Editor’s note: On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Grid turned to the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov for reflections on what was then a nation on the brink of war. This was mid-February, and as Kurkov wrote, there was no panic, no “talk of war,” though beneath that veneer of normalcy people were making plans, learning about local bomb shelters and in some cases training for the first time in their lives to use weapons. Kurkov who left his country briefly but has since returned, is perhaps Ukraine’s best-known novelist and is the country’s representative of the PEN writers organization. Since that first story, he has filed three more dispatches for Grid: a deeply moving diary of war he called “Remember me with a smile,” a blistering assessment of Russian “fantasy and reality” and now, in the fifth month of the war, this look at how Ukrainians are still able to find hope amid all the loss and horror.
It is not easy to fight during the summer. It’s hot, there’s dust, body armor; there are helmets and heavy weapons. And then there is the way the shelling raises the temperature, the smoke it throws up in the atmosphere, the fires it sets off in houses and meadows and in fields. For Ukrainian troops in the east of the country, where the war with Russia is now concentrated, things have also been made harder by the way the Kremlin’s forces have focused their assault on specific areas of our territory.
To make sure that Ukrainian lives are preserved, our military command says they have made a series of strategic retreats. It is all, we are told, part of a plan to defend Ukraine. But with the war now it its fifth month, it would be understandable that these developments might depress some ordinary Ukrainians. They might prompt anxiety and questions — about what will happen next and how long this will continue, both within and beyond Ukraine.
Yet the truth is that, even after all these months, the depression does not seem to run very deep. When our spirits start sinking, when we start worrying, we simply look for something positive to hold on to. And again and again, we find it. Something serious or something frivolous. We grasp what we can.
Only recently, for example, news came that Ukrainian forces had raised their flag on Snake Island in the Black Sea, knocking out the Russian military, which had seized the island months ago. Russia claimed that it had left the island as a “gesture of goodwill” to allow grain shipments from Ukraine; Snake Island sits close to shipping lanes from the critically important Ukrainian port of Odessa. Of course, that did not stop Russian bombers from attacking the island, no doubt to attack Ukrainian troops and also destroy the military equipment abandoned by fleeing Russian soldiers. Still, Russian propaganda cannot obscure the positive news here for Ukrainians — that the strategically located island is no longer in the Kremlin’s hands.
This, for sure, was something positive for us to hold on to.
Food for hope?
As I say, there are less serious reasons to hope. Beyond military matters — where the developments can be devastating one moment, exhilarating the next — there is good news to be found. Recently it came via another front, one that is dear to all Ukrainians, myself included: the gastronomic front.
Earlier this month, UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, recognized Ukrainian borscht, the beet-based soup so beloved by all Ukrainians, as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. The delight sparked by this news was almost universal in my country, with Ukrainians from all walks of life declaring, “Borscht is ours!” much in the way the Russians, after their invasion in 2014, declared, “Crimea is ours!”
This may seem trivial, but as far as we are concerned, the U.N.’s designation marks our victory in what has been a long-running conflict with Russia over who owns borscht.
It is surprising, in fact, that Poland has not joined this particular conflict, as borscht also occupies an important place in the Polish gastronomic tradition. But then again, Polish borscht is very different. They use apple cider and vinegar in their recipes, which outrages Ukrainians. Our Polish friends are welcome to their concoctions.
Ukraine’s main issue has been with Russia, which has long sought to claim the dish as its own. If you think I exaggerate, consider that the UNESCO news prompted a rant from the infamous Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry. She said Ukraine’s claim to the dish was an example of “contemporary Kyiv nationalism.” For us, it’s just another case of “fake news” from Moscow.
Her chagrin only added to the feeling of positivity among Ukrainians, who adore borscht. Even in the midst of a bloody war, Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines delight in eating it, preparing the soup whenever they can, with the ingredients — beetroot, herbs and spices — sent to them by volunteers from around the country in easy-to-transport bottles. Everyone in the country has their own way of preparing the dish; some estimates say there are at least 300 different recipes. Even I have my own recipe; in fact, I have several!
Homes away from home
My friend Tatyana has 13 recipes for the soup. She spent the early part of the war trying to get her husband, Valentin Suslov, a 92-year-old retired professor of medicine who was recovering from surgery in a Kyiv hospital when Russia invaded, out of the country. It took two months, but they ultimately made it to Germany, which is where I recently saw them.
They now live with one of Valentin’s former colleagues in the center of Mainz. The colleague, Almut, is 87 years old. She has given over the ground floor of her two-story house to Tatyana and Valentin, and moved herself upstairs. Valentin is a wheelchair user, but thanks to the care of German surgeons, he is healthier than before.
When I visited them, we celebrated our reunion with lunch (though not borscht, because it takes several hours to prepare), and the conversation, unsurprisingly, turned to the situation in our country. With the war continuing, Valentin said that he had, until recently, resigned himself to dying in Germany. But as time passes, he has started thinking about returning; he said several of their friends had already gone back home, to Kyiv. It was one more glimmer of something positive in a sea of negativity.
Another glimmer amid the gloom: the presence of Tatyana and Valentin had filled Almut’s home with life. She lost her husband several years ago and had been living alone until her Ukrainian guests arrived; now, she has company — someone to talk with, drink tea with, eat with.
There are countless similar stories across Germany and beyond, homes in which refugees are finding solace. And where their kind hosts find something positive as well.
A reason to smile
Often the stories involve other Ukrainian medics — so many have had to flee amid the war, especially from the eastern territories that are now under Russian control. Before the war, it was common to find women working in the medical field as nurses, doctors and in other capacities; now, many of these women have left. It is another tragic consequence of Russia’s war.
But here again, Ukrainians have found things to be positive about, as we hear accounts involving the medical field inside Russia. Lately, we have been paying attention to what might be called the dental front.
It turns out, according to accounts circulating locally in Ukraine and international media reports, that there is a shortage of dental equipment in Russia. This is because of the sanctions imposed on the country after its invasion of Ukraine. As it was, Russian-made dental materials — things such as fillings — were already considered very poor. Dentists there often relied on imports, often from Europe and the U.S.
Those supply lines have now stopped functioning. As a result, the work of dentists has been affected, and the prices for dental services in Russia have risen sharply, and they continue to rise. Russia is seeking replacements from China and other parts of the world.
But for now, this is affecting ordinary Russians — and of course, Russian soldiers, who must make do with local supplies for fillings and other dental problems.
Contrast this with the situation in Ukraine, where — outside the Russian-controlled territories — everything, from what I have seen, is fine on the dental front. There are Swiss and German materials available for fillings. Despite some dentists having been forced to flee, the treatments are not as expensive as in other parts of Europe, and certainly not as expensive as treatments in Russia.
It’s one more small piece of hope. One more reason to cheer. To put it another, more literal way, the dental news tells us that in contrast to the Russian invaders, Ukrainians, including those fighting at the front line, can still smile.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.