The article was developed and published in the framework of special project titled «Experience of war. Food and culinary practices in Ukraine» with support from the Mykola Klid Memorial Endowment Fund / Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies



What can the memes tell us? What about the memes about food? How come critical situations produce so many jokes? Since when did food become the butt of the joke? And how does food make or break stereotypes? How does food help us process our personal experience of war? The answers to these questions are in our article on food-related humour in the Russo-Ukrainian war.


We have been taught early on that the national folklore is mostly about Christmas carols, epic sagas, and fairy tales. However, researchers go beyond that and cover such things like chain letters, gossip, graffiti, formal salutations and greetings, interpretation of dreams, and such superstitions like avoiding looking in the mirror on the way out or taking out rubbish after the sun set. 


How come all of it is folklore and what do memes have to do with it? 

Because this is our way of expressing our principles, traditions, behaviours, beliefs, and knowledge about who we are and the world around us. Before, for the most part information was transmitted orally within small populations of people but the modern technologies have significantly widened the scope and added more means of expression.


Now any spontaneous text filled with information and emotion which is aimed at our close circle of people is considered folklore. Memes are perhaps the best example of that.  


The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his text The Selfish Gene, 1976. The philosopher draws parallels between memes which are the building blocks of culture and biological genes. Both of these basic components are subject to natural selection, mutation, and evolution. Dawkins believes that memes copy themselves in order to multiply. Success depends on the carriers’ will to disseminate the memes, environmental challenges, and the memes’ relevance.

As the Internet became more available, Dawkins’ books grew in popularity, especially within the community of digital and visual anthropologists. Digital anthropology studies human behaviour online, and visual anthropology focuses on how people represent themselves and read off the information about the world through the visual forms. It includes anything from memes and ads to museum exhibitions and the way we serve food. Today we are going to discuss how memes about foods help process the experience of war. 


Humour and the new reality of war 

Following Russia’s full scale military invasion, Ukrainians felt an acute need to mark and express a sense of personal identity at all levels. Ukrainian culture is no longer stereotyped as rudimentary, old values and knowledge are challenged, there is an overwhelming need to identify with your own history and be more acutely aware of the history of the other nations. Ukrainian society needs to develop a sense of personal identify and revise the past. And often humour helps. 

In almost every case such messages are created and spread horizontally, e.g., I will tell my girlfriend, she will share the message with a neighbour, the neighbour will share with her husband, he will pass it on to his friend and so on. Social networks and messengers are a great aid. However, some messages can be created and spread by the authorities from the above. They are referred to as agitation messages. It could be done, for example, to shift attention away from some topics or to calm the population. Usually, it’s done through spreading urban legends and gossips, but jokes are also used occasionally. 

Some of the memes, which we are going to review in this article could have been developed by a PR agency upon request. However, if a meme generated enough interest with (resonated well?) a particular group of people, it means that all of the pre-conditions for it to go viral already were in place. 


Most importantly, the memes reflect the general consensus on the issue and the attitudes towards it.  


In the times of crisis humour and satire help survive a difficult situation and vent our feelings. Researchers typically record a spike in humour during natural disasters, military conflict, epidemics, and other emergencies. In Ukraine jokes about the Chornobyl disaster, swine flu epidemic, COVID, the war and so on, immediately go viral. 

In this sense humour helps identify trends linked to our reaction to stress and the ways we try to adopt to the new normal.


A brief history of the Ukrainian culture of humour 

In the folk culture laughing means living. The dead don’t laugh. In the fairy tale as the hero enters the thrice ten kingdom he is banned from sleeping, eating, and laughing. Laugh and you will blow your cover - reveal that you are alive because people in the underworld never laugh. Moreover, in the history of Ukrainian culture humour sometimes played a decisive role. 

The traditional culture of humour is carnivalesque, when everything goes topsy turvy and the lower tiers of the social hierarchy are purposefully raised to a higher level in a playful manner. 

Ukrainians have a long culture of humour and in the 17th and 18th centuries it developed further within communities of travelling parsons. These included students from academies and collegiums who also were talented poets and actors. They travelled across Ukrainian cities and townships. The traveling parsons earned their living by entertaining the masses: they recited poems, sang songs, and re-enacted scenes from the Bible and real life in a way that is relatable and easy to understand for the common folk.  

Ukrainian culture of humour stretches from the folk mystery plays and shameful folklore, wondering seminarians, Kotlyarevsky’s Eneida, all the way to the satirical sketches by Stepan Rudansky and Ostap Vyshnya’s short satirical stories, Soviet-published The Pepper satirical magazine together with Mykyta, the Fox, a satirical publication popular with the Ukrainian emigre community, the 1960s Club of the Funny and Inventive TV show and finally to the modern-day stand-up comedy. This long and rich history of humour has helped Ukrainians survive the new challenges and adapt to the new way of life.   


On how memes have become part of our life

With the launch of the full-scale military invasion laughter has become absolutely vital.

Laughing it off even in the face of danger has become the new normal, this is the way fear is existentially revised.


If you can laugh about something, it is no longer scary.  


Humour helps us comprehend emergency situations, adapt more quickly, and survive. Humour also gives the power to fight back. 

Russians occupy your city but you suggest they fill their pockets with sunflower seeds so their death is not completely in vain. Russian invaders evict you from your home and you leave with a note: “Which food has been poisoned? Just take a guess”. You should be concerned about a possible nuclear strike but instead you are choosing what to wear or not to wear to a sex orgy on the Schekavytsya Hill.

Today we are going to explore the role of food in jokes about the war and how the jokes help rally people, provide support, protection, help demarcate borders, and articulate ideas which go beyond words. 

Let’s start with the rallying and demarcating function.

Memes and jokes provide immediate access to shared experiences and help identify with your own kind. Such key words like «palyanytsya»*1, «bavovna»*2 and «Schekavytsya»*3 immediately make known that the person you are communicating with shares your beliefs and values. This is a loyalty test and a test for support. 


Palyanytsya means a round bread usually made with wheat flour. In the Russian phonetics, the “ts” sound is always hard, so a non-native speaker of the Ukrainian language will always pronounce the word with an accent. Ukraine’s population is mostly bilingual, and it also includes people who prefer to use Russian in their everyday life. A special code system based on the word palyanytsya was developed to identify the native Russian speakers and distinguish them from the Russian speaking Ukrainians. Because for the first group of people the task is impossible and the second does it with ease. Memes on how the Russians struggle to pronounce this word correctly went absolutely viral in the first weeks of the large-scale invasion.


Russia is actively promoting its newspeak, when the more emotive words which precisely define the event are replaced with less emotive terms, e.g., special military operation instead of war, liberation instead of occupation, and explosions are called thumps. In the Russian language the word thump (khlopok in Russian) is homonymous with the word cotton. And now the Ukrainian translation of the Russian word for cotton (bavovna in Ukrainian) is used to refer to explosions in Russia, e.g., “someone has smuggled a bunch of cotton wool into Russia” or “the cotton fields of Belgorod are now in bloom”.  


Schekavytsya is a hill located in the heart of Kyiv. Following the most extensive scaremongering campaign about a possible nuclear strike which was in autumn 2022, a joke about having an orgy on the Schekavytsya hill immediately went viral in Ukraine. Ukrainians also created a Telegram channel which was used for communication and hook ups, a kind of apocalyptic dating service.  


Gastronomic markers are often used to identify social and national communities. Linguistically they become linked to symbols. Usually, such terms reflect traditional and stereotypical beliefs about what makes the others stand out. Some of the most immediate examples would include such pejorative gastro-ethnic slur like frog-eaters*4, salo-eaters*5, pasta-munchers*6 and so on. 


In reference to the Frenchman's love of the frog as food.  


In reference to the Ukrainians’ partiality to salo.  


In reference to the Italians who eat a lot of pasta.  


Such terms reflect your need to alienate yourself from the other group and draw a line between friend and foe. And language is not the only means to do that. The need demarcate is present in everything – from the military uniform to the work of volunteers and daily activities at the front. The following contrasting comparisons are most typical – Ukrainian soldiers are dressed in contemporary military uniform, and Ukrainian volunteer movement helps obtain the most advanced military gear vs Russians who wear ineffective body armour and WW2 combat helmets; our soldiers equip their trench shelters at the front with heating stoves for more comfort vs Russians who pile rubbish inside their trenches and use them for going to the toilet; Ukrainians are ready to give a shirt off their back to purchase a military satellite vs Russians who struggle to collect donations for bottled water and hand out CDs with the Russian rogue songs. Such contrasting comparisons help us maintain trust in the Ukrainian people and endure in the times of trouble. And the memes help us do exactly that.


Gastro-ethnic terms and what do minced meat, deruny, and shashlik have to do with it

When we become frustrated, when we are scared, the simplest reaction to a difficult situation is to laugh it off. It’s a natural psychological reaction to extreme stress and the humour becomes darker as we move closer in time of the event.


Black humour helps us survive difficult situations when the experience is too painful to put it into words.  


We solve difficult situations through such jokes and find unexpected solutions. When you laugh, you are no longer scared.

Curiously, Ukrainians have failed to produce any names for Russians which would be associated with the Russian signature dishes. Instead, since the full-scale invasion Ukrainians have been calling Russians minced meat, cannon fodder, fertilizer, and so on. It reflects variations on the subject of cannon fodder and the extreme military losses suffered by Russia when the dead bodies of Russian fallen soldiers are often left to rot on the battlefield.

* The number of “good Russians” greatly outweighs the whole of the Belarusian army.
As of Aug, 21st the Russian losses in Ukraine have reached 45,200 compared to the whole of the Belarusian army which totals 45,000 active duty soldiers as of 2021, according to the IISS statistics. 

* Just an ordinary Russian father trying to stitch his son back together after he was back from the “military operation in Ukraine”

* Here’s how Ukrainians minced meat before the war
Here’s how Ukrainians make minced meat now during the war

Situations which under other circumstances would have been considered appalling (they are indeed considered as such by the people who did not go through a similar experience) at the times of war become the butt of the joke. Memes on the subject of meat develop into jokes about obese street animals. The punch line is the following: the Russian losses are so vast, that the stray animals cannot even process that much food.

The jokes have emerged as a result of real-life situations at the front. Russians leave their fallen soldiers on the battlefield; they shell zoos and animal farms in an attempt to create a humanitarian and environmental disaster. In order to accept this, we make jokes. Ukraine has a lot of memes with animals which allegorically avenge the enemy.

* Bloody hell, I am so full I cannot even move
Get up! The Ukrainian army got us some fried Russians!
Well, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do

* Ukrainian soldiers after they liberated Kherson

Grilled meat, namely the shashlik, became a popular symbol of Ukraine’s victory over the Russians and Ukraine’s activities aimed at disrupting Russian military efforts. The memes often feature President Zelenskyy. And Commander-In-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny is typically portrayed looking over a cauldron, which in Ukrainian sounds the same as “military trap”.

Russia has actively engaged neighbouring Belarus in the war on Ukraine. Russians first launched their offensive on the Kyiv and Chernihiv province which happened on the 24th of February from the Belarusian territory. As a result, Belarusians have become the butt of many food jokes, every time fuelled by the new rumours about the new offensive. Most Ukrainian memes reveal a pervasive stereotype that potato is the most popular ingredient in the Belarusian cuisine. As a result, Belarusians are referred to as bulbashy*7, deruny*8, and potato troops, whereas the Belarusian President Lukashenko is sometimes called The Pührer.


Bul’ba means potato in Belarusian. It’s a common belief, that the Belarusian cuisine uses a lot of potatoes. Hence the term bulbashi.  


Grated potato fritters which are fried in a pan.  


There are many memes which make references to the kitchen utensils used to process potatoes as a figurative means of taking care of the Belarusian troops if they enter the Ukrainian territory, e.g., graters, vegetable peelers, potato mashes, and so on.

* Our western allies have supplied Ukraine with precision weapons amid a possible onslaught by Belarus.

* C’mon, get ready to slice the Belapissers?

A nation is replaced by food – potato dishes and their consumption are used as a simile for wiping out the Belarusian army:

* - What’s the location?
- Volyn (the north-western part of Ukraine).
Within 15 minutes following military action from the Ukrainian army.

The jokes aim to objectify the enemy, belittle them, and make fun of the invaders – this way they become less terrifying. Laughing at the enemy is a way to control anxiety.

Some memes utilise such ethnic-based terminology like salo-eaters, a word some Russians use to refer to Ukrainians, but now the word has a totally different meaning:

* First you call Ukrainians salo-eaters, and then a pig is munching on your dead body somewhere in an open field. Karma is a bitch!

Also, there are natural questions about the feeding practices of Ukrainian pigs. As a result, the jokes still have enough respect for the animals because they help fight the enemy by devouring them, but they also point out that eating salo produces a feeling of unease and discomfort.

* Nowadays eating salo is not that safe anymore. God knows, what that pig was munching on. 

The memes reflect homeopathic beliefs that if something was in contact with an entity, the entity could be affected through that item and vice versa – the item could be used to control its owner.

Following the liberation of Kherson similar jokes are now made about the Dnipro fish and crayfish. And again, the jokes reflect the atrocious nature of the war which we need to process to survive its horror.

Gastro-ethnic terms typically reflect stereotypes about foreign cuisine, and produce such terms like bulblashi, salo-eaters, and pasta-munchers but sometimes they are used as stand ins for real-life situations and result in Russians being called minced meat and cannon fodder


What do schi or cabbage soup in cumbersome jars can tell us 

Ukrainians clearly distinguish between friend and foe through the Russian attitudes towards food. When the Ukrainian military pushed the Russian invaders out of the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy provinces, many were shocked to find out the content the military ration packs which were left behind by retreating Russians. Ukrainians were particularly stunned by the cumbersome glass jars with traditional Russian soup, marinated onion, and other food stuffs. Any Ukrainian would tell you that it’s not the right way to make preserves. But the large quantities of supplies seem to support the fact that Russia was actively preparing to invade.

There are a lot of memes which reflect the Russians’ unhealthy attitude towards alcohol and their inability to make decent food. For example, retreating Russians left behind huge amounts of empty alcohol bottles. In the Kyiv region there was anecdotal evidence that some Russian soldiers mistook a bottle of olive oil for a fancy alcoholic drink. As the military retreated photos from the Russian held positions with boiled coffee beans in a pot immediately went viral: 

* The reason why Lavazza has exited the Russian market.

* I have a suggestion – let’s place trucks full of Russian vodka along the frontline to distract the Orcs (i.e., Russians). Trust me, it’s gonna be more effective in slowing them down than laying out a mine field.

* The Russian horde encountered its first bottle of olive oil in Ukraine. This is a real-life photo from a Ukrainian home ravaged by Russian Orcs.

To a Ukrainian the food cooked at the Russian field kitchens is strange and absolutely inedible. But still, it is used for a good cause. Unboxing videos of Ukrainian and Russian military rations have become a hit on the social media. Captured enemy rations often sell for quite decent prices and the money is used to fund charitable projects inside Ukraine. 

Pictures from the Russian trenches filled with rubbish, inedible food, houses looted by Russians on a mass scale, and even their inability to make decent coffee, all of it helps Ukrainians to develop a sense of personal identity, and say: we are different, we don’t do that, we know better. This is done also in response to the Russian colonial policy which it forcefully promoted for many years in Ukraine. Now an average Ukrainian understands that the term “elder brother”*9 which Russians use to refer to themselves as compared to the other nations in the region is in fact a misleading concept devoid of any meaning. Such realisation gives strength and power to move on. 


By the 18th century most of the Ukrainian territories had been colonised by the Russian Empire under the auspices of a state supported policy of the three brotherly nations. The policy refers to Russians as elder brothers compared to Ukrainians and Belarusians who were conceptualised as the younger nations. As a result, the Russian propaganda always portrayed Russians as more politically shrewd, more prosperous, and wiser, always ready to lend a hand to their “younger brothers”. It’s sad and ironic, when you come to realise that in fact the root cause of all problems lies with the Russians themselves.  


What Ukrainian food can do

Memes help track our reactions to the current challenges through food. 

Within several days following the large-scale invasion when Ukrainians evacuated in mass there was a spike in memes about fridges. Food as the subject of jokes is no longer inanimate but has a life of its own. It is endowed with human-like qualities: it can talk, make life changing decisions like opening a bank account and launching its own missiles at Russia.

* A secret US biolab in Ukraine 
Leave your borshch in the fridge for a couple of days for a more bold flavour. But leave it in the fridge for 22 days and it becomes a biohazard banned by multiple international agencies.
The store-bought bananas are now an alien life-form. Level of danger for humans – to be determined.

* I go back to Kyiv and my buckwheat porridge has applied for a Kyiv city municipal ID programme

* When you open the fridge upon your return home.

* My advice to anyone who came back home after eight weeks away – knock before opening your fridge.

* Ukrainian bioweapons

The memes went viral not just because they reflected the emotions and feelings of those who were hurriedly forced to leave their homes and had to use humour among other things to process the new reality and live through the shared trauma. It was a sarcastic reaction to the Russian propaganda, too.

At the time the Russian media were churning out news reports about Ukraine and the development of bioweapons. Ukrainians used memes to illustrate the power of Ukrainian food. And in the memes Ukrainian food can do a whole much more than just apply for a Kyiv city municipal ID programme. 





Food as resistance

In the times of war food was used to mount resistance and it became one of the key markers. 

Within the first few days of full-scale invasion anecdotal evidence about turnovers with laxatives and detailed recipes with precise measures and ingredients used to neutralise the Russians went viral. 

* Detailed instructions on how to poison Russian soldiers with an extract of the datura plant.

* “To the liberators”

* Guess which food is poisoned. Glory to Ukraine!

* - Baba Halia, do you copy, over! Baba Halia is loud and clear, over! 
- There is a threat of repeat attack on the Sumy region.
- On it . Baking pastries right away. 

Such anecdotal evidence reflects real-life cases when Russian soldiers looted larders, burgled homes, seized or stole food from civilians. And there are also memes which reflect these terrifying experiences.

Apart from direct resistance when the food is poisoned, there is also indirect resistance when a woman shot down an enemy drone with a jar of preserves, a traditional Ukrainian winter food. By the way, let’s make it clear: the jar contained pickled tomatoes, and not pickles.

* Ukraine pickled drone battalion 

* Good evening, we’re from Ukraine

At the time of war food becomes a means of resistance, food is weaponised, it is used to neutralise the enemy:

* Melitopol cherry

* Headshot! The ear of wheat takes aim and ends the Russian soldier’s game.

* Melitopol 

* Watermelon (Kherson)

* To Russia

The following memes tell a story of our localised identities. To the Russians the local geography is totally unfamiliar, and the invaders’ mental map does not include such elements like tomatoes from Kherson, Melitopol cherries, and peaches from Mykolayiv. From the many intercepted phone calls between the invaders, we hear that often Russians struggle to correctly pronounce the local geographical names. But in Ukrainians these names trigger stable and clear associations, albeit sometimes quite superficial but every Ukrainian has them. For all Ukrainians across the country – be it in the north of Ukraine, in its capital Kyiv or in the Podillya province, Melitopol is where the cherries grow, and we are waiting to buy them every high season. Melitopol enjoys a reputation for a specific type of cherry and the Ukrainian memes have immediately picked up on that. 


A helping of fritters instead of a thousand words 

For the Russians Ukrainian food is deadly, but in respect to the Ukrainian army it helps express genuine gratitude

Since the start of the war the women delivered hot dinners to the military checkpoints, sometimes even risking their lives under the enemy shelling. Restaurants provided free food to the volunteers and locals. Volunteer kitchens continue to provide food for the military even today.

Social media is filled with dozens of videos from the liberated regions of Ukraine where the soldiers are greeted with food. They are invited to join a family dinner and offered cakes, fritters, and fruit. The Balaklia fritters absolutely carry the day! The video was made by Serhiy Filimonov immediately following the city’s liberation from the Russians on Sep 8th, 2022. 

* All you need to know about the UKRAINIAN NATION.
They stayed six months under occupation with a limited food supply, but the first thing they said to our boys entering the city was “We have some leftover fritters, want some?”
Our nation is invincible
thanks to the Ukrainian army
The Balaklia city is back home

* The feed is full of images of fritters – well, all of you know why.Funny, the day before I planned a different breakfast but as I woke up and opened my fridge, I noticed a bottle of kefir. So, I made some fritters. Fritters indeed! This is the collective fritter-based unconscious at work. But really, it shows how the news resonated across the wider society. Sadly, the fritters were gone before I could take any pics))

The city has not yet been cleared from the enemy forces but a group of Ukrainian women was so happy to see the national army, they offered the only food they had – it was fritters which they cooked on the street over an open fire. Natalia Kryvulia was extensively interviewed by the leading media outlets; the viewers were especially interested in her fritters recipe. For the following several days the whole country cooked fritters as a sign of solidarity with the liberated Kharkiv province.

The Ukrainian soldiers streamed a video from the Kherson region where they are warmly greeted by the locals and offered borshch with cabbage stew. 

There is no better way to show that you care than to share food, especially when you have no water, no electricity, no gas, and often very little food. Ukrainians already know what it’s like to live through an engineered famine. As a result, when we express your gratitude by offering food, we are subconsciously processing the trauma we have inherited from the previous generations.


“And some more for my beetroot patch” and the Ukrainian sacred space

In the way we handle food or stock up on food we plan for the future and create stability. Here’s a popular Ukrainian joke to illustrate:

Once a Frenchman, an American, and a Ukrainian were told that they can own as much land as they are able to ride across on horseback. A Frenchman rode for one mile, dismounted from his horse and said: “This is it. Here I will build my cottage, a flower garden will be over here and here I will plant the vineyard”. An American rode for three miles, dismounted and said: “This is it. Here I will build a villa. Over there I will have a lawn. And across here I will build a helipad. And way over there I will have a golf course”. A Ukrainian got on his horse and rode on. He spurs his horse forward… and runs the horse to the ground. Still, he continues to run on foot! He keeps on running…. Trips and falls. He realises that he is absolutely exhausted and has no strength to go on, so he takes off his hat, throws it in front of him, exclaiming: “And some more for my beetroot patch”. 

To an outside observer this joke seems to be more about the insatiable greed and the Ukrainian desire to control all of the available resources. But inside of Ukraine the plot is interpreted differently, so the joke lives on and is not considered offensive. The plot does not describe a senseless land grab, instead it’s more about someone who knows exactly how to use the land recourses effectively. From horseback a Ukrainian already has a plan on how to utilise the available land resource most efficiently. 

The joke is injected with new meaning during the Russo-Ukrainian war when Ukrainians used every available plot of land to grow food, and repurposed their balconies to sow seedlings and ensure a good harvest no matter what. So, the punch line in the meme below is absolutely true – Ukraine is the land of veg plots. 

* When the war is over, we are going to plant beetroots on this plot of land.

For Ukrainians a vegetable patch is an important part of life, and the jokes use it as a symbol of invincibility, determination, and sometimes even present it as something sacred. This is the only place where a Ukrainian genuflects:

* The Russian social networks are pushing forward the idea that “after these destructive strikes Ukrainians are going to crawl back to us on their knees.”
Remember, you fuckers, a Ukrainian falls to their knees only to pick potatoes. 

A vegetable patch is a space where every Ukrainian firmly stands his ground:

* If they saw how Ukrainians fight for the veg patch border, they wouldn’t have invaded.

There is an abundance of memes where working the land is seen as a typical Ukrainian activity and as something absolutely vital. And it’s true, Ukrainians do have a developed culture of tending to vegetable gardens and plots of land and they don’t do it for fun but to stay self-sufficient. Retirees and the rural population often need to employ additional economic means of supporting themselves and as a result they make food preserves and grow their own crops. Many urban residents own plots of land outside the city limits or have older family relations in the rural area. Often the city dwellers are as actively involved in growing their crops as their rural counterparts. It does not always have to be for food but just to help out. With the start of the war growing your own food became vitally important as a means of taking back control. Ukrainians have the practical know-how and know exactly what it takes to bring food from the field to the plate.

Curiously, the first wave of refugees to return to Ukraine from overseas coincided with the planting season. Here’s a case from the Zhytomyr region:

“She evacuated with her young daughters to the Czech Republic. It unfolded in the spring. Her mum kept on nagging her over the phone, saying that she should return, cos the other folks in the village are already ploughing the land and planting the crops. So, she should come back and plant the veg because what the neighbours are gonna say. Sure, many went back to plant the veg, because the veg is king”. (From an interview between the author and a female respondent (born ca 1989); the Holovyno village in the Chernyakhivsky district.)

In the memes even the Kharkiv offensive coincides with end to all agricultural activities, so with this out of the way now it’s possible to go back to fighting to the bitter end, capturing enemy soldiers, and planning a new offensive. 

* They trampled on the newly ploughed soil

*Regular spring - Quarantine 
Nuclear threat - End of the world

* A standard scene detected now by the enemy UAVs

* - Well, my good man, how come our army waited so long to go on an offensive?
- They were busy picking potatoes!

* The Zaporizhzhia farmers sow the crops in bulletproof vests…. They work in tandem with the sappers who clear the routs and defuse the mines… This is the story of Ukraine’s 2022 Steely Harvest…

As the Russians continue their attacks on the Ukrainian agriculture and try to destroy the harvest, the Ukrainians come to realise the real cost of working the land. Now there are examples of humour which portray the farmers as heroes and pay due respect to their heroic effort in harvesting the crops.

The social media and media outlets extensively report on how Ukrainian tractors are ploughing the fields together with military equipment which is used for protection and how the farmers urgently harvest the crops from a burning field set ablaze as a result of Russian shelling. There was a number of reports about tractors hitting land mines laid by Russian soldiers. Sometimes with lethal consequences. And the folklore breeds metaphors of the Bloody Crops and Steely Harvest and so on. The old trauma caused by the Holodomor comes back to haunt us, we immediately start to relive the ongoing Soviet food shortages, the wars waged on our territory, and the economic downfall of the 1990s. As a result, many Ukrainians actively stock up for the winter, even if they did not do it before. It empowers the community, helps relieve emotional pressure, and take back control.


Food demarcates territories

The jokes are not limited to the beetroots which mark Ukrainian territories. Demarcating territories has become one of the most important phenomena in contemporary culture. It works by association when place names are linked to the types of food, e.g., the city of Lyman sounds like lemon; Izium’s name derives from the Turkish kuru üzüm, which means sultana raisins and similar words are found in both Ukrainian and Russian languages ; or to a local signature product, e.g., the city of Melitopol is associated with cherries, the Kherson province with tomatoes and watermelons, the city of Bakhmut with salt and sparkling wine, and the Mykolaiv region with the Sandora brand juice.

* The text on the packaging was doctored to spell bil’ (біль) instead of sil’ (сіль), which in translation means pain instead of salt.  It alludes to the pain Ukrainians feel towards Bakhmut, a city famous for some of the oldest salt mines in Ukraine, which  now bears the brunt of military escalations and Russian offensives. Also, the package design is instantly recognisable by millions of Ukrainians. It was developed many years ago and remained almost unchanged for generations.

* A psychologist: There is no harm in juice.
A packet of juice: the date of manufacture is February 24,th 2022.

* - Valera, go to la bodega and get some üzüm.
- Advance towards Balakliya and capture Izium. Got ya!
(The play on words between la bodega and Balakliya is more pronounced in Ukrainian, where the word for grocery store is bakalia, which is very similar to Balakliya, and Izium means sultana raisins in both Russian and Ukrainian, though in Ukrainian the word is used less commonly.)

The Ukrainian opinion makers often play off these food associations. When a subtle message needs to be sent to the public about what is going on at the front, a coded system is used. During a news marathon on Ukrainian TV some of the participants appeared live on air enjoying a slice of watermelon and later posted relevant emojis to announce the Ukrainian military advance in the Kherson region, just to mention a couple of case examples.  

Also, some locations are re-discovered and now are gaining a new reputation. For example, a terror attack on Ukrainian POWs who were held in a penitentiary located in the Olenivka township also brought on reports about the local bread production company.

The liberation of the Kherson city together with the right bank of the river Dnipro in the Kherson region has turned a watermelon into a symbol of the liberated south and the victorious march of the Ukrainian military forces.

On November 11th, 2022 in a show of support many Ukrainian commercial companies incorporated a watermelon into their logo:

Those who could find a watermelon or had one stashed away used it to celebrate the liberation of Kherson. 

* With Kherson under our control, we can finish off the last watermelon.

* Totally worth the wait. Instead of a toast for Kherson.

The Ukrainian Post launched a new stamp dedicated to the liberation of Kherson. And a watermelon is the most striking image in its design.

For now, it’s one of the strongest associations between food and a territory which perhaps is going to stay with us for many years to come. 


On how food helps overcome the colonial past

Ukraine’s information war on the Russian propaganda and misinformation campaigns is no less fascinating. 


The many memes produced in Ukraine which make fun of the Russian propaganda often times help negate the Russian narrative behind it, and make the world see the Ukrainian side of the story.  


Ukrainians are now revising their colonial past and taking back their own. The Soviet colonial policy was both blatant and subtle, as Olena Stiazhkina writes, it was pervasive and came under “a disguise of the multi-ethnic approach”. It also included brand names of food stores, hotels, eateries, and more. Almost every city in Ukraine had a Moscow hotel, a Russia food store, a First of May cinema, and a Leningrad café. Before the war the colonial terminology attached to the local hotspots did not seem to trigger any accute reactions, but now Ukrainians are trying to wipe off any remnants of their imperial past. 

Ukrainians are fighting their colonial past with food and carving a new place in contemporary history. Some food brands decided to rebrand. Dairy dessert snacks trademarked as Mashenka, which is diminutive for Maria, a popular Slavic name as it is pronounced by the Russian speakers, are rebranded into Mariyka, a more Ukrainian sounding name with a picture of a young girl in a pink bucket hat similar to the one worn by the Kalush band lead singer Oleh Psiuk. The Moscow sausage produced by the Yatran company is rebranded into the Kyiv sausage. The Globyno company – another large meat producer is conducting a survey on how to rebrand the Russian cheese and Moscow sausage. The products associated with the Russian culture are becoming less popular. So, it’s not at all surprising that the commercial companies are seeking more appropriate names for their products. 

Food is vitally important in producing a first-hand reaction to what is happening with the war. It becomes more obvious when reading the menus of newly launched food places which extensively exploit the military theme:

* Sushi “B.Johnson” / Sushi "Javelin"
Sushi "Starlink" / Sushi "Neptune" (So named after the Neptune anti-ship missile which was used to sink the Russian flagship Moskva in the Black Sea)
(All includes a 10 hryvnya donation to the Ukrainian army)

* The Jolie Combo

* The Boris Johnsoniuk pastry

* Shawarma place - the slogan reads: Keep calm: shawarma is hot, Russians are not. The menu also includes: Bayraktar with chicken, Javelin with veal, and “The Ghost of Kyiv” panini.


And finally 

Sometimes the food can tell us more about the places, times, and circumstances, it can do much more than can be put into words. Gastronomic humour is shaping the new reality and creating the new context in respect to defining who we are and how we came to be here. We are making jokes because we don’t want to be scared, we want to feel part of the group, and just to have some fun. We are critically looking back at our past and creating the new future ahead, where we certainly will carve a place for ourselves and surround ourselves with the things we want. It helps to endure, band together, and wait for every Ukrainian territory to be liberated: from the Kherson region with its watermelons, the Melitopol city and its cherries, and Berdyansk famous for its gobies, all the way to Donetsk and its signature Minier’s cake, across the cabbage fields of the Luhansk province, and to the Crimea with its signature wine and çibereks.




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50. (“Saved by the potato” by Yuri Shapoval, 2022)
68. Photo provided by the author