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We don’t usually associate war with food, but when talking about famine, war is always in the background. Food can be used by the enemy forces as a type of weapon, just like any other more conventional munitions such as bombs, bullets, and explosives. Controlling the food supply and agricultural regions which grow food sometimes decides who wins the war. Famine is often used as part of an aggressive military strategy. The economic fallout of war, such as famine, food shortages, and disrupted food supplies often continues to affect the daily lives people for years to come, and it has nothing to do with being on the winning or losing side of the war.

Many books have been written about war and military operations, as well as the organisation of supplies and evacuations of civilians, however we know surprisingly little about what people were eating and what types of foods the adults and children of war craved the most. Also, we know little about the hardships of women, both single and with families, and what they had to endure. As the men headed for the front, the women were left at home desperately trying to fend for themselves and take care of their loved ones. And it’s not just about the running of daily lives, which includes cooking and washing up, but also and more importantly – actively looking for food, fuel, and clean water. All of it is absolutely vital in for personal survival. 

I suggest we review the history of war through the cooking traditions of Kyivites in the Second World War. I am a passionate student of the war-time events and war history which tragically unravelled in Kyiv; I recorded over fifty interviews with the eye-witnesses.1 A number of autobiographies and real-life stories have been published; the archived documents on the subject are now freely available.2 At the first glance it becomes evident that at the times of all-out war and lacking resources, the true culture of food consumption or fool lifestyle is completely wiped out. The overwhelming majority of eye-witnesses record in their testimonies that at the time Kyiv had a culture of survival. Also, most importantly this culture of survival was usually supported by women, namely the mothers, wives, sisters, and grandmas. The woman was in charge of feeding the family; she was the one who ventured out on the daily expeditions searching for food and endured physical and psychological hardships as a result. 


“The whole weight of the world fell on our mummy’s shoulders.” 

The overwhelming majority of the eye-witnesses I have involved in my war-time studies were either children or young adolescents at the time, meaning that they were in the care of other adults in the family. As the father went to the front, the wife was left to take care of the children and the rest of the family. Besides, it was absolutely natural in a patriarchal culture such as the Soviet society to let the women take care of the children. The Soviet large-scale national campaigns proclaiming the “End of Kitchen Slavery” did little to change the basic behaviours and views on the traditional male and female roles and responsibilities at home. However, at the time of war taking care of the family became a matter of life and death. Olexandra Dvornichenko has shared these memories of her mother:

“The whole weight of the world fell on our mummy’s shoulders. Once she sprained her ancle when out in the country-side looking to exchange products for food, so she arrived a week later. A horrible scene has awaited her at home. Milochka and I were laying in our bed, already swollen from hunger; all Lidochka could do was give us hot water. Our great-grandma Tanya was still alive and she also was drinking hot tea, just like us. However, we managed to survive but she was dead from hunger.” 3  


Quite often the children noticed and recalled the events in their daily life, the adults would usually ignore or would rather forget. As a result, the women themselves have rarely mentionded cooking and searching for food during the war. Besides, nobody ever asked them about such unheroic deeds. The researchers of war were mostly focusing on the courageous female pilots, nurses, and the women of the resistance. Which makes it absolutely fascinating to read the letters of Dmytro Malachov’s parents which they exchanged in 1943-1945 and Malachov published in his book “The Kyivites, War, and the Germans” 4. When his father was called to the front in 1941, the little Dmytro was but four years old, his elder brother Georgiy was 13, and the tree of them together with their mother survived the German occupation. Eugenia Kostyantynivna “has poured out her sour” in the letters to her husband describing the daily lives of the family and how she “had to fight for survival” in Kyiv which at the time was occupied by the German military. Her plight continued after the Soviet Army took control over the city. 


“How to dry rusks”

The first order of survival is to stock up. The expression “to dry rusks” nowadays often used in Ukraine with some dry humour to describe a dire situation, was used by the survivours without an ounce of irony and as direct instructions. In 1941 Viktor Sosov has just turned eight, his sister was three and his brother was 11; he described how his father left for the front and his mum found work at a military hospital; she was washing other people’s linen, medical dressings, and bedsheets for the soldiers.

“For the work that she did, she received a food ration, which included loafs of bread, so we dried rusks”. 5 


Also, Sosov’s mum managed to prepare some jam for the winter months. The jams did not last long, but at least for some time the Sosov family somehow managed to “get by” – was the expression used by Sosov. 

As the Soviet Army was pulling its troops out of Kyiv, it destroyed what was left of the city’s supply depots; and the Germans rationed 400 grams of rye bread per one person. In Kyiv the survivours of the famished winter days of 1941-1941 used all of the available arable land to plant vegetable gardens, which included the city parks, public gardens, and even the Spartacus Stadium football field. Sometimes potato peels were used for planting. 

Cultivation of these vegetable gardens continued after the Soviet Army entered the city. Eugenia Malachova boasted in the letter to her husband about 200 home-grown tomato plants, and how unhappy she was when in 1945 the Soviet authorities banned all vegetable gardens in the city.


“I have become accustomed to having a supply of home-grown tomatoes, dill, and reddish; because the market prices are way too steep.” 6  


However, both the Germans and Russians supported the culture of making vegetable preserves, perhaps this way the authorities were trying to fight the insufficient supply of bread. The public servants often received rations of potatoes, onion, and cabbage. Dmytro Malachov remembers how his mother was making sourcrout from 20 kilos of cabbage strewn on the table. Malachov was seven at the time and was helping his mother by using his toy truck to “deliver” to the “place of destination” truckloads of cabbage.7


The simple foods 

For many war-time survivours skilly, a weak grain-based broth usually made with millet, without adding the carrots, potatoes, and onion was one of the mainstays of the diet.


“Usually, we would cook millet skilly in the morning, in the evening we would have some potatoes, or sometimes the other way around. During all that time - years - we never had any fatty foods,”  

– wrote in 1944 Eugenia Malachova.8 To Galyna Kostenko even these types of food seemed like a real treat:

“Mum would make some weak soup just with beans – this is what we had to eat during the day. My sister and I never had any eggs or bread.” 9  


The surviviours also recall cooking peas and making flour soup.

The cereal grains were available for sale or could be swapped for other products only at the farmer’s market. There was no centralised sale of foodstuffs in wartime Kyiv, neither warring party had ever managed to do that. The cereals were measured out by the cup.


“God only knows who made those miniature measuring cups”,  

– Dmytro Malachov once said.


Quite often potato peels featured in the wartime recipes. The peels were boiled, fried, made into cutlets, and added to the skilly. When recalling his time at the orphanage Yuri Fuks told a story about how the potato spuds, damaged by frost were “fried” by placing them on the hot metal stove.10

Sunflower oil was the only fatty food available. Salo was highly prized. The Kyiv wartime survivours recall that salo was very expensive, as a result it was bought in very small quantities. Salo is a highly energetic food, which makes it very valuable, it could be used to quickly re-energise oneself and as a nourishing additive for a vegetarian soup or porridge. Butter was a real luxury product. There was no mention of meat. A festive menu of the time included borsch, beetroot salad, and mash with herring.

During the war millions of Ukrainians, including civilians and POWs were taken the Nazi Germany and other occupied territories for forced labour. These forced labourers had an opportunity to get to know a “foreign” cuisine. A lot has been written about the rutabaga soup which was followed by a cup of ersatzkaffee in concentration camps. Valeria Vitvitska, a fifteen-year-old girl from Kyiv was sent to work at a Bavarian hotel in Bad Neustadt. This is the daily menu for the administrators and the workers:

“For lunch a bowl of weak pureed soup, boiled potatoes for seconds with a small helping of vegetables, occasionally a tiny piece of meat, but most often potatoes with bone gravy To make the gravy the bones were stewed for a week inside an over. The gravy looked more like a carpenter’s glue. It was very difficult to get used to the German cooking, even though you never feel full. Like the German vegetables or das Gemüse, which is shredded boiled cabbage with some flour, salt and a little bit of vegetable oil to make it more palatable, or the stewed sliced rutabaga also with some flour.”11


Dmytro Malachov remembers the American war rations, which his dad sometimes shipped to Kyiv – in the final days of war he was stationed in Moscow at the Peoples Commissariat for Defence:

“Sometimes dad received his officer’s rations – the #4 US rations. Along with other items the package included cans of meat and fish, coffee, cocoa, small cans of jam, mosquito repellent sticks, and water purification tablets. It was good but what we really needed for us to feel full is all the bread we could eat.”12



Our daily bread...

Bread rationing became one of the most important events in the lives of many wartime survivors. From July 1941 till the end of 1947 the bread was available at government-controlled prices only through the system of food rationing, which often resulted in long queues. At the farmer’s market a loaf of rye bread was sold at 100 roubles, which was a third of an average monthly income. In Kyiv the white bread became freely available only at the end of the 1950’s. Almost all of the eye witnesses remember the German “golden” bread – the recipe used millet grain with some added chestnut flour with a sprinkling of millet chaff on top (the millet chaff would sparkle, hence the name). The bread was bitter and fell into crumbles when cut – even a very hungry person found it unappealing. As a result, for many Kyivites the Soviet hold on the city was mostly associated with the return of the “regular” quality bread. 

Most of their time the wartime surviviours spent in queues, either stoically standing in line or pushing and shoving, worried that they are going to leave emptyhanded. Usually, the long and arduous queues were comprised of women and children, this part of the wartime and post-war experience is still waiting to be fully studied.13

The survivours recall a highly sophisticated “system of bread consumption”, which really was a long list of different tricks on how to make the ration last while waiting for the next one. Here’s the story of Olexandra Sinyaeva from Luhansk:

“We were given rations of bread once every four days, we received one kilo of bread for two. We measured the loaf using a string and then folded the string in half. Then we cut the bread in half. At the canteen there was a bread slicing machine with adjustable thickness which we used to make four “thick slices” for lunch, two “slim slices” for tomorrow, and four “super-slim slices” for supper. Then we started bending the rules, like today we have the “slim slice” which was saved for tomorrow, later in the day have the “super-slim” one and so on.14  


Just as many times before here we see that the women are fighting an invisible battle by trying to ration the foodstuffs and make them last. These women had to gather all of their strength and endurance not to keep all of the food for themselves and prevent the hungry children from eating it all at once, they had to make the food last longer and this way save their family from starvation. The women had to be extremely inventive and find ways to cook something palatable from the little that they had when most of the products available were of substandard quality. 


“We are having soup for breakfast, what we are going to have for dinner and for supper – I have no idea yet”  


For the family to have their daily skilly and potatoes, the main bread winner had to be very inventive and industrious to earn the money for food and be able to economise. Even the people in full time employment who were paid their wages in time did not have enough money to feed themselves. Some employees were paid just in ration stamps which they exchanged for bread or bowls of soup. This is how Viktor Hudyakov, a former POW who worked at the city’s housing department, described his life in occupied Kyiv:

“I was at the edge of physical exhaustion and could only earn 200 roubles a month by drafting. On the farmer’s market the peas cost 20-25 occupational roubles per cup. In exchange for the rationing stamps you could get 200 grams of bread twice a week. I was really starving and suffered from full blown dystrophy.”15  


The situation did not change with the arrival of the Red Army. Eugenia Malachova wrote in March 1944:

“Today I received three roubles in wages, large sums were deduced to pay for food and pay back the loans. Was totally crushed. I worked so hard and received only three roubles in wages.”16  


Malachova’s daily budget was at least 60-70 roubles, this sum was enough to feed herself and her two sons. However, she could not let her family starve. To make some money she had to become “inventive and bend her neck”. She would exchange clothes for food in the countryside, sold old things and books at the flea market, sewed clothes, mended shoes, and once even fixed a stove. This work had to be done over the weekend or during the off-work hours. In her letter as of January 11, 1945 Malachova describes the hard work she had to put in to feed her family just for one day:

“Today I left work at 1 pm, and want to the Pidil district again, to the flea market. Spent four hours there and manage to sell something only by the end of the day. Just imagine the state I am in, when there is nothing at home and our dear sons are waiting for me to bring them something to eat. But I did manage to make 160 roubles, I spent 100 roubles to buy 300 grams of salo, and spent the rest on cereal and potatoes. By the time I got home I was absolutely knickered, I just crawled into bed and had no strength for cooking. The boys ate a whole loaf of bread with some salo, I just had a glass of warm water in bed...”17  


The choice of words used by the wartime surviviours reflects the situation of extreme depravation. They never say “went out and bought” or “prepared”, and especially they do not make any references to “cooking the food”. In order to cook a regular meal, the ingredients had to be retrieved, the cook had to be going out hunting or launching an operation to get the food. For a special occasion like a birthday the organisers had to “mobilise and produce something”. The wartime survivours almost never use such words as to “go” and to “casually walk”. In order to make something happen you had to run and to bring something you had to literally drag it or grab it. For example, Galyna Kostenko, in one of my interviewees with her, has casually dropped a phrase:

“Our poor mummy toiled like an ox….”  


The women endured hard physical labour and were subjected to extreme mental stress, but they could not afford to make a mistake or just give up. They had to endure the daily toll of taking care of their children and ailing parents. The seemingly invisible psychological trauma of the past reflected on the following generations of Ukrainian women who grew up believing that also “need to endure”. 



Under the watchful eye of the state 

Sometimes the women had more to offer for sale than their earthly possessions. Under the German occupation some Ukrainian women in Kyiv practiced survival sex. Eugenia Malachova was absolutely appalled by the practice and its consequences, which she described in her 1945 letter:

“We have so many tiny little babies dropped at our orphanage, because the husband is on his way back from the front and the “crime scene” has to be cleaned up.”18  

The women’s behaviour was condemned by both totalitarian systems. In 1942 the Nazi security service in Kyiv has voiced its concerns about the women’s ability to spread STDs:

“Naturally, the women who have lost the support of their partner during the war, would be out looking for another benefactor to replace him, looking for a strong and affluent man. It could most diffidently be a German soldier or a Ukrainian policeman. The woman enters into an intimate relationship with him. The woman is motivated by material reward or money. As a result, the lives are corrupted by the lack of self-restraint. Naturally, such circumstances create most favourable conditions for the spread of venereal disease.”19  


The Soviet authorities believed that the woman who entered into a sexual relationship with the enemy, was unfaithful not just to her partner but to the nation as a whole. She was branded a traitor and given a scarlet letter, even though some women were forced to do it through poverty, because they were seeking safety and had to feed themselves. The woman’s body was not her own – it also belonged to the state. As a result, the woman’s behaviour was branded inappropriate, some women were publicly humiliated and punished. However, the Soviet state was not alone in believing that the sexual behaviour of women somehow reflects on the nation’s dignity, there were other country states who held the same belief, that a woman’s body should remain pure, whatever the cost.20

The Soviet authorities were suspicious of everybody who lived under the German occupation. People in the occupied territories had only one way out – to “die a heroic death”, because surviving the occupation was an “inconvenient” circumstance and a stamp for life.21 Eugenia Malachova sometimes refers in her letters to the feeling guilt she developed and the need to atone for surviving the German occupation together with her children:

“Just recently we had a reporter from Moscow visit our orphanage, he took photos of me reading a letter to a child from the child’s father who was fighting at the front. I have no idea which newspaper is going to publish the material. He was asking our head mistress pointed questions about my behaviour (oh, damn!) but I am so happy, my dear Vasily, that I am as clean as a whistle and no one will ever say anything bad about you.”22  


The women who survived the German occupation have developed their own system of values which justified their actions, similar to the one followed by Eugenia Kostyantynivna. First of all, she remained faithful to her husband – she refused to sell any of his clothes, did not allow herself to have fun, go dancing, or wear colourful clothing (like her red dress which she believed was too extravagant for the times). At the same time, she took good care of her looks, so much so no one could believe that she was a mother to a teenage son, a 16-year-old Georgy.

Secondly, she kept the house clean and tidy, just the way it used to be before the war:

“There was no compromise for me, even though I had nothing I always looked good. My house was always clean, even though we were starving – the hard wood floors were polished and we slept on clean sheets...”23  


And finally, Eugenia Malachova provided emotional support to her family, she kept the family traditions alive, home schooled her boys and organised family parties no matter what. 

“All I did was for the boys, for them to have positive childhood memories and to remember Christmas Eve.”24  


However, she did have her moments of weakness which she openly discussed in a letter to her husband, for which she was immediately reprimanded.

“There were times when I just needed it, and Vira Ivanivna sometimes brought some to work and we had a drink together.”  


This seemingly innocent confession from his mother had some dire consequences, as described by Dmytro Malachov:

“In response to the letter about sharing a drink of vodka, my dad wrote an extensive scathing letter, and mum had to write back explaining herself and trying to convince him that she – God forbid, did not fall into an alcoholic lifestyle!”25  


Hundreds of Ukrainian women continue to nurse the trauma of occupation and keep many secrets, these are the women whose lifestyle did not conform to the official narrative – a heroic woman is always ready to die for her motherland and it does not matter if she has children or ailing parents. For the women who survived the German occupation the whole ordeal has caused extreme mental suffering, but their sacrifice is of little bearing to the many who say with a smirk: “You have never experienced the war”. These women can find silent support only from the community of women who share their experiences. The men who returned from the front expected to (as described by the Soviet propaganda) go back to their old home, somewhat rundown but still in good condition; to return to their old missis, somewhat tired but faithful to her husband; and to rekindle the relationship with their now somewhat grown children. It seemed like while the fighting was going on at the front the family life back home was just put on pause.

Olena Styazhkina studied the lives of women during the Nazi occupation, and she believes that the experience of women under occupation falls in line with other traumatic experiences, like surviving the Holodomor.26 Quite often the interviewees from Kyiv made references to the Great Famine, as they dusted off the old recipes and applied their old survival skills during the German occupation.

Discussions on what people ate during WW2, also shine a light on the survival strategies which helped Ukrainians live through the severe post-war food shortages, and how Ukrainians survived the Brezhnev era supply problems and the so-called “deficit commodities”. Perhaps this will help us better understand the trends in the modern Ukrainian consumer culture, the roots of our national food traditions, and our critical survival strategies. These explain the basic rationale behind every Ukrainian’s need to aways have enough bread at home, why we stock up on sugar and need to have half a pound of salo in the freezer. And why it’s always possible to spot a Ukrainian household overseas by a small potato patch in the back garden. 



1. «...То була неволя». Спогади та листи остарбайтерів / НАН України. Інститут історії України, упор. Т. Пастушенко, М. Шевченко. Київ, 2006. 542 с; «Прошу вас мене не забувати»: усні історії українських остарбайтерів / упор. Г. Грінченко, І. Ястреб, Т. Пастушенко. Харків, 2009. 205 с; Пастушенко Т. Остарбайтери з Київщини: вербування, примусова праця, репатріація (1942–1953). Київ, 2009. 282 с.; Пастушенко Т. «В’їзд репатріантів до Києва заборонено...»: повоєнне життя колишніх остарбайтерів та військовополонених в Україні. Київ, 2011. 164 с. 
2. Київ: війна, влада, суспільство. 1939–1945 рр.: За документами радянських спецслужб та нацистської окупаційної адміністрації / авт. та упоряд.: Т. В. Вронська, Т. В. Заболотна, А. В. Кентій, С. А. Кокін, О. Є. Лисенко, Т. В. Пастушенко. Київ, 2014. 864 с. 
3. «...То була неволя». Спогади та листи остарбайтерів. С. 121.
4. Малаков Д. В. Кияни. Війна. Німці. Київ, 2008. 384 с.
5. Діти війни. Спогади очевидців з України та Німеччини. Київ, 2018. С. 281.
6. Малаков Д. Кияни. Війна. Німці. С. 298.
7. Ibid., p. 278.
8. Ibid., p. 186.
9. Інтерв’ю з Галиною Іванівною Костенко. 17 червня 2020 р., м. Київ. Інтерв’юер Т. Пастушенко.
10. Діти війни. Спогади очевидців з України та Німеччини. С. 326.
11. «...То була неволя». Спогади та листи остарбайтерів. С. 177–176.
12. Малаков Д. Кияни. Війна. Німці. С. 299.
13. Seasoned Socialism: Gender & Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life / ed. Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger, and Irina Glushchenko. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. xix, 373 pp.
14. «...То була неволя». Спогади та листи остарбайтерів. С. 315.
15. Худяков Ф. Ф. Прожитое и пережитое. Киев, 2005. С. 348.
16. Малаков Д. Кияни. Війна. Німці. С. 220.
17. Ibid., p. 288.
18. Ibid., p. 227.
19. Донесення начальника поліції безпеки та СД у Києві про ситуацію в Київському генеральному окрузі від 1 листопада 1942 рр. Київ очима ворога: дослідження, документи, свідчення /  ред. кол.: В. М. Литвин, В. А. Смолій, І. П. Ковальчук, Л. В. Легасова (кер. проекту), О. Є. Лисенко (наук. ред.) та ін.; авт. та упоряд.: Л. В. Легасова, О. Є. Лисенко, І. К. Патриляк та ін. Київ, 2012. С. 312.
20. Кісь О. Жіночі обличчя війни: ключові теми і підходи у західній феміністській історіографії. Жінки Центральної та Східної Європи у Другій світовій війні: гендерна специфіка досвіду в часи екстремального насильства : зб. наук. праць / Г. Грінченко, К. Кобченко, О. Кісь. Київ, 2015. С. 30. URL:
21. Стяжкіна О. Стигма окупації: радянські жінки у самобаченні 1940-х років. Київ, 2019.
22. Малаков Д. Кияни. Війна. Німці. С. 227.
23. Ibid., p. 195.
24. Ibid., p. 196.
25. Ibid., p. 188.
26. Стяжкіна О. Окуповані жінки: жіноче повсякдення у роки Другої світової війни. Українські жінки у горнилі модернізації / під заг. редакцією Оксани Кісь. Харків, 2017. С. 260.



Illustrations by Anna Sarvira 



Project partner:

Фондом імені Гайнріха Бьолля, Бюро Київ - УкраїнаThe item on offer is a second article from a series of articles developed in cooperation with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, Kyiv, Ukraine.