More than four months after Russian tanks rolled into their country, Ukraine has proclaimed a victory of sorts – albeit one steeped in beetroot and backed by Unesco.
On Friday the UN cultural body said it had added the culture of Ukrainian borscht-making to its list of intangible culture heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.
“Whether as part of a wedding meal, the focus of food-related competitions or as a driver of tourism, borscht is considered part of the fabric of Ukrainian society, cultural heritage, identity and tradition,” Unesco said in a statement.
It was careful to describe Ukrainian borscht as a national take on a dish consumed in several countries of the region.
Even so, the decision to add Ukrainian borscht to a list that includes Neapolitan pizza-slinging and Georgian winemaking was swiftly slammed by Moscow, with the foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accusing Kyiv of trying to appropriate the soup for one nationality. “This is xenophobia,” she said.
She later added on Telegram: “To give the world a culinary example of ‘modern Kyiv nationalism’, I will cite a fact: hummus and pilaf are recognized as national dishes of several nations … But, as I understand, everything is subject to Ukrainisation .”
The simmering battle over borscht burst into public view in 2019 when the Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko – vexed by the many restaurants around the world that refer to borscht as Russian soup – launched a campaign to have Unesco recognize Ukraine’s deep links to the dish.
“I don’t really like to call it a war for borscht, but in fact that’s what it is,” Klopotenko told AFP in 2020.
As Klopotenko and others began gathering hundreds of pages of evidence to press their claim, Russia bristled. “Borscht is a national food of many countries, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Moldova and Lithuania,” Russia’s embassy in the US posted on Twitter.
In announcing its decision on Friday, Unesco sought to strike a balance between those jostling for borscht bragging rights. “Borscht cooking is also practiced in communities in the broader region,” it said, adding that the UN body’s designation “does not imply exclusivity, nor ownership, of the heritage concerned”.
The UN body said it had fast-tracked the application as it became apparent that the displacement being caused by the war was “threatening the viability” of the Ukrainian tradition.
“People are unable not only to cook or grow local vegetables for borscht, but also to come together to practice the element, which undermines the social and cultural wellbeing of communities,” the committee noted in their decision.
Unesco, however, did note that their decision to recognize the tradition as endangered could help mobilize attention and rally international cooperation to safeguard it – meaning Ukrainian borscht could now have a leg up on other countries’ takes on the dish.
News of the designation was hailed by the Ukrainian government. “Victory in the borscht war is ours,” Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said on Telegram.
He added: “Be sure that in both the war for borscht and in this war, we will win.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism