UKRAINE: Vodka vs horilka

When the Russian invasion started, people here in Canada flocked to buy Ukrainian vodka as a sign of support (and because, well, it’s good). Liquor stores also pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. I’m not sure if Ukrainian vodka is still being produced and exported here – active warzone and all – but it’s still available on shelves.

There is an interesting semantic difference between “vodka” and the Ukrainian word “horilka” – they’re often used interchangeably. Some sources say that vodka was originally made from mixed grains, while horilka is made from just wheat, but since most are all made from various grains / potatoes these days, that difference isn’t really relevant anymore. Realistically, horilka is the Ukrainian name for 40%-ish clear spirits. Most bottles exported to Canada are labelled vodka, since that’s the term people are familiar with.

These are the two main brands of Ukrainian vodka available in Ontario – Nemiroff and Zirkova. Nemiroff has a historical connection going back to 1872, originally founded by a Count during the Russian Empire, then nationalized by the Soviets, and restarting as a private company in 1992. It’s unclear if it’s really a continuation of the company or a new company using the old one’s branding and distillery, but that feels like I’m putting too fine a point on it.

Zirkova has it’s own interesting history – the company was founded in Canada by Katherine Vellinga, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, but the vodka is entirely distilled and packaged in Ukraine, then the whole production run is shipped for sale in Canada. When the war started, she began to donate 100% of profits to humanitarian aid, turned the distillery over to medical sanitizer production, and worked to use it as a hub to help employees and their families to safety. It’s understandably unlikely that any more bottles will come to Canada, but there’s still over 7000 bottles in stock at the LCBO across Ontario right now.

As for flavour comparision – vodka tends to be hard really tell apart, especially with good quality brands since the better a vodka is, the purer and less flavoured it is. Side by side, I would say Zirkova is more neutral, while Nemioff is a bit sharper and grassier.

A really distinctively Ukrainian angle is the love of infusing flavours into vodka – chili peppers or horseradish are common, as well as berries or spices. There’s also a hot spiced version that’s kind of like a mulled wine. I’m going to make a few from the vodka, the recipes tend to be simple: put the flavouring in, let it sit for a few days or weeks, shake occasionally, strain, drink.

I’m trying spotykach (“stumbling”) with a recipe from Authentic Ukraine – vodka infused with spices like cinnamon, cloves, saffron (what I call “Christmas spices”), then boiled with some sugar and served cold. The straight vodka itself tasted wonderful after steeping for a week – cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg come out strongest, though the saffron isn’t too present. Boiling in some sugar makes it wickedly easy to drink, hence the name, and feels like it could be used in a lot of mixed drinks – instead of rum in a rum punch, or mixed with black tea would work great.

I’m also making a flavoured lemon horilka with a recipe from Ukrainian Diaspora. It’s very simple – take off some lemon peel with a vegetable peeler (the peeling is important so you don’t get bitter pith) and let it steep in vodka for a few days. It is also absolutely delicious – it’s got a strong, fresh lemon flavour that is beautiful. This is a total winner – it’s good on its own right out of the freezer, but mixing it with a bit of sparkling water knocks it out of the park for a summer drink. This also keeps in the freezer for a long time.

UKRAINE: Podcasts

There’s a LOT of podcasts on Ukraine available right now, mainly focused on the the Russian invasion and analysis about Ukraine’s future. As always, I’m trying to prioritize podcasts that by Ukrainians or feature Ukrainian voices, though there’s plenty of good material out there otherwise – understandably, Ukraine has been on everyone’s mind lately. Here’s what I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks:

BBC: Ukrainecast – A daily podcast that the BBC started when the Russian invasion happened, focusing just on stories, interviews, news, and analysis on Ukraine and the war.

Highlights from Ukraine – To bolster the previous podcast, Highlights from Ukraine is a short summary in English of what’s in Ukraine’s media that day. It’s run by Ukrainians, and gives even better coverage of internal politics that may not make it into foreign reporting.

UkrainianSpaces: Queer Pride – UkrainianSpaces is an English language podcast that gets into discussions on Ukrainian life, culture, and reality that may be missing from foreign narratives. This episode is both on and by Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. The hosts speak with one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride, who has been getting requests from foreign media to comment on how the war has affected them and the community. However, the media has been asking for stories of suffering, and ignoring the stories of Queer Ukrainians fighting the invasion, or how Ukraine had been making significant strides for the community before the war. Really interesting and introspective podcast.

Fighting For Ukraine – Short daily updates from Yuriy Matsarsky, an Ukrainian journalist who is actively fighting in a civilian militia. Warzone updates, what he’s seeing on the ground, and what he’s feeling as a Ukrainian fighting for his homeland. He also has a GoFundMe up to help support him and his family – they’ve left the country and like all fighting-age men, he is staying.

The Conversation: The history and evolution of Ukrainian national identity – A really interesting podcast with discussion on the creation of Ukrainian identity out of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and how it waned during the Soviet years, and is now being recreated – pushed by opposition to Russia.

Deconstructed: The War Over Ukrainian History and Identity – An interview from the Intercept with an Ukrainian sociologist that takes a bit of a different spin from the above podcast. It’s a more non-nationalist interpretation of Ukrainian identity looking at how the Ukrainian government is structuring identity, and the problem of corruption and oligarchs in Ukraine that has rarely been spoken about since the invasion started.

UKRAINE: Donbass (2018)

Source: BBC

The BBC said that Donbass is “being promoted as a satire, which is fair enough, but now lands more like a documentary laced with Alice in Wonderland absurdism.” It’s a 2018 Ukrainian film looking at life in the Donetsk People’s Republic in occupied Donbas (and was filmed only 300km away, in Ukrainian held territory). It is a brutal, even unkind satire, with long shots of loosely connected absurd situations – the church group lobbying a local leader, the businessman trying to get his car back from militia, the long walk through a suffocating bomb shelter packed with people, a drunken wedding, and the ironic final scene of the paid TV witnesses.

It’s easy to write this off as just Ukraine looking to portray Russia’s occupation and puppet government in Donbas as a sour farce, but there’s extra depth here that rings of reality – absurdity and cruelty included. There’s the real rage at locals over their dead relatives as a mob forms around a captured Ukrainian soldier, real fear of violence and chaos and the sense of clinging to the lies you tell yourself to keep yourself sane, and that so many little details match up with Stanislav Ayesev’s reports from Donbas, down even to the paint motif on the walls.

UKRAINE: Varenyky and pyrizhky

I stopped by Ottawa Pierogies, a little gem of a Ukrainian deli, for some lunch to go. While I was there, I got a bit of a language lesson – while pierogies is the term used in Canada, that’s actually the Polish name. The Ukrainian name is varenyky. Likewise, when I ordered some pyrizhkhy to go, they were sold under the name perojki – possibly a Polish name as well (Canada has almost as big a Polish population as Ukrainian). So while this restaurant is Ukrainian, like many other places in Canada, it uses the Polish names for Ukrainian foods.

I picked up their “Baba’s Visit” platter – pierogies and cabbage roll of my choice, with sour cream and a vinegret salad (beet, potato, and sauerkraut). I went for the potato and cheddar pierogies, boiled and then lightly pan-fried, with a pork and meat cabbage roll. They were really really good, tender and hot pierogies, and the vinegret satisfied my beet cravings. (I made a related salad, rosolli, when I covered Finland).

I also took home two pyrizhky – hand rolls stuffed with fillings, eaten hot. I got a nice but not exciting pork and rice one, and a really good tangy potato and mushroom one. They also had frozen pierogies in less common fillings, plus other treats, so I took some home for later – but that’s for another day, I’m carb’d out!

UKRAINE: In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas by Stanislav Aseyev

Stanislav Aseyev is a Ukrainian journalist and writer from Donetsk, who first gained notice for writing for Ukrainian papers about the reality on the ground in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. He was jailed in 2017 by separatist militants, tortured, and was eventually released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange. In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas is a collection of his writings from 2014 to 2017, the last piece “A Knack for Losing Things” written while being held captive. After his release, he wrote his memoirs about the ordeal in The Torture Camp on Paradise Street.

The translation and release of In Isolation into English last month is extremely timely, not just because the world’s attention is on Ukraine, but because this gives some well-needed nuance and complexity to the war. Aseyev himself is pro-Ukrainian, and watched how propaganda, economic desperation, and a nostalgia for the Soviet past turns his friends and neighbours from Russian-speaking Ukrainian nationals to ardent supporters of the DPR as a breakaway republic. It’s an incredible study of shifting identity and the re-establishment of the idea of “Novorossiya“, while showing the absurdity of war – little old ladies crossing monthly back into Ukraine to double up their pension, voting in in the DPR’s “primaries”, the merging of Orthodox Christianity with old Soviet holidays, and the lives of separatist militias shaking down cars at checkpoints for cash.

The ominous part of the book is that it lets you extrapolate what’s now happening in the Donbas, where the Ukrainian-Russian war is now centred. Repelling a Russian invasion from proudly Ukrainian locations is one thing, but fighting over parts of Ukraine that have felt cut off (and have cut themselves off) from “the mainland”, have been building a pro-Russian identity for almost a decade, and have been living in a state of war for just as long? Unfortunately, no matter how else things fall between Russia and Ukraine, things are going to stay ugly in Donetsk for a while.

UKRAINE: Tanks in Chernobyl

Chernobyl today – Source

We’re all pretty familiar with the Chernobyl disaster (I’d recommend Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy for a good book on it, or even the well-researched HBO drama from a few years ago), but it was back in the news recently for being caught up in the Russian invasion. Russian convoys kicked up nuclear dust in the Red Forest and there were rumours of Russian soldiers digging positions without even using protective equipment. The plant is now back in Ukrainian hands, and media has been allowed in:

However, there’s an interesting story that doesn’t frequently get told – that among the abandoned vehicles and buildings are several WWII Soviet tanks, rusting away and too radioactive to move. They were part of a plan to blow a hole into the plant to drain the water before a steam explosion happened – a plan that never went through, and instead divers, miners, and plant workers drained the tank manually.

For a longer, more comprehensive history of Chernobyl, Plainly Difficult did an excellent documentary into the disaster itself:

UKRAINE: Salo

We’re suddenly into hot summer weather here in Ottawa, so perfect for a little Ukrainian dinner al fresco out on the deck. I’m going to try something really Ukrainian: salo.

Salo is cured fatback (like pork belly but mainly fat rather than meat). There’s lots of ways to serve it – cooked into cracklings, mashed with raw garlic, or even included in chocolate (kind of like the bacon chocolate craze a few years back). I’m going to try it the truly classic way: cold of out of the freezer, sliced thin on bread or crackers, and accompanied with vodka, pickles, and other punchy things.

I picked up from Lakomka Deli both plain and smoked salo, as well as several jars of imported Ukrainian goodies from the brand Veres (Верес is Cyrillic, but I still want to call them “bepec pickles”). I’ve got:

  • Beans with mushrooms in tomato sauce
  • Garlic pickles with dill and horseradish
  • Adjika hot sauce
  • Roasted zucchini and tomato sauce with hot peppers

And of course, I served the whole thing with an ice cold glass of Ukrainian vodka, Zirkova One, plus some cherry tomatoes. The salo literally melts in your mouth, and vodka and pickles help cut the richness of the fat. I really love the smoked salo in particular, it’s got a beautiful flavour.

Adjika is actually a Caucasian hot sauce from Georgia, but it’s not surprising that these flavours migrated, probably through the Soviet era. It’s dark and thick, salty and smokey, kind of like a more spreadable gochujang. I ended stirring it together with the zucchini sauce (itself a lot like Balkan ajvar) to spread on top of the salo and that worked wonderfully.

UKRAINE: More snacks

Part 2 of my big box of Ukrainian snacks!

Roshen Lovita Soft Milk cream cookies – Slightly crumbly semi-soft cookies with an extremely sweet milk-flavoured filling. Pretty nice but they make my teeth sing. Milk flavouring in candy is an odd one to pin down – this Eastern European milk flavour is very different from Japanese milk flavour, but they’re both kind of nebulous creamy, and not just what we would call “cream filling” in North America.

Roshen Caramel Bubble chocolate – This is a white chocolate, flavoured with caramel, and filled with bubbles (like an Aero bar). The caramel is very mild, but it’s extremely light and fluffy – it’s a fantastic texture.

Klim Fruit Land – Soft pear and melon jelly candies with a sugar coating. I really love that artificial pear flavour you get in European candy, it’s not very common in North America.

Roshen Dromec – Just plain, simple pear-flavoured hard candy. That’s it. But again, if you like that European pear flavour, this is it.

Roshen Crabs – These were at the heart of a major trademark battle between Roshen and a Russian candy company with a crayfish label back in 2013-2015. It ended with no clear winner, with one design ruled not infringing and the other annulled for being too close – horizontal crabs are ok but not vertical ones. (IP law is wild). The candy is a hard pink and red shell with a soft chocolate and peanut filling that isn’t too sweet.

Crabs vs crabs – Source

Also, is it just me, or are neither actually crabs? They both look very crawfish-y to me.

UKRAINE: Ukrainian Radio / Bayraktar

Inhulets River at dawn – Source: Culture Trip

Radio Garden is really wild when you’re looking at an active warzone – unsurprisingly, radio stations where the active fighting are tend to be down, and further out, you can see the “propaganda line” between Russian and Ukrainian broadcasting. You can get a sense of the direction stations are taking by translating their websites, but I wish I had some knowledge of either language, I’m sure there’s some really strong content.

Radio Bayraktar – Named after the Turkish Bayraktar drones that have been so effective, this online station in Kyiv is almost totally Ukranian patriotic and propaganda songs – all genres, and even if you don’t understand Ukrainian, between the “Slava Ukrainia”s and the different remixes of the Bayraktar song (see below), you’ll get it. Listen live here.

Papino Radio 107.6The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) is a Russian-backed breakaway state in the Donbas, and along with Luhansk and Crimea, form the parts of Ukraine that have been under Russian control since 2014. There’s about 2 million people living in the DPR, and of course, they have their own pro-Russian patriotic and propaganda radio. Most of it is the mirror of Radio Bayraktar – take a look at the Google translate of their social media. Listen live here.

Garmonia Mira – And now for something completely different! Based in Odesa, this quirky little station is a mix of jazz, classical, and easy listening, but with astrological reports built into its weather reports, scifi and poetry readings, and what I would call “granola Christian” programming – worship songs, “life-affirming” sermons, etc. It’s new to me to see it in an Eastern Orthodox content, but it’s 100% a thing. Good jazz selection too. Listen live here.

There’s also several stations that are just good dance/EDM mixes. In no particular order:

As for the Bayraktar, shortly after the Russian invasion stalled, a war song started circulating in Ukraine, celebrating the effectiveness of the Ukrainian military and Putin’s miscalculation in invading. It’s been remixed into a million different genres, including this really catchy dance mix by Andriy Muzob.

The full English translation is here, but a little example:

His own country wasn’t big enough / Now the invader has crossed our border / Their war machines have melted in the fields / Bayraktar

The senile old grandpa [Putin] is ranting / And the people believe everything / Now the Tsar has learned a new word / Bayraktar

Bayraktar English Translation

As far as war songs go, it’s a lot higher production value than “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” that my grandpa taught me, but the sentiment is similar.