Unesco declares borscht to be a part of Ukrainian food culture that is particularly worthy of protection. Kyiv celebrates, Moscow is outraged. In a war, even cabbage soup becomes a political issue.

Is the borscht Ukrainian or Russian? Actually, one could consider the question rather irrelevant these days.

Far from it: With its decision to put the Ukrainian way of preparing beetroot soup on the list of cultural heritage to be protected worldwide, the UN cultural organization Unesco triggered euphoria in the war-torn country. “The victory in the borscht war is ours!” said the Minister of Culture Olexander Tkachenko. Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dschaparowa was pleased: “The Ukrainian borscht has been de-Russian.”

The United Nations agency based in Paris deliberately chose a cautious formulation. In her justification, she spoke of the “national version of borscht, which is eaten in several countries in the region”. Borscht is also very popular and widespread in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. In view of the Russian war of aggression on the neighboring country, the aim here is to protect an “essential part of Ukrainian family and community life”, according to UNESCO.

Old dictionaries were used

The “soup war” is much older than the real war, even if it has been going on since the end of February. As early as May 2019, an entry on Russia’s official Twitter account sparked a storm of indignation in Ukraine. It said: “Borsch is one of the most famous and popular dishes in Russia and a symbol of traditional cuisine.” Furthermore, the word borscht comes from the Russian word for hogweed, which was once used as a soup base in medieval Rus’.

On social networks like Twitter and Facebook, Ukrainians accused Moscow of wanting to appropriate the traditional soup made of beetroot, cabbage, potatoes, pork, dill and sour cream after the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014. Old dictionaries were also used. The Russian counterpart to borscht is the cabbage soup Shtschi, according to the Ukrainian side. And anyway, the Russians have no idea how a borscht is properly prepared.

Once it had become a political issue, the Ministry of Culture in Kyiv also took on the matter. In October 2020, the «borscht preparation culture» was included in the national list of intangible cultural heritage. The State Department also got involved. French gastronomic guide Michelin had to apologize to the Ukrainian embassy in Paris for attributing the dish to Russian cuisine.

Then, in March last year, Ukraine applied to have its borscht inscribed on the World Heritage List. According to media reports, this should not have been decided until next year. Things like that usually take a little longer at Unesco. But after Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade, Kyiv was granted a quicker examination.

It’s about cultural heritage

The controversy over the cabbage soup may seem out of place at first glance given the thousands of dead, cities destroyed and the immense suffering the war has brought to Ukraine. But sometimes there is a deeper symbolism hidden in what is supposedly unimportant – this is also the case with borscht: critics repeatedly accuse Russia of brazenly appropriating the cultural heritage of other former Soviet republics.

In addition, Ukrainian culture – like many other areas of life – is threatened by war. According to UNESCO, the displacement of millions of people caused by the war means that many are no longer able to cook or grow vegetables for borscht. However, the inability to gather together to cook undermines the social and cultural well-being of a community.

As great as the joy in Ukraine is, the outrage in Russia is just as great. “What’s next? Recognition of pork as a “Ukrainian national product”?” scoffed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. The diplomat had previously caused a stir by suggesting that the war also broke out because Ukrainians didn’t want to share the borscht. Now she referred to records from the 16th century, according to which borsch was said to have been a dish of Russian residents of Kiev. The UNESCO decision is a confirmation of Ukrainian “xenophobia, Nazism, extremism in all forms”.

Unesco, however, has made it clear that the classification of Ukrainian borscht as a cultural heritage to be protected means “neither exclusivity nor ownership of the heritage in question”. In other words, people can continue to feel culturally connected to the soup elsewhere too. At least Zakharova seems to have lost her appetite for beetroot for the moment. On Sunday she appeared on the Telegram news service with new food: strawberries. “My harvest,” she wrote in a video that shows three minutes of sucking on a berry and finally biting off a piece of it.