I made borscht on day two of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I don’t know why. Maybe because I have my mama’s recipe. Maybe it helps me cope. Maybe it’s the simple tasks: cutting carrots, peeling beets, chopping cabbage, washing potatoes.
I know that the best borscht I ever had was of my mama’s making. And the second-best was the one we ate in Ukraine when, more than 20 years ago, my mom and I traveled to the Czech Republic from our home in Kazakhstan, through Russia and Ukraine by train and bus, spending almost a week on the road. I still remember it, that Ukrainian borscht: it was that good.
My mama knows how to make her borscht just right. And she always makes a point of saying how simple it is.
There is no simplicity in the human tragedy now unfolding in Ukraine. In my head, I keep putting a puzzle together, from one phone call to the next, from WhatsApp texts and YouTube videos to updates on Telegram, TikTok and Instagram and Facebook. It all seems so familiar. Along with the real-life war, there are the less visible battles of information wars in the post-Soviet space.
The old advice about storytelling says to write a story about what you most fear. I fear telling a story about how information wars are splitting my family, how I am afraid of losing the people closest to me to Putin’s propaganda.
I keep mom’s borscht recipe handwritten in a notebook with a sticker that says, “Going home!” I hear her voice in my head: “Beets release most color when you squeeze a bit of lemon on them.” It is a soup that both Russians and Ukrainians claim as their own.
“You’ve got to know your beets. Before buying, make sure they are of the right kind of red. Scratch them a bit and you’ll know.”
You don’t have to scratch long to find post-Soviet realities. I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I stayed and built my own family after coming to the United States to study, and where there are big Russian and Ukrainian diasporas. Most of my family is in Kazakhstan, including my mom; some are in Russia; we have further family connections in Ukraine. I love them all. But it’s hard to talk about love in times of war.
Like a lot of people, I am heartbroken over the terror unleashed on Ukraine. I see it all on the news: mothers and children, elderly people hunkered down in subways, ruined homes and fearful faces.
I also hear stories I do not see in the news. For my aunt in Donetsk, this war is the war of liberation. She tells me they lived in a state of constant battle for eight years and shares gory stories about atrocities, about an entire generation of kids being raised knowing nothing but war, about the mined recreation areas and how people got blown up on those mines and how her couch shakes every time there is another bombardment by “these Nazis,” by which she means the Ukrainian military. She tells me about anti-Jewish leaflets and aggression. “It’s not the news you probably get,” she says. She calls Putin “the man of peace.” She tells me all they want in Donetsk is autonomy and the Russian language. She says she realizes “it’s probably not comfortable” for me to hear it, but she blames America “for splitting us up,” saying they zombified the people.
I wonder if she thinks I have been zombified by America, too. Her daughter is in Kyiv now, and two granddaughters are in Lviv, in western Ukraine. She tells me she cries over their safety but she does not elaborate. I hear from other family members that their relationships are strained. They are against Putin.
I text back and forth with my friend. She is a mom and lives in a NATO country in eastern Europe. She is talking about making room for a family of refugees in their house. She tells me she feels like she needs to stop watching the news but she cannot stop watching the news. I feel that too. She shares with me what Vaclav Havel said about Russia: “For centuries, there seems to be a problem with Russia; it can’t figure out where it begins and where it ends.”
For many years, in my grandma’s presence, we couldn’t say anything bad about Stalin. “He destroyed Nazis and won the war.” Saying negative things was the same as insulting your family: everyone had a loved one who died in the Second World War.
That’s why “denazification” is such a powerful rallying cry for Putin. It doesn’t matter that Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. It’s bigger than Zelensky. Fascists are those who have lost their humanity in Russian eyes. Calling someone a Nazi is dehumanization.
It’s hard to understand it when you haven’t had the war fought on your land. While American grandmas raised their kids with Itsy Bitsy Spiders and gospel songs, my grandma taught me songs of war, about Katyusha rockets and dying for your country, a country that no longer even existed. We sang about dying for the USSR in independent Kazakhstan.
My friend and I speculate that for Putin this is a war of manhood. He wants to be in history books with Stalin and Lenin. If America gets to gallivant across the world with their weapons, why can’t he?
My sister in Kazakhstan asks me if I really think Putin would use nuclear weapons. He wouldn’t mention his nuclear weapons repeatedly if they were off the table. He seems set on erasing Ukraine.
Every country in the former Soviet influence is scared now. If Putin extends his sphere of influence over Ukraine, which country will be next?
On my mom’s TV set in Kazakhstan, there is no invasion or war. Instead, the Russian news she watches claims Putin is only targeting military operations in Ukraine, while civilians are welcoming to Russian troops. But in the US, we hear civilian deaths are increasing day by day, missiles are destroying civilian buildings and people’s homes, and over one million refugees have fled Ukraine already. Dead Russian soldiers have their own hashtag, hundreds of them, young victims, perished on the altar of Putin’s insatiable need for power.
Mom has her tricks for making borscht delicious. “Be sure to add a tablespoon of sugar when it boils. It neutralizes the acid.” I follow her recipe but have to make some compromises. I cannot find the right kind of tomatoes, I don’t put bay leaves or dill, and I am used to American carrots not being as sweet. They say carrots and tomatoes that grow on copper-rich soil of Central Asia are the sweetest.
I also make compromises when I am talking to my mom about the war. I don’t argue. I mostly listen. We sigh and hold the silence when we talk about the pain, fear, women, kids and broken hearts of war. I hold back a lot. And she knows, even over the phone. She says: “I can hear it. Your tears are so close. What’s going on?”
I am looking for the right words but nothing comes to mind. On the other end of the line, the Soviet person remains. I try to focus: I am talking to my mom.
I find solace in conversations with my nephew in Kazakhstan. He is a father of two. He watches local and Russian news but also TV Rain, which recently decided to temporarily halt airing due to a new Russian law that seeks to quash negative portrayals of its invasion of Ukraine. My cousin also follows independent journalists on YouTube. He tells me he has to navigate difficult conversations every day, at work, among family members. He’s proud he can argue many sides. We discuss how the images and feel-good stories are manipulated. Images that go viral in the west get flipped and presented differently in that other manufactured reality — and then go viral there, in a totally different way.
“I don’t trust anything,” he tells me. My heart skips a beat but then I wonder if that’s how it should be. Independent thinking and owning your mind seems hard work these days. Who has time for that?
I find time to make borscht.
It reminds me of Ukraine; it reminds me of Russia. Mamas there must make delicious borscht, too, maybe these days while listening to news of denazification.
It reminds me of home, where we’d gather at our family table in Kazakhstan, smacking our lips and slurping borscht up. I didn’t have to be careful with my words, or hold back the tears.