Editor’s Note: Oleksandra Gaidai is Head of Academic Programmes at the Ukrainian Institute. She is also a history lecturer at Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Kristina Hook is a Ukraine-Russia specialist and Assistant Professor of Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University’s School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development. She is a former Fulbright scholar to Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
After long days working in offices dotting Kyiv’s downtown, a small group of women head to their kitchens. Their evening job is just beginning.
Before the night is over, platters of meatballs, fish, traditional salads, cabbage rolls, homemade apple cakes and poppy seed pastries will overflow from countertops.
As Christmas approaches, seasonal treats like “kutia,” a sweet wheat-based porridge, will appear – one of the 12 dishes traditionally found on every Ukrainian table.
But these nightly banquets are part of a special mission. They are being lovingly prepared for wounded soldiers in Kyiv’s military hospitals.
As Russia’s continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities prevents relatives from visiting wounded loved ones, homemade meals from strangers are weaving new surrogate family ties.
This will be Ukraine’s first Christmas since Russia’s full-on invasion in February. And in those intervening months, Moscow has weaponized food against Ukrainians, reviving a dark historical tradition that goes back at least a century.
‘Death by hunger’
The targets, across Ukraine, have been many. Citizens have been shot while waiting in breadlines in Chernihiv. A water truck was struck in Mariupol. And farms have been looted and destroyed in Kherson.
Russian forces have used spoiled food to punish resisters, and prisoners of war have returned from Russian captivity malnourished. Vast amounts of grain and equipment have been stolen. Russian landmines will disrupt Ukrainian agriculture for years.
It’s an old playbook for a new era. Stamped in the collective memory of Ukraine’s long struggle for independence from Moscow is oppression through food, including stories once thought to belong only to the darkest pages of 20th-century European history.
Over this period, Ukrainians faced food shortages for a variety of reasons – poor harvests, Soviet planning incompetence and the devastation of both World Wars.
The Ukrainian Holodomor – “death by hunger” – went a step further. The Holodomor was a genocidal famine orchestrated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1932 and 1933, a vengeful response to Ukrainian resistance to state collectivization of farmland.
In less than two years, at least 4 million people in Ukraine perished. Deepening their trauma, survivors were harshly punished for speaking about these events or commemorating their murdered relatives.
A lesson in resistance
This November, the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor took on fresh resonance. World leaders, including US President Joe Biden and European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, paid tribute to its victims – and reaffirmed their commitment to Ukrainians staring down Russian aggression today.
Since Russia initiated armed conflict against Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainians have often invoked the Holodomor to explain the existential threat posed to their sovereignty.
The memory of the Holodomor both soured generational attitudes of Ukrainians toward the Soviet system and shaped cultural ideas of the sanctity of food. Today, Holodomor memories are also helping Ukrainians to survive harsh wartime conditions and fight back against a new Kremlin aggressor.
While especially common in Ukrainian villages, even city dwellers are prone to stockpile cereals, oils and sugar. Many family recipes also exist for preserving and fermenting vegetables, fruits and potatoes.
Small family homesteads for homegrown food, called “dachas,” are a well-known feature of modern Ukrainian life. Many are lovingly improved over the generations with personal family touches – all of which adds to the devastation of seeing Ukrainian villages razed by Russian forces.
Cultural ideas surrounding the sanctity of food have also led to encyclopedic knowledge of food preservation. As former President Viktor Yushchenko told co-author Kristina Hook, his grandmother would preserve excess bread crusts, storing them in the attic.
It’s telling that in CNN footage from one recently liberated Kherson town, a Ukrainian woman presented the journalist with a can of fermented watermelon, explaining how it saved her family. It was all the food they had for weeks. Elsewhere, liberated Ukrainians are seen rushing to present their soldiers with food to show their gratitude.
Breaking bread together
Under Russian occupation and in heavily shelled areas, the daily quest for food and water monopolizes Ukrainians’ thoughts and schedules.
Reflecting on civilians killed by shelling when they ventured outside to cook, one Ukrainian resident said, “Every time, you risk your lives to be able to eat something.” Another said, “The morning began with the fact that it was necessary to go and ‘hunt’ for some [basic] food… we held out 40 days.”
With its long tradition as an agricultural economy, social rhythms connected to farming life have also helped Ukrainians to endure this fear and isolation.
Here, sharing food is not just crucial to physical survival, but for psychological stamina. Relaying how women share flour and bake bread together, one Kherson woman reflected, “Only supporting each other gives strength to survive the occupation.”
These stories echo Holodomor-era memories, where families who helped each other stay alive through the artificial famine formed generational bonds.
Digging in for the long haul
For many Ukrainians living under occupation these days, food also became a form of resistance after they refused to accept Russian humanitarian aid.
Even in dire straits, these citizens took greater risks by venturing out under shelling to plant primitive gardens inside apartment blocks. While living without water, electricity, medical care and communication, they still refused Russian-provided food.
Such events evoke the famed “women’s riots” of the Holodomor era, when female villagers leveraged gender stereotypes to fiercely protest collectivization under escalating Stalinist totalitarianism.
Still, despite the historical memories that foster Ukrainian endurance, the global community must confront the reality that these dark pages of history are again unfolding.
Stalin’s terrible crimes during the Holodomor illustrate how quickly civilian populations can be ravaged by murderous dictators, with millions perishing in just over 18 months.
As Russia works to deprive Ukrainians of not only food and water – but also heating and electricity – during the harsh winter ahead, a new term has emerged. “Kholodomor”, or “killing by cold,” has tragically entered everyday Ukrainian speech.
Ukrainians understand that this holiday season will be different. To conserve remaining electricity reserves, holiday lights are forbidden and winter festivals canceled. Children’s letters to Santa now request armor for their soldiers, and rolling blackouts disrupt the preparation of many favorite holiday dishes.
Yet the food on the Ukrainian holiday table – and the decades of oppression, survival and resistance it reflects – endures, preserving Ukraine’s unique culinary heritage.
Ukrainians will find a way to maintain as much normalcy as possible. After all, volunteers have been freeze-drying and shipping their UNESCO-recognized borscht, or beet soup, to the eastern front since Russia first invaded in 2014.
There must be a global effort to ensure a very different Christmas in Ukraine next year.