Berlin on its 24-hour journey to Kiev, I looked up some extracts from a book by Lukasz Luczaj called Wild Edible Plants Of Poland. According to Luczaj, the word “borshch” comes from the Slav “borshchevik”, which means “hogweed”. “Hogweed is a forgotten vegetable, once very important to Slavs,” Luczaj writes. “Cooked hogweed leaves and stalks make wonderful soup, green-brown in colour, one of my favourite survival dishes.” John Gerard, the English herbalist and contemporary of Shakespeare, described how the eastern Slavs would chop hogweed stalks, flowers and leaves, put them in barrels, cover them with water and then leave them to ferment for a couple of days before eating it – a substance somewhere between beer and sauerkraut.
Could it be that by fixing on the root of the beet as the key ingredient of borshch, we’ve missed the original central ingredient – the beet leaves, or any similar green leaves, wild or cultivated? On the Russian-language internet, I came across a recipe for goosefoot and hogweed soup – goosefoot is a wild plant with edible leaves that belongs to the beetroot family. Like French or Chinese cooking, the richness and variety of Ukrainian peasant cuisine signifies a past where abundance alternated with dearth, when all there is to do is to boil the leaves from the woods and hedgerows.
Just before sunset the next day, the train passed through Kovel, on the Ukrainian side of the border. The conductors stood in the doors of trains waiting to leave, eating sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks. Last season’s maize stalks poked dry and brown through the snow.
In the autumn of 2004, a popular Russian-language internet chat forum, LoveTalk, launched a thread under the provocative heading, “What is borshch? Does it have to contain beetroot?” The discussion raged for more than a month, with sallies from home cooks all over Russia and Ukraine. Contributors told of beet-free borshch, with extra tomatoes. Others insisted beetroot was obligatory. The online debate coincided almost exactly with Ukraine’s Orange revolution, where a popular uprising against corruption brought other conflicts to the surface: oligarchic rivalries, the long-standing tension between nationalist western Ukraine and Soviet-nostalgist eastern Ukraine, and disagreements over where Ukraine’s future lies, with Russia or with the EU. It was inevitable that the struggle would spill over into the kitchen. One day LoveTalk user “Leena” posted a comment saying that in western Ukraine, where she lives, borshch has to be made with beetroot and beans, but that her east Ukrainian grandmother made it without beetroot, “in the Russian (or eastern Ukrainian) way”.
Half an hour later, user “Charlie” fired back: “Oh, western Ukraine. Always ready to accuse eastern Ukraine of any cardinal sin. Where did you see borshch without beetroot? How could you make up such a thing?”
Leena defended herself. “We’re not accusing anyone of sinning. I’m Russian myself. I don’t see anyone stopping me expressing my opinion. You live in Kiev, you have your preferences, I live in western Ukraine, I have mine, people in eastern Ukraine have theirs. Everyone’s different, why stir it up?”
“Maria” weighed in. “Charlie, there’s no call to start talking about politics… borshch is the most explosive topic there is.”
Charlie apologised and said he’d been joking. Then he went back into chauvinist mode, this time from the other side. “As far as borshch is concerned, since you’re Russian, it’s obvious why you don’t cook it properly. Borshch is a Ukrainian thing, but how would you Russians know that?”
Charlie’s intervention was uncharacteristic. Besides blessing the omission of beetroot, LoveTalk’s users listed a ragbag of unorthodox ingredients: dill, sugar, vinegar, flour, spring onions, basil, pickled apples, dried apples, plums, cherries, aubergines, olives, prunes, marrow, sausages, ham, mint, tarragon, paprika and oregano. The arbitrary and anarchic community of domestic borshch-makers is a rebuke to political borders, order and standardisation, whether the Soviet standardisation of central planning or the capitalist standardisation of identical retail outlets.
The morning after arriving in Kiev, I left my flat while it was still dark and took the metro to Pdol, the old port district. I reached the Pdol branch of the Ukrainian fast-food chain Puzata Khata just before it opened, at 8am. There was already a queue outside. A poster in the window advertised “Ukrainian Borshch” for 4.8 hryvnya (about 50p). Inside they were playing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. From the windows upstairs you could see the domes of St Andrew’s church at the top of the street where Mikhail Bulgakov grew up. It was early to be faced with a blue suit and tie, but that’s what Igor Didok, the 30-year-old who heads Puzata Khata’s marketing department, was wearing. Three weeks of Christmas and New Year celebrations were just coming to an end and he looked a little green around the gills. We started right in on an early morning pick-me-up of borshch with pampushki, the bread rolls with garlic sauce they serve with borshch in Kiev. The soup was thinner than Maria’s, but perfectly tasty; Igor didn’t finish his.
He was brought up just outside Kiev, by working-class parents. He went to college in western Ukraine in the early 90s, just when the first business and marketing classes were starting up. His Russian (like most Ukrainians, he is bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian) was full of English neologisms such as “marketing”, “food court” and “brand”.
The first branch of Puzata Khata opened near Kiev’s main market in 2004. From the beginning the plan was to create a Ukraine-wide network of fast-food restaurants. Now Puzata Khata has 27 restaurants in 12 Ukrainian cities, with a turnover of £17m. You can get a full lunch for £2.50; every day, in Ukraine, Puzata Khata serves a tonne of borshch. A branded fast-food chain, in Igor’s view, was an honourable thing for Ukraine to have created. It meant that people, customers, had certain expectations. A brand was a name, a name was a reputation, a reputation had to be defended. “Read our book of complaints and suggestions,” he said. “You won’t find people coming here who don’t care about what they eat. If something changes and they don’t like it, they’ll say so.”
Puzata Khata is owned by a Ukrainian conglomerate called Kiev-Donbass Holdings, part of which was recently floated on London’s AIM market. Igor told me that the idea for Puzata Khata had come from Kiev-Donbass’s senior managers, Peter Slipets and Vladislav Guliy. I asked if Kiev-Donbass’s most famous shareholders, the Konstantinovsky twins, Slava and Alex, had had anything to do with it. Igor looked a little anxious and shook his head. “No, no,” he said.
I was disappointed. For former bouncers, the brothers seemed like interesting fellows. They slipped into the English-language news in 2006 when their names appeared on a US Justice Department charge sheet as the intended victims of an assassination commissioned by two Russian mobsters, Monya Elson and Leonid Roytman. According to the Justice Department, Elson and Roytman offered the hitmen $100,000 to kill the Konstantinovskys by domestic bomb, car bomb or high-powered rifle, “so that they could take over the brothers’ lucrative businesses in Ukraine”, including, presumably, Puzata Khata. Whether a change of management of this sort would have made a difference to the quality of borshch served is questionable, given the hands-off approach of the Konstantinovskys – or the “Brothers Karamazov”, as their local nickname has it – to everyday culinary matters. But the episode serves to underline what the experts always say: running a restaurant is a risky business.
Igor led me to the kitchen. It was reassuring to see fresh ingredients being cooked rather than processed components being assembled behind the scenes, McDonald’s-style. The kitchen was dazzlingly clean and new. Natasha Silayeva, who carries the title First Course Cook, showed us how she made the borshch. The night shift had already chopped up potatoes, cabbage and beetroot, and fried up a paste of tomato, onions and carrots. Natasha tipped the potatoes into a pan of boiling water. No stock here. The exact proportions of each ingredient for Puzata Khata borshch, standardised across the whole country, are written on a print-out stuck neatly to the wall above Natasha’s preparation table. Six hundred portions of borshch, enough to feed a regiment, requires 24kg of potatoes, 8.4kg of cabbage, 15kg of beetroot, 1.2kg of salt and 30g of bay leaf.
While the potatoes were cooking, I asked Igor whether the spread of fast-food and supermarket chains wasn’t reproducing the monotonous Soviet world of central planning in a different form.
“It’s not like that,” he said. “A person has a choice. Before, he didn’t. That’s the difference. Because Puzata Khata has branches everywhere, it means it’s popular, not that there isn’t a choice. We have competition.” He mentioned Pizza Celentano, a Lviv chain with 100 outlets and the 52 Ukrainian branches of McDonald’s. “We also have this chain called Home Cooking,” he said.
“That’s the name of a restaurant?”
“It’s not actually home cooking?”
Once the potatoes were ready, Natasha added the cabbage and the tomato mix. She tipped the beetroot in towards the end. “When it’s ready, all the spices, potatoes, cabbage, you take it off the heat and only then do you put in the beetroot,” she said. “That’s how you get that really Ukrainian borshch, clear and bright and juicy.”
During the Orange revolution, Igor said, he took food to the Orange side on Kiev’s Independence Square. But the country is less politicised now.
“It’s a sign that things are moving forward in Ukraine,” he said, nodding at the seats slowly filling with the breakfast crowd. “People are able to eat out in a way they weren’t able to before. And they haven’t got time to cook. Life is changing. Soon all the big cities will be the same, in Europe, in Ukraine.”
Natasha had finished the borshch and poured it into bowls with a slice of lemon, adding dollops of sour cream and pinches of chopped parsley from polythene boxes. It was barely 10am. I was already on my second borshch of the day. Igor was mellowing.
“Maybe, in 10 years’ time, the world will know Ukrainian cooking,” I said. “Like Tex-Mex.”
“If they do,” Igor said, “it’ll be like this.”
A couple of days later I caught the new fast sleeper, the Capital Express, that links Kiev and Moscow in only nine hours. When I got off the train at 6.30am, I was in a colder, richer place. A hard rain of money is lashing down on Moscow these days, flooding the streets with traffic, making shop windows glisten with precious metals and imitation Louis XIV furniture, filling the gutters with ATM receipts, leaving back alleys awash in casino neon, knocking down old buildings, sweeping the ragged, the smelly and the grubby to the margins and the metro tunnels, causing lush new growths of glass and concrete to sprout from the ground.
Last year, conservationists reported that the Moscow restaurateur Andrei Dellos had created his most lavish dining spectacle so far, Turandot, a £25m venue in the style of Catherine the Great. To make way for Dellos’s sham 18th-century experience, his builders demolished a genuine 18th-century block where one of Catherine the Great’s lovers, Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov, had lived. “In order to fake the past,” they noted, ” Dellos first destroyed it.”
They don’t serve Russian or Ukrainian food at Turandot – the menu is Europeanised Chinese – so in order to see what the new Moscow has made of borshch, I went to another of Dellos’s creations, Shinok. A cold wind was blowing off the Moscow river as I walked down the street named after the 1905 revolution towards an establishment I first visited 10 years ago, not long after it opened. Inside, nothing had changed. The same dark interior, the same furniture of thick, roughly cut chunks of wood such as you might see in a Hollywood recreation of medieval peasant life; the same waiters and waitresses in embroidered peasant blouses, the girls with red miniskirts and garlands of flowers in their hair.
The dining area is arranged around a central court done up and lit to mimic a Ukrainian village yard on a summer’s day; so Shinok has two outsides, the outside outside, which diners can’t see, where it is a freezing, dark January of strive and hustle, and the inside outside, where it is always a May morning in Dellos’s pre-industrial Ukrainian dreamtime. Amid fake bushes and trees are real animals – an ingenious touch. There’s an actual live pony, a real cow, chickens, a goat and a surprisingly confident-looking turkey. Sometimes, as you look up from your plate, you see Shinok’s own full-time peasant in this vivarium, a woman in costume who may be tending the animals or simply moving to and fro according to a carefully determined peasant-like pattern.
The chef at Shinok is Oleg Porotikov. He had little to say about food. Perhaps he was being secretive, but he seemed more bored. When I asked about his borshch recipe, he said that it was “the simplest” and left it there. Intriguingly, although Oleg’s business card says “Shinok, Restaurant of Ukrainian Cooking”, he kept referring to the menu as “Russian”.
“Looking around and seeing that all my colleagues wanted to work in European cooking, I asked myself who among us was going to do Russian cooking,” he said. “They look down on Russian cooking. Because any cooking, it’s the culture of the people. I consider it’s part of my culture to look at it again and place it on the pedestal it deserves.”
I asked about the restaurant – surely it was Ukrainian, not Russian?
“There’s very little difference,” Oleg replied. “Ukrainian and Russian cooking are very similar to each other.”
But what, I wondered out loud, was really left in Russian cooking, if you took away Ukrainian borshch, Central Asian plov (pilaff), Caucasian shashlik (kebabs) and all the rest: what would be left? Dried fish, cabbage soup and kasha (boiled buckwheat)?
It was a cheeky question to which the obvious response would have been, “Caviar. What has Britain got?” Yet Oleg wasn’t provoked – it was something he’d thought about. Just because Ukraine and Russia have been separate countries for nearly 17 years doesn’t mean Ukrainians intend to plant a flag on borshch and claim it exclusively. “If you talk about plov, who actually came up with it?” Oleg said. “If you talk about shashlik, who invented it? The Georgians say it’s theirs, the Armenians say it’s theirs.
“The more I work with Slavic cooking, the more I understand that any cooking is, in the first place, home cooking. Whether it’s French, Italian, German, Russian, if you look at the heart of domestic cooking, we find many common points. What is ravioli, in essence, what are varenniki [Ukrainian dumplings, filled and boiled]? They are precisely the same. Dishes are dishes. It’s not the politicians who come up with them. It’s ordinary people who come up with food.”
I returned to the restaurant that night with a friend. I passed on the salad with cockscombs and quails’ eggs in favour of what the English menu called “assortment of the finest lards with croutons and garlic” – in fact, not lard but salo, elegant slivers of pork fat of different degrees of cure, some streaked with meat, some wrapped around nubs of raw garlic. Salo and garlic are to Ukrainians what olive oil and tomatoes are to Provence. The immediate thought is, “But not quite as good for you” and yet, looking around at the lack of obese bodies in the east Slav world, perhaps popular science simply hasn’t caught up with the health benefits of raw pig fat.
And then the borshch. It was good, rich and stocky, and, on an expensive menu, not expensive – £10 for a small bowl. The only problem was that it was seeded with little bits of meat – steak of high quality. It’s pointless to put fine steak in soup. Meat in soup is there for flavour, and to benefit from long simmering, it might as well be tough.
Two days later I was back in Kiev, out and about while it was still dark. The temperature hovered around freezing. It had snowed overnight, at least two inches. The only sound was my boots in the snow and the rasp of the local crows which, with their grey bonnets, look like babushkas at market, heads in woollen scarves. The driver I’d booked was waiting and we set out for Poltava, which lies in the centre of Ukraine between Kiev and one of its big eastern cities, Kharkov. If there is a centre of Ukraine-ness, a heart of borshchness, Poltava, the birthplace of the writer Nikolai Gogol, is it. Like borshch, Gogol was born in Ukraine, went north and came to be claimed by the Russians as their own. Indeed, Russia itself was born in Ukraine; and the fact that it is separated from its past in what is now another country may explain the curious mixture of warmth, bitterness and patronising contempt that characterises Russia’s relationship with its southern neighbour.
The driver set out eastward, fearful of the mixture of snow, ice and water on the road. We span off the road only twice and made it to Poltava just before two, in time for the first borshch of the day.
Volodimir Godzenko, the head of Poltava’s tourism department, picked us up at the railway station. He travelled in the style of a Soviet bureaucrat, in a black Volga with a personal driver, Sasha, and spoke the language of EU-rope, looking forward to spin-off tourism from the 2012 European football championships, which Ukraine will host with Poland; he regarded my mission with cheerful scepticism. He took me not, as I had hoped, to a smoky village of brick cottages and blue picket fences where a babushka would prepare the borshch as her ancestors had done for hundreds of years, but to a shabby court of Soviet-era high-rise flats. Teenage boys were having a snowball fight in the yard. Yulia Gavrilenko came down to meet us.
She led us up to the flat she shares with her husband, up the stairs to the fifth floor, past grubby, odorous walls where the graffiti was carved deep. As ever, the post-Soviet stairwell is no guide to the inside of the flats leading off it, and Yulia’s was trim and bright, with the exotic, in local terms, floor covering of fitted carpets.
“I’ve been making borshch since I was 11,” said Yulia, who’s 33. “My grandmother taught me.”
I realised I’d been foolish to think of a dish that defines a world, an east Slav world, surviving in the dying villages of the Ukrainian countryside. A living dish has to migrate along with the children and grandchildren, and so it did, first to the optimistic new tower blocks of the USSR in the 60s, and now to the consumerist, individualist world of Poltava.
Yulia had the borshch ready and waiting. It steamed on the table in a white toureen, alongside a dish of raw onion and garlic. Volodimir poured everyone a tumbler of vodka, a toast was made, and we fell to. The borshch recipe Yulia inherited was a rich one, not thin like Puzata Khata’s, but less smooth and velvety than Maria’s in Berlin or Oleg’s in Moscow; that was down, I think, to the three separate additions of onion in the cooking, and the inclusion of a small amount of kvass, a mild fermented liquor made from leaving black bread to steep in water. “It gives it sharpness,” Yulia said. “There are people who use lemon, but it’s not so nice.”
Yulia’s borshch had taken three hours to cook. First she makes the stock; half an hour’s simmering in water of a mixture of pork bones and lean pork, with a potato and an onion. Then, ingredient by ingredient, she chops and fries the vegetables in oil and adds them to the stock. First the beetroots – “They have to be sweet, otherwise it won’t be good” – then, after a little simmering, carrots, then cubed potatoes, then tomatoes or, in winter, pickled tomatoes or tomato paste; next white cabbage, chopped very finely; then a small measure of kvass. Towards the end, when the soup is bubbling strongly, Yulia adds a small amount of salo and onion, processed in a blender. The final touch is a handful of fried onions; and the sour cream, of course, which the diners add themselves at table. Borshch.
“Our men won’t forgive us if we don’t make it,” said Yulia.
“Can men make it?” I asked.
“No!” chorused the Ukrainians.
“We haven’t really taken on board the idea of men cooking,” said Volodimir.
The talk turned to the past, the family past, a shift from the Soviet era, when it was safer not to have one. “My great-grandmother was stolen by Gypsies,” Yulia said. “For love. She was like a Gypsy, very beautiful, with full lips, dark eyes. They fell in love with her at the first glance and stole her.
“Another great-grandmother, she escaped from a German prison camp twice. During the famine [of 1932-33], two of her sons worked on a farm, and while nobody was looking they milked the sheep. That was how they survived. By this time we were on to the second course, galushki, great lumps of homemade pasta, topped with fried chicken and slathered in garlic sauce. My stomach was struggling to cope. For the second time on this trip, I wondered how this food-rich land could ever have gone hungry.
In the late winter of 1932, on Stalin’s orders, hordes of state agents swept through the villages of Ukraine and south-eastern Russia with powers to confiscate any grain they found; if they didn’t find grain, they took ad hoc fines in kind – whatever food the villagers had. Anyone caught trying to save their families’ lives by taking state food, like Yulia’s forebears, faced summary execution or a minimum of 10 years in a labour camp. The peasants flocked to the cities, where bread could be bought on a ration, until they were banned from buying railway tickets. At least two and a half million citizens of Soviet Ukraine died – mostly ethnic Ukrainians, but many Russians and Jews, too. Memories of starvation and cannibalism, combined with 50 years of official silence over the famine, have created a recent eruption of ill-feeling among the eastern Slavs. The more nationalist side of the Ukrainian body politic has tried to redefine the Holodomor, as they call the famine, as a deliberate attempt at genocide by Russia against Ukrainians. This Holodomor-as-Ukrainian-Holocaust narrative outrages Russians and the considerable number of Soviet-nostalgist Ukrainians, who see in the accusation of genocide an attempt to undermine their most sacred belief, the moral superiority of the Soviet Union over the Nazis.
On one level, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia can still be defined in terms of calories. Ukraine has been a food power for centuries; it feeds itself – even now, in times of drought – and usually has a handy surplus. Russia, on the other hand, is where the heat comes from. Even before the oil and gas, there was wood and fur. Ukrainian nationalists are tormented by the vision of a Russian president who is portrayed even by his own propaganda machine using gas as a weapon. The ingredients for borshch are abundant in the black earth fields and pigsties of Poltava. But the fuel to cook it comes from Siberia.
There was one more borshch stop before the journey home. Volodimir took me to a restaurant outside town, an establishment laid out like a Ukrainian village of Gogol’s day. It was almost dark when we got there, and in the last blue light a horse-drawn sledge was driving round and round in a field to amuse the customers. In truth the restaurant, also called Shinok, was not much more authentic than its Moscow namesake. But by this time I had reached a different understanding of what constitutes “authentic”. Here the diners looked less rich and bored than the suits on 1905 Street. There were nervous babushkas who weren’t used to restaurants, and boisterous groups of young families with small children out for a Sunday treat. There was no war, no famine and no geopolitics; there was a great deal of booze and borshch. People were enjoying the food of their own place, in their own place. They seemed very happy.
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