“Don’t they have way more important things to worry about?” This was the response of one of my friends when I mentioned that borscht had become a point of tension between Russia and Ukraine.
Here’s the context: in July 2022, UNESCO, the UN agency that works to preserve cultural sites and practices around the world, recognized the Ukrainian tradition of cooking borscht (beet and cabbage soup) as an endangered cultural heritage. Despite UNESCO’s emphasis that this recognition “did not imply exclusivity, nor ownership, of the heritage concerned,” conflict arose immediately. Ukraine’s Culture Minister reacted by saying “The victory in the war for borscht is ours!” Russia, which claims the soup as its own national dish, was displeased. A spokesperson from the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “Our borscht doesn’t need to be defended,” and that Kyiv thinks that “everything is subject to Ukrainization.” The international press gleefully covered this development with pun-filled titles like “The Beet Goes On.”
After years of war between Russia and Ukraine, millions of people displaced, fears of a nuclear catastrophe, and alleged war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian citizens, the uproar over borscht does seem small in comparison. But as ridiculous as it seems, the borscht debate points to the crux of what this long-running war is about: national identity.
Identity in Ukraine
Let me start by saying I could write a whole book about Ukraine and its complicated relationship with Russia. It was a major focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies. But before our bowl of borscht gets cold, I’ll keep it as basic as possible for today.
A massive part of the Russo-Ukrainian War is that Russia is invalidating Ukraine’s right to exist, to identify and to act as an entity separate from Russia. Russia sees Ukraine as an extension of itself and believes it should act accordingly. This war began in 2014 essentially over whether Ukraine had the right to pursue its foreign policy independently from Russia’s desires, and the battle rages on to this day.
Identity in Ukraine has been complicated and conflicted for centuries, because Russia and Ukraine are deeply intertwined, both historically and culturally. Modern Russia traces its origins to the Kievan Rus, making Ukraine Russia’s birthplace in its leaders’ eyes. Ukraine was a critical part of first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union. Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine, and many families to this day have members scattered across both countries.
However, it cannot be denied that the depth of influence of Russia and its culture on Ukraine partially results from its systematic campaigns of repression and violence towards Ukraine’s peoples, culture, and political autonomy. The most chilling example of this is the Holodomor, in which Stalin responded to peasant rebellions and dissatisfaction with Soviet policies in Ukraine by inflicting a man-made famine on the country in the early 1930s. Estimates vary on how many Ukrainians starved to death in just the year 1932-33, but the most detailed studies conclude it was nearly 4 million. During the same time, the Soviet government persecuted and imprisoned Ukraine’s political, cultural, and religious leaders and repressed the use of the Ukrainian language. One can see how the modern Russo-Ukrainian War feels like a new Holodomor, another attempt to smother Ukraine’s independence and individuality through brutal force.
With this background, it becomes clear that, to the Ukrainian people, this war is about the survival and respect of their identity. To that end, the Ukrainian government has been highlighting the distinctness of Ukraine’s culture in a multitude of ways since 2014. Language has become politicized in Ukraine, with the government pushing the use of Ukrainian instead of Russian. Statues of Ukrainian nationalist figures (with dubious pasts) have been built, and authors traditionally thought of as Soviet have been reclaimed as Ukrainian. Borscht is yet another front in the high-stakes war for Ukrainian identity.
Identity in America
Although the war over identity in Ukraine may feel far away, a similar battle is taking place in America surrounding questions of appropriation and minority cultures. There are a million examples I could point to, but a recent experience really brought it home for me.
I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, this week. It was an intense experience to say the least. The lowest level traces the history of African Americans in the United States, which is in many ways a story of brutal attempts to silence black people, to deny them their rights and accomplishments, and to erase them from all but the most subservient places in society. The upper floors showcase so many aspects of black culture, activism, and achievements.
The whole time I was there, it felt like the walls were crying out, “We matter! This history, this culture, this identity as African American, they matter!” And the whole time, a part of me felt guilty for never applying my righteous indignation over the treatment of Ukraine to that of people in my own country, whom I live by and work with every day.
It reminded me why things like making Juneteenth a national holiday, establishing Black History and Hispanic Heritage Month, and discussing the origins of the blues and rock and roll are important. It’s about respect. It’s about recognizing the many identities that contribute to the America we live in today. If we deny them their unique history, the recognition of their distinct accomplishments, we deny their right to exist, the way the Russian government has denied Ukraine’s right to exist.
A Christian Viewpoint
During the process of writing this blog, one verse kept repeating in my mind: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV). To me, this verse has always embodied the fact that we are all equal in God’s eyes, and so we should treat and love each other as equals, as God does. But what I’m beginning to realize is that recognizing and respecting the way others’ experiences and identities are different from mine is a major part of treating them as valued individuals and loving them as God intends.
So, when you see weird clickbait titles about borscht or discuss how Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day should be acknowledged, I encourage you to remember that these seemingly insignificant things are symbols and openings for discussion on how different identity groups are treated in society.
And as you engage in those debates, keep in mind that respecting the different identities others hold is a part of loving them as God calls us to.