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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Slicing and Dicing Kovbasa: Before Glasnost, Beyond Stabilnist

This storm of consciousness was inspired by the recent post and comments at my friend’s Pawlina’s blog Nash Holos. Pawlina, producer and host of Nash Holos — British Columbia’s longest-running and only bilingual Ukrainian radio program — has discovered an on-again, off-again blog called Cool Kovbasa (Ukr. for sausage). At the sight and smell of the lively gastronomical discussion, the shark in me came alive and decided to spice it up with politics.

Home-made, bucolic kovbasa indeed conjures up mouth-watering images. But not the sort that sells in Ukrainian supermarkets. Very often, that sort of kovbasa is anything but cool.

In Ukraine’s political kitchen, the No. 1 kovbasa, or kolbasa (Rus), connotation is kolbasa po 2.20, a synonym for the Soviet social contract. This refers to the oft-crappy “made in USSR” sausage sold under the brand of Lyubitelskaya or Doktorskaya and priced at 2.20 roubles.

You can think of kolbasa po 2.20 as the “holy grail” of the Soviet way of life. For millions of underprivileged Ukrainians — and most Ukrainians are underprivileged — it stands out vividly as the nostalgic centerpiece of the Brezhnev era.
The appeal of Yanukovych’s stabilnist can be traced to the “consumer paradise” that Brezhnev had ushered in via petrodollars in the mid 70s to early 80s. In those pre-glasnost days, people would spend an hour or two standing in lines, but the system did cover their bare necessities.

Which is not always the case today, now that crony capitalism has prevailed. Today, we no longer have lines the length of the Great China Wall. Still, kovbasa tastes even crappier. It holds a mirror to Ukraine’s crappy capitalism, and its properties nearly encompass the periodic table of elements. That’s the diet you get in an oligarch and obsolete economy riveted to metaldollars.

Every other day, Ukrainians digest reports of yet another kovbasa sweatshop being exposed. Black market meat-processing facilities have mushroomed across the country. A virtual tour of a kovbasa sweatshop will tell you everything you wanted to know about the product, but were afraid to ask.

Here, in the sleaziest of conditions, meat of unknown origin and expiry date is treated with harmful chemicals, mixed with soybean flour, and “bootlegged” for sale to retail outlets. Ironically, aside from often being user-unfriendly, Ukrainian-made kovbasa often sells at EU price points. Better quality kovbasa has occupied a prominent place in local pork-barrel handouts. A remake of Pavlov’s experiment — in the form of a pre-election food loyalty program — triumphed in the Kyiv mayor election of 2006.

Sorry for eating the joy out of kovbasa. I guess kovbasa became some sort of codename that fired up my appetite for writing about the unpleasant side of living in Ukraine. After all, we are what we eat, and, as former Ukrainian president Kravchuk put it, “We have what we have.”


Anonymous said...

very creative!

I agree that grass roots Orange supporters need to speak out en masse to the Nuns party that they will go the way of Moroz if they join the PoR.

I like your reasoning in the above post, as well. Hopefully, BYuT and NuNs will be able to get Lytvyn to lower his bargaining price. This shd be easier to do if the inevitability of their need to work together is made crystal clear so Lytvyn will not have much bargaining power if he wants to be in the ruling coalition.

I also think that the PoR threat not to join the Rada could be dealt with via both carrots, as you implied, and sticks, meaning threaten a very fierce negative campaign to be used against them with gov't funds if they forced another recent election.

I'm hopeful for you all and you in particular!

Taras said...

Thank you, David:)!

I, too, hope we will turn this situation around. Yes, we need to slap some common sense into NUNS before it’s too late. Lytvyn is no saint, but for the Orange coalition to be viable when it comes to routine voting in the Rada, we will need his input.

And, of course, two elections in one year is one too many.

Anonymous said...

So bologna is still bologna when it's translated to Russian? (sorry...) :)

(bologna is cheap American kolbasa and in our slang we use the word bologna when we say something is not true...."That's bologna!)

Pawlina said...

I agree with David, a very creative metaphor here! (And thanks for the plug!)

I've heard from recent visitors to Ukraine that the local food is outstanding, so I'm assuming that traditional, tasty kovbasa can still be found in Ukraine. ;-)

As for the recipe for crappy kovbasa, the west has plenty of those, too. The trick is not to use them!

From where I sit, Orange ideals have been making inroads, and incredible ones, taking into account that just three years ago Ukraine's media was still in a Soviet straightjacket.

Technology (i.e. the internet) has helped enormously in tossing off the totalitarian yoke. But, it is having a tremendous impact on established western democracies, too. Just ask Dubya, Kerry and Rather ... and other politicos and MSM types about the impact of blogs. ;-)

The old soviets and crony capitalists (different sides of the same coin) are scrambling to keep their grip on an old system. It's a system built largely of smoke and mirrors during the Industrial Age. Unfortunately for them, this is now the Technology Age and ordinary folk have the means to clear the smoke and see through to the mirrors.

And speaking of smoke, the smart butchers always take their best kovbasa to market...

Taras said...


As long as fresh meat content — as opposed to soybean flour and other “ingredients” — reaches the neighborhood of 50 percent, it should sell as a premium brand in Ukraine.

I think the Ukrainian term for bologna is kovbasa shynkovana.

Taras said...


If I had a chance to see Ukraine from a mainstream Western point of view, I probably wouldn’t recognize her. The Ukraine we Ukrainians live in can be very different from the Ukraine you Westerners look at, even when you visit Ukraine.

The chasm between perception and reality poses a major challenge in cross-cultural communication. Let me be perfectly candid as I try to overcome it.

As far as I know, a typical travel schedule of a diaspora Ukrainian often lacks the experience of stepping outside the Potemkin village of Kyiv’s downtown eateries and SUV-congested streets. Had your sources walked into the lives of ordinary Ukrainians, their rosy picture of Ukraine would have gone up in flames.

Their disappointment would have shot through the roof, and their gastronomical cocoon would have collapsed. Just imagine living on $8-10K a year. That’s what living in Ukraine is like converted to Western purchasing power. What brand of kovbasa would that income buy me in North America?

In Ukraine, most of the credit for producing quality kovbasa should go to farmers, not to the largely corrupt meat processing industry. Ironically, should a Westerner seek medical assistance in a provincial Ukrainian HMO — the way local farmers do — his or her appetite for kovbasa will be in a coma for weeks.

All is not milk and kovbasa in Ukraine. If you don’t believe me, ask Veronica of Neeka’s Backlog, or Michelle of Greetings from Kyiv.

Or try locating Ukraine on these charts:,,contentMDK:20924549~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:328533,00.html

Ukraine has certainly outpaced Myanmar on the democracy track. As much as I want Myanmar to break new ground, in my democracy benchmarking I still look forward to pairing Ukraine with more advanced democracies.

Of course, Internet access improves a country’s wellbeing. But this positive externality does not automatically import Western democracy and living standards. Despite spectacular growth, Ukraine’s internet audience remains rather shallow. Internet World Stats estimates the number of Ukrainian internet users at 5 million, while listing as many as 22 million Canadian users.

That was Step 1. Step 2, of course, would be to compare Ukraine’s population of 46 million with Canada’s 32 million. Step 3 would be to do some comparison shopping on price and quality, which, I’m sure, would be in your favor.

I once heard that optimism is a desirable distortion of reality. The trick is, I guess, to keep said distortion in proportion, right;)? I tried to do just that, using the benefits of the Information Age.

After all, friendly communication involves bridging the gap between perception and reality, doesn’t it;)?