What did I learn: UKRAINE

Kherson Oblast, Ukraine – Source

This month was the first time I’ve covered a country that’s an active warzone, and the first time I’ve covered a country that’s massively topical. Between Ukraine being front and centre in the media, being the nexus of major changes in the international post-Cold War political structure, and with me being from the part of the world with a massive Ukrainian diaspora, I wasn’t starting from scratch this month.

However, the war has really crystalized a major theme that kept on coming up this month – the battle for Ukraine’s identity. The challenges and nuances of establishing the idea of Ukraine as a nation are deep and complicated, and build to the heart of the ongoing Russian invasion.

Ukraine has been reinforcing itself as a nation and a people, building its own identity and independence out of waves of Polish-Lithuanian, Austrian, Russian, and Soviet control over the centuries. The Russian invasion is an attempt to nullify Ukraine as it’s own nation once again, and this tension comes out in everyday life and media. Zelenskyy’s May 9th address, stand-up comedy in bomb shelters, war songs about Bayraktar drones, and podcasts looking at Ukraine’s past, present, and future all hit on this.

Currently, the war is focused on Donbas, and going on Stanislav Aseyev’s dispatches and the dark satirical movie Donbass, this is not going to be the easy united war of resistance that we saw when Kyiv was threatened.

Apart from getting a better understanding of the current war, I also learned about some really interesting sides of Ukraine – I was pretty well versed on the Chernobyl disaster before, but I didn’t know about Chernobyl as a centuries-long centre of Hasidism, or Ukraine’s deep Jewish history. I also got to learn other pieces of Ukraine’s history – Saint Olga and the Kievan Rus (another source of dispute with Russia), the wild architecture of Horodecki, incredibly avant-garde films of the silent era, and the Soviet fighter pilot who allegedly turned up in an Indigenous community here in Canada.

Speaking of Canada, our large Ukrainian community (10% of my home province is ethnically Ukrainian) gave a good opportunity to try new Ukrainian food. There were old favourites like borscht, cabbage rolls, and pierogies / varenyky, and I got to try lots of new fillings, including Crimean meat, mushrooms and saurkraut, and sweet dessert pierogies. I also got to try for the first time both sweet and savoury pyrizhky buns, Ukrainian vodka and wine, herbal teas, chebureki, salo, and four posts’ worth of Ukrainian snacks (1, 2, 3, 4). I had a bit of a culinary failure making kasha, but I’m thrilled with how well pampushky garlic bread turned out, and how simple and utterly delicious the lemon horilka was.

I also got to try making pysanky for the first time, and while it was a very novice attempt, it’s really satisfying and fun – I think I’ll need to pick up some more eggs.

There’s plenty I wish I had looked more into this week – Ukrainian history and art and language, pop culture from before the war, more literature (including the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Gogol) but I’m glad I got a good start. I hope there will be lots more opportunities to learn more about Ukraine, especially because despite the invasion, “Ukraine has not yet perished“.

UKRAINE: The White Chalk of Days

The White Chalk of Days is an anthology of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature and poetry, edited by Mark Andryczyk. It’s got an interesting mix of styles and subjects – beautiful and ethereal poetry, absurdism, dark satire, touching prose, and my favourite, the short story “Owner of the Best Gay Bar” by Serhiy Zhadan – some down-on-their-luck grifters trying to make it rich by opening the first and only gay bar in town, despite not knowing either anyone gay or how to run a bar.

The anthology’s introduction is valuable too, covering the recent generations of Ukrainian writers – those writing samizdat in the late Soviet era, the creative flourishing of the 90s, and the influence on and from other Eastern European literary scenes (particularly Poland). It’s a neat, well translated collection, and a good introduction to current Ukrainian writers.

UKRAINE: Horodecki House

The Horodecki House (also known as the House with Chimaeras or the Gorodetsky House) is an incredibly fanciful building that sits across from the presidential palace in Kyiv. There’s so much going on here with it – to start, it is essentially a Ukrainian response to Gaudi. Art Nouveau, multi-layered and designed, with animals, plants, and other organic elements merging with busy rococo-ish elements.

The history of this building is also incredible – designed in 1902 by Władysław Horodecki, a Polish architect, it was intended to be sold as luxury apartments. Horodecki’s debts led to changes of ownership, including by a sugar factory, and during the Communist era, the building was carved up into smaller communal apartments, used as a refuge for evacuated actors, abandoned during WWII, and used as a medical clinic until 2002. The building had almost split it half at its foundations by that time, and the restorers had to threaten to board the medical clinic in to obtain the space for restoration. It eventually was fully restored to Horodecki’s original plans, and is used today for presidential and official capacities.

It came back into the limelight this spring during the Russian invasion, with Zelenskyy using it as a background in his videos announcing he was staying in Kyiv and calling on Ukrainians to resist.

You can walk through it on streetview, and I’d really recommend taking the time to look at the details – the frogs lining the rooftop parapets, or the flowers and tentacles emerging from ceiling chandeliers.

UKRAINE: Snacks galore!

Thought I had enough Ukrainian snacks? Nope, got another haul – this time from Kalinka in Calgary (where I also got some great pierogies, chebureki, and cabbage rolls). The first three sets of Ukrainian snacks are here: 1, 2, 3.

Brunch Cheddar Sandwich – A pack of three long multigrain rusks with a cheese filling. This cheddar one tastes simliar to Cheeze-Its but with a sharper, more aged cheese flavour. The rusk itself is both crispy and flaky soft. They also come in other cheese flavours, including parmesan.

Delicia Yin-Yang cookies – These are really beautiful cookies, I can’t believe they look exactly as shown on the package. They’re crisp little cookies with two fillings, one side coconut, and the other Baileys cream liqueur. I thought they were going to be chocolate and vanilla, but the two flavours really work together. They’re quite nice!

Jaco Smile Zefir with orange filling – This somewhere between a meringue and a marshmallow, with a sweet orange filling that tasted a lot like those Kilm Fruit Land gummies. There’s two marshmallows stuck together, and it’s fun, but a serious sugar bomb – makes my teeth sing.

Polus Big Bar caramel – A thick multi-multi-layer wafer cookie with caramel inside and a chocolate coating. A whole lot of crumbs and extremely messy, but really tasty. Sweet but not overpowering, good quality caramel, and they make a lot of other flavours, including condensed milk and coconut. It would be fun to do a taste comparison with the Tiki Gold wafer bars from Trinidad.

UKRAINE: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 silent movie from the Soviet Union, following daily life in Kyiv, Odesa, and Moscow. It’s groundbreaking the same way Prokudin-Gorsky’s full-colour photos from 1911 are. The film is cut almost at a modern pace (which audiences at the time found far too fast) with meta shots of the cameraman filming. The director, Dziga Vertov, used or created a huge number of modern camera tricks – fades, wipes, slow-motion, extreme closeups, split screen, freeze frame, stop motion, and far far more. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and feels like it should be an art-house film in a gallery – it’s hard to digest just how old this movie is due to its modernity.

Vertov’s artistic career continued until the start of the Stalinist era, when the official establishment of socialist realism as an art form pushed all more novel and creative forms of art. Vertov went from one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated art directors to an editor of newsreels, but did at least avoid the worst of the purges.

The whole movie (about an hour long) is available freely online. Since it was a silent film, there is no soundtrack, so many later ones have been added. I particularly like this version; it adds to the hypnotic artistry.

UKRAINE: Firecrosser (2011) / Ivan Datsenko

Firecrosser is a 2011 Ukrainian movie that is both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird. The movie follows Ivan Dodoka, a Soviet fighter pilot from Ukraine, who is shot down and presumed dead on the Eastern Front during WWII. His wife, who is of eastern Tartar origin, doesn’t believe he is dead and waits for him after the war, holding off the advances of a drunken and manipulative former friend of Dodoka’s.

Dodoka is indeed alive, but after surviving German capture and returning to Soviet hands, he is sent to a Siberian gulag (a fate that awaited many Soviet former-POWs in real life). He escapes, and then the movie takes a weird turn – instead of returning to find her, he heads further east to find her family, and then through slightly unclear circumstances, ends up in being moved by locals for safety through the Russian far east, Alaska, and into northern Canada. There he tries to repair a plane to fly back to the USSR, while living in a remote First Nations community. When he learns of his wife’s death, he then stays in Canada and becomes a chief in the community.

The pacing is incredibly fast – this feels like this could be twice the length to get all the plot twists and details in. It was also a very, er, European depiction of First Nations (you could tell none of this was actually filmed in Canada) and the main Indigenous characters spoke English with stilted, over-perfect, almost American accents. Turns out all the actors were Ukrainian.

Ivan Datsenko and allegedly Ivan Datsenko – Source

The other weird thing is that this is purported to be “based on a true story” – even that is a bit of a stretch. There was a real life Ukrainian pilot named Ivan Datsenko who was officially killed in WWII. When Soviet journalists and officials came to Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal, a Ukrainian journalist claimed he met a Mohawk chief that could speak perfect Russian and Ukrainian. The rumour became that Datsenko had not been killed in the war, but instead had made it to Canada and had been living undetected among First Nations for the past 20 years.

The movie takes this for fact and interprets this as a remote nation in northern BC / Yukon – which is slightly more plausible than the Mohawk Nation, which is south of Montreal along the border with New York, and not remote at all – it’s basically urban. Any pics claiming to be him are all people with tipis and in traditional dress (or stereotypical versions of it) from prairie nations like the Blackfoot. The Mohawk, who are on the opposite side of Canada, have a different regalia, built permanent longhouses instead of tipis, and were long urbanized / victims of Canada’s cultural genocide by the 60s. But what really makes the original urban legend ring pretty hollow is that we’ve never heard of this in Canada.

We learned in school about Grey Owl, a British man who faked being First Nations, but nothing about Datsenko – and trust me, if a Soviet fighter pilot successfully faked his way into Canada, convinced the Mohawk to let him pretend to be one of them, and then was discovered during Expo 67? We love these kind of stories. He would be on every Canadian trivia quiz and there would be an exhibit on him in the Diefenbunker or the War Museum (probably next to the disguised German WWII weather station that was only discovered in Labrador in the 70s).

Still, I do like a good war movie, and Firecrosser was definitely something different.

UKRAINE: More podcasts

The Kyiv Tram CafeSource

Part 2 of interesting podcasts from and about Ukraine – Part 1 is here.

BBC History Hour: Ukrainian History Special – An overview from the BBC of major events in Ukraine’s history from the past century, with reporting from the period and modern analysis. It’s particularly the events that are well known outside of Eastern Europe: The Holodomor, Babi Yar, Chernobyl, but also Crimea as a Soviet holiday hotspot.

Remember What’s Next: The History of Ukrainian Jews – A Jewish history podcast looking at the larger history of the Jewish community in what is now Ukraine. Covers the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the Pale of Settlement, the origin of the shtetl and Hassidism, and pervasiveness of antisemitism in both Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine Without Hype: Russian Imperial AntisemitismUkraine Without Hype is a really good quality Ukrainian-based podcast; the first half covers recent news, including war updates, while the second half is in-depth interviews and discussion. This episode also looked at antisemitism and the war in Ukraine, building off the Russian Foreign Minister’s insane conspiracy theory comments about Jews. The episode looks at the use of conspiracy theory and antisemitism as part of “Russification” and larger Russian expansionist aims into Ukraine.

Krynytsya – The Well: War in Ukraine: Natalie Jaresko talks about what it will take to rebuild Ukraine – An interview with Natalie Jaresko, the Ukrainian Minister of Finance from 2014-2016, on what will be needed to rebuilt Ukraine’s economy once the war ends, and who should pay for it (spoiler: Russian reparations from sanctioned individuals).

Black Diplomants: War in Ukraine with Inna Sovsun – An interview in a Kyiv coffee shop with Inna Sovsun, a Member of Parliament with the opposition Holos Party and university professor. She covers how life has changed since the Russian invasion, both personally and in the workings of the Ukrainian government.

Nash Holos: Ukrainian Roots Radio – A regular podcast focused on the Ukrainian-Canadian community. There’s episodes of Ukrainian music and culture, artists and exhibits between Ukraine and Canada, book reviews, and updates on the war and helping Ukrainian refugees get to Canada.

UKRAINE: Chebureki, sour cherry pyrizhky, and even more varenyky

I’m in Calgary right now, and with the huge Ukrainian population in Alberta, there’s a lot of good food options here. I went to get some meals to go at Kalinka, an Ukrainian deli and market just off Macleod Trail. I’ve had their chicken cutlets before (they do delivery) and they were really good, so I was looking to see what else was availble. Of course, they make it very clear that they are truly an Ukrainian deli.

For quick lunch snack on the go, I was feeling something sweet from their bakery section. I had tried a savoury pyrizhky earlier back in Ottawa, but here they had ones with sweet fillings too. There were several fruit options, including apple and poppyseed, but I went for sour cherry. It had a nice tart filling inside very thick eggy bread that reminded me of challah. I washed it down with some “Our Juice” cherry and blackcurrant juice from Ukraine.

For dinner with my dad, I picked up more cabbage rolls and beef chebureki. Chebureki are considered a national dish for Crimean Tartars, and I’m adding unofficial tally of “bureks” I’ve tried from different former Ottoman territories: Algerian boreks, Israeli bourekas, and Albanian byreks – all different, but all based on the same idea of pastries with meat fillings.

We reheated them in the oven with the cabbage rolls. The chebureki were really nice, flaky pastry with ground beef and onion inside, and went really well with sour cream and the cabbage rolls’ tomato sauce. My dad loves cabbage rolls, and these impressed him so much that he wrote down Kalinka’s address so he can get more.

Kalinka also had huge handmade varenyky / pierogi selection – they had all kinds of regional variations, Kyivan (beef and pork with garlic), Crimean (beef, pork, and chicken, with Georgian khmeli suneli spice mix), and Canadian (potato with cheddar and bacon).

I went for the Crimean, since that’s totally new to me. The spice mix sounds really interesting, with basil, fenugreek, coriander, mint, savoury, and marigold. I also got a tub of homemade sour cream to go with them (and the cabbage rolls).

I boiled some for breakfast and had them with sour cream and some cooked zucchini. They’re really lovely, I can taste the chicken, and there’s a nice hint of mint and savoury that really works. The homemade sour cream was fantastic, with a sharp tang like kefir.

UKRAINE: Making pysanky

Not my pysanky – Source

Pysanky are pretty big in the part of Canada I grew up in (we even have a giant pysanky to go with the giant pierogi), and skilled pysanky are absolute stunning pieces of art. Pysanky (singular pysanka) are highly-decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs, made the same way batik is – using wax to cover layers of dye to make designs. There’s a lot of tradition in Ukraine over giving pysanky during the Easter season and a lot of meaning carried by the designs, and the art has been carried through the Ukrainian diaspora. They’re more than just decorative like the dip-dyed Easter eggs you make as a kid.

I’m going to try making pysanky for the first time! I’m a total novice, so I ordered a pysanky kit from This Folk Life – dyes, beeswax, candle, and a kistka (the stylus to draw wax with). All I needed was a few eggs, and egg piercer (the one from my egg steamer) and some boiling water and vinegar. It really helps to put newspaper down as well – I was also glad I have a black kitchen table.

It helps to sketch patterns on the eggshell with a pencil. I found some really helpful step-by-step beginner patterns at LearnPysanky.com and a general tutorial from the Capital Ukrainian Festival here in Ottawa. You work from lightest to darkest colours, using the candle to melt the beeswax into the kitska.

Once the dyeing is done, if you want to keep the egg, you’ll need to empty it. It’s a delicate process but between a needle to poke holes and a bobby pin / paperclip to break up the yolk, you can blow the insides out without breaking the shell.

If you want to keep your egg, you have to empty it before getting to the really fun part, melting the wax (or else you’ll have some hardboiled egg inside). You use the side of the flame and wipe gently with a paper towel, and it’s really fun to see your design emerge.

It’s very rudimentary, but I’m really proud of my very first pysanky!

I had a couple more eggs, so I played around with patterns and different colours. It takes some practice to not “sketch” the lines in wax and just commit to one line, and filling in larger sections with wax so there’s no gaps is tricky. I got creative with an impressionist (that’s what I’m calling it) Ukrainian sunflower.

This was super messy, super fun, and I think I’m hooked. The dye will keep, so I may go get some more eggs and see practice some more!

UKRAINE: Wine and kvass

I have a LOT of questions about the only brand of Ukrainian wine available at the LCBO. First of all, sparkling white is a natural, but sparkling red? Second, KrimSekt’s website says it’s really popular in Germany, but the website is hosted in Canada, out of date, talks about how the wine is grown in Crimea – which Ukraine lost control over most of its historic vineyards in 2014. The two wines are dated after that, but are labelled “Product of Ukraine” – so likely the grapes were grown in a different part of Ukraine. The back of the label says the company is based in Bakhmut, which is just on the Ukrainian border of occupied Donbas and has been near the frontlines since then.

These wines may not even be sold under this brand anymore – owner Artwinery now lists on its own website just “Krim” under a different labelling. When I grabbed these two bottles, they were some of the last ones in the store. The LCBO is now totally out of them, so I may have the last few bottles that are going to make it to Canada anytime soon, especially since the region is facing terrible shelling and fighting – but they’re still active and working to re-open their stores in other parts of Ukraine.

As for the wine itself?

KrimSekt Red 2019 – Smell and first sip is kind of like kosher grape juice, but then there’s a nice bubble, some good acidity, and the vaguest hint of tannin in the end. I’d say this is more of a sweet wine than a semi-sweet, but I really vibe with the idea of a sparkling red.

KrimSekt White 2015 – Aged white wine is an odd though to me, but it seems 7 years isn’t unthinkable. Again, this really should be a sweet wine rather than semi-sweet. It’s very sweet, but again a bit of acidity at the end.

And while I’ve tried both Ukrainian wine and vodka, here’s a non-alc option: kvass!

Poltavskiy kvassKvass is a fermented malt drink that’s popular in Slavic and Baltic countries. It can be anything from pretty light to quite dark – this one from the Poltava brewery in Ukraine is on the dark end. It’s got a roasted, slightly smokey dark flavour with nice carbonation and a bit of sweetness, kind of like a non-alc porter, but with the really clear malt drink flavour. I really like this.