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.”