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Lydia Artiukh is a name is well known to the researchers interested in traditional Ukrainian cuisine. For those less knowledgeable let’s say that when running an internet search for “Ukrainian cuisine” the search results would have most definitely include links to the articles, interviews and books by Artiukh. This is now, but a couple of decades ago if you wanted to discover more about the history of Ukrainian cuisine you would have had to buy her book or contact the author personally. If you were in luck, you would have been able to find out more from her in-depth interviews or op-ed articles published in the printed media. 

An organised search on the topic of Ukrainian cuisine usually produces abundant results. However, the story behind the daily lives of Ukrainian researchers remains untold. Lydia Artiukh shares her story on what life was like for a cultural anthropologist in the Soviet Ukraine, what was on the menu and how the daily life of researchers was organised during the field expeditions.


Lydia Artiukh has a PHD in history, she also has background in cultural anthropology. Artiukh is a published author, she also has published articles on the subject of folk cuisine and Ukrainian cultural anthropology. Artiukh has extensively explored Ukrainian ritual cuisine and the sacred foods.  


On cultural anthropology

In the late sixties I began working at the cultural anthropology department under the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. It is a commonly held belief that at the time the Soviet authorities were trying to introduce a new system of cultural meanings, which could not be more wrong. Instead, the researchers were mostly focused on developing the blue print for the new Museum of folk architecture and folkways, creating an ethnographic map of Ukraine, developing questionnaires for collecting future museum exhibits, and training the staff for the museum. During the summer months almost all of the department employees were actively engaged in the field work, namely collecting cultural heritage materials. A different group of researchers was working on developing the Ukrainian Heritage Atlas, which included architecture, folk dress, and rural utensils. Unfortunately, the museum was never meant to be, but it served as a training school for the new generation of researchers as well as established scientists.


Life in the fields

Each season the department would usually organise 3 to 5 field expeditions. The researchers were working on more or less established close-knit teams. The research would typically cover as many Ukrainian townships as possible, opting for vast and culturally significant regions of Ukraine. I would usually team up with such now prominent scientists like Halyna Bondarenko, Olena Boryak, Natalia Havryliuk, and Olexander Kurochkin. 

We would be sleeping inside large military tents in sleeping bags on folding beds. This way we did not have to find lodging in the nearby villages and townships, it was a good way to save up on the lodging expenses. We became experts on putting up tents, the next morning the research team would dismantle the tents with military precision in mere 10-15 minutes. 

Every team had an elected treasurer. The treasurer was issued a multi coloured patchwork baggie to hang around his or her neck. All of the collective funds were be kept inside this baggie. Sometimes the treasure would fall victim to cunning pickpockets. This would naturally upset the team but we tried to stay upbeat. At the time the researchers were paid petty cash for doing field research, but we had tons of enthusiasm. We travelled Ukraine in a GAZ-66, a 4x4 all-road military truck, our needs weren’t many and despite everything we weren’t strapped for cash.  


Field kitchens

The expedition was equipped with a mobile gas cooker. In the evening we would cook hot suppers, the following morning our team mates would warm yesterday’s borshch, this way the team was able to have extended and more productive working hours. For lunch we would pack sandwiches made with salo and rye bread with cucumber and radish.

Before the expedition the team would stock up with serials, canned black pudding (other canned products were almost impossible to find in the Soviet stores), salo was especially valued as a long lasting survival food. Some of us needed to pull some strings to stock up with butter – it was difficult to come by at the Soviet food stores, the butter was stored inside sealed containers in salty water or melted and canned for long term storage. The vegetables were bought directly from Ukrainian villagers or at the farmer’s markets.

I recall once when we together with Anatoly Shevchenko went to the Chihyrin township to buy vegetables for borshch. The expedition was almost over and our public funds have dwindled to just three roubles. Our private funds also have run out. We began haggling with a lovely babushka over the vegetables, right off the bat we have explained to her that we are from out of town and have only three roubles to buy beetroots, carrots, cabbage, and onion (the rest of the ingredients including the tomato sauce and potatoes were back at the camp). I must add that the vegetable selection on offer was simply excellent! We have haggled for a bit as matter of form, following which babushka came up with a wonderful phrase almost mirroring the most fundamental Marxist economic principles: “The product has no use when it’s just lying around, it’s gotta be running around! It’s a deal!” For the two final days of the trip we cooked borshch with babushka’s produce. We fondly recalled her kindness and her instinctively wise approach to doing business which essentially boils down to making a quick turnover.  


Public catering

In Ukrainian villages and towns, the team would record the menus offered to the tractor brigades, available at kindergartens, and the worker’s canteens. One must say that the menus did not offer much variety. The food was delicious because Ukrainians know how to cook. The menus were mostly dominated by borshch and soup, roast meat – usually referenced by its Russian name as zharkoe, chopped pork cutlets, roast liver with onion, and less often varenyky with potato or cabbage filling; the kindergarten kitchens usually served different types of porridge.


Political situation at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences

The early seventies signalled difficult times for the Ukrainian cultural anthropology and Ukraine. It was mostly due to the policies supported by Valentyn Malanchuk, a Ukrainian Communist leader who spearheaded a comprehensive assault on Ukrainian culture and national identity. Some of Ukraine’s most prominent academics, including the deputy director of the Institute of art, folklore, and cultural anthropology Kost Hyslysty and its director Mykola Savchenko were removed from their positions accused of ideological subversion and Ukrainian nationalism; Volodymyr Zinych was expelled from the Communist party and removed from his position as head of department. However, the young generation of researchers were already working on their research projects. It was agreed that my studies will focus on the history of food, Natalia Havryliuk will focus on birthing rituals and Tamara Kosmina went on to study folk dwellings. Other talented post graduate researchers included Halyna Bondarenko and Serhiy Seheda. Slowly but steadily though the young generation of researchers preserved the heritage of their more experienced colleagues.

While studying the folk agriculture I became interested not only in the production of food but also in its further use. When it came to selecting a new research project, I was more than happy to suggest folk cuisine. At the time the subject was not as popular with the academic community and I had to start from scratch.  


Food studies 

Before I launched my research into the history of food, other researchers including Liudmila Shevchenko already explored some of its aspects in the fifties and early sixties. Shevchenko’s only article was in the layout of the unpublished Ukrainians Magazine. Analtoly Poritsky, the department’s most talented scholar also studied the history of food. He launched an extremely ambitious project called the Anthropological map of Ukraine, Poritsky actively engaged in field studies collecting material for his project. Unfortunately, Poritsky has suddenly passed away and the project was completed by another scholar – Vsevolod Naulko. Poritsky had planned to study the folk food culture, however the subject was left unexplored. Unfortunately, the material he left was extremely limited, it did not even include notes for developing questionnaires. 

At the time the Soviet academic community had little interest in folk cuisine. Except for Vacis Milus, my Lithuanian colleague who actively explored the Lithuanian folk food culture. We met scientific conference which was held in Kyiv and Milus has promised to support my research. He sent me his questionnaire on the subject of Lithuanian folk cuisine and food products. It was extremely kind and generous of him! Only professionals know how much effort it takes to develop a questionnaire before the launch of study. It requires experience and extensive knowledge. I was extremely grateful to my colleague from the neighbouring Lithuania. I used the Milus questionnaire to develop several of my own. Now I have five questionnaires and it will be a great help to the future researchers following in my footsteps. 


Folk cuisine

Food studies are not just about collecting folk food recipes and recipes for beverages within a specific ethnic region. It also includes comprehensive studies of production methods, food storage, distribution of kitchen duties in the family, table manners, traditions of hospitality, religious food calendar (high time for making kutia, a Christmas grain porridge, kolivo, which is ceremonial funeral dish, and Easter cakes – paskas), time periods to abstain from food or follow limitations placed on food consumption and food preparation (e.g., fast days, Ukrainian homemakers do not bake bread and paskas on a Friday, there is a folk belief that the full moon is not suitable for making sauerkraut, pickles, and pickled beetroot).

The folk food traditions which are passed on from generation to generation reflect the national ethnic food culture. Some of the folk food culture traditions have successfully integrated into the urban life-style, like baking Easter cakes, making Christmas grain porridge, preparing kolivo, and organising birthday parties. These reflect traditional Ukrainian ceremonial rituals, but in respect to the day to day culture Ukrainians are extremely fond of borshch which can be cooked according to the dozens of recipes. The popular items on the menu also include varenyky, dough pockets with different types of filling and halushky, a type of pasta. These traditions go back generations. 

Unlike the folk culture in general, the folk food traditions do not really change. Today we can barely imagine living in the tenth century without the technological gadgets we have become accustomed to. Like having a bull’s bladder instead of window glass. But the folk food traditions have remained unchanged for centuries. With the arrival of new foodstuffs, like corn, potato, tomatoes, and sunflowers the existing home food traditions steadily incorporate the new products. Ukrainians have adapted the old traditional recipes to suit the new products. By the nineteenth century all of the new products have completely integrated into the Ukrainian cuisine without disturbing the overall balance within the Ukrainian food traditions. New products are still introduced into the Ukrainian cuisine but they are in balance with the traditional flavours. 


Political censorship

In Soviet Ukraine political censorship was rife. The editorial board of the peer review magazines strictly followed the censorship guidelines and prevented any subversive activities. I recall, when one of my articles was heading for the chop shop because I mentioned the reduction in buckwheat crops which resulted in shortages of buckwheat grain and limited range of buckwheat products at the food stores. However, the censor only removed any references to buckwheat and that was that.

We applied the best practices first introduced by the Ukrainian shestidesyatniki writers, mainly poets, which worked something like a conga line. To avoid censorship, a shestidesyatniki’s book of poems would start with poems glorifying the Communist party and Lenin which was followed by the quality poetry coming from the soul. This was a license to print. The academic community used this trick as well. It was similar to saying that “the Communist party has discovered that a heated gas expands”. The Ukrainian researchers quoted from the Communist classics, we found that Engels was most productive in this respect, added some more quotes from the Communist party directives, like the Food production programme, used those quotes at the beginning of the article and the rest of the article was free to extensively explore the Ukrainian cultural traditions.


Ukrainian culinary heritage 

For many Russian historians and cultural anthropologists the primacy of claim to the cultural heritage of the Kyivan Ruthenia remains a sore subject. In Russian textbooks the original term Kyivan Ruthenia has been replaced with Ancient Ruthenia, a much more vague term. Dmitry Likhachov, a prominent Russian historian stressed the importance of distinguishing between Russian and Ruthenian. Unfortunately, the modern Russian historiography is largely focused on lessening Ukraine’s role in history and has easily brushed aside Likhachov’s work. 

William Pokhlebkin, a Russian food researcher is known for his comprehensive research of culinary traditions. I have all the respect for him as a scholar, but I must say that his studies were marred by the Russian imperial ambition. When exploring the history of vodka, he deliberately snubs the Ukrainian distilleries which operated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, much earlier than in Moscovia. Pokhlebkin has argued that distilleries can function only under a strong government control and as part of monopolies. At the time Ukraine was politically weak and did not have a strong economy. As a result, Pokhlebkin ardently believes that in Ukraine the first distilleries were set up in the seventeenth century, that is after Ukraine has signed a pact of union with Moscovia in 1654.

 But the history of Cossack food traditions totally contradicts this idea. Small private distilleries were operating in Ukrainian villages and townships. Throughout the early fourteenth century and onwards spirit production in Ukraine was sporadic. The distilleries were controlled mainly by the local government as it was first organised at the time of the Kyivan Ruthenia, and not by the central government as it was traditionally organised in Russia. In time the Ukrainian hetmans began issuing decrees which allowed specific individuals to produce and sell horilka, a traditional Ukrainian alcoholic beverage.


Modern culinary culture

Ukrainian modern cuisine is adopting overseas recipes which are becoming popular generally among the urban population. Take for example pizza and shish kebab. Popularity of those dishes can be explained by the fact that they are similar to some the traditional Ukrainian foods. Pizza is a large open pie with different fillings, truth must be told it has been significantly improved and jazzed up. Shish kebab is meat roasted on sticks over an open fire. It is a traditional dish of the Ruthenian military elite, in time it became popular with the Ukrainian chumaky, the travelling merchants and the Cossack recognizance troops from the vast Ukrainian steppes in the south of the country. The men would hunt for hare and sometimes for larger game, shoot ducks and geese. That is why these dishes have effortlessly integrated into the modern Ukrainian cuisine. Interestingly, these dishes have not become the staple diet of Ukrainians rather an interesting addition to the main menu or something to celebrate an occasion. The daily cuisine continues to be dominated by borshch, soup, roast meat and holubtsy. 



Photo: Lydia Artiukh