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“.