ELISABETH BAUER & YELIZAVETA LANDENBERGER MONDAY KITCHEN: THE VARENYKY KITCHEN AS A SAFE SPACE
It was as a counterweight to the ‘hardest day of the week’ that the initiative Monday Kitchen emerged, we learn from founding member Vladik. It is precisely the culturally, symbolically charged and political-activist character of the varenyky preparation that brings together Ukrainians who have fled the war and their supporters: at changing locations, with varying varenyky fillings.
During the past winter Monday Kitchen was a guest at the bright gallery rooms of Between Bridges Foundation, where Ukrainian varenyky activism and the solidarity Berlin art scene formed a temporary unity.
Varenyky Monday Kitchen in Berlin
Monday in Berlin, an icy, wintry workday: after a long break, the varenyky collective Monday Kitchen has once again invited people to cook and eat varenyky and to spend time together via their Telegram channel and Instagram stories. “This Monday we have not only varenyky, dear friends,” the organizers announced in a message posted December 12, 2022. “We have also invited Maria Vladymyrova, a military analyst, to join us. We will talk about the situation on the front line and also answer questions such as, ‘Why is Germany still not giving tanks to Ukraine?’”
The militarily charged message closes on a culinary, personal note: “Are we having varenyky and borscht? Last time I really would have liked to have some croutons, with garlic or something.”
In the brightly lit kitchen about a dozen young people, mostly dressed in black, stand around a white gallery table, its smooth surface covered with a white-flour film. On this evening, Monday Kitchen takes place for the first time in a gallery space with the resonant name Between Bridges in Berlin-Kreuzberg, which will make its premises available to ‘those affected by the russian war of aggression against Ukraine and their allies’ for three months. The aim is to create a kind of ‘temporary solidarity community center’—and to become part of the existing support structure in Berlin. This symbiosis of Between Bridges and Monday Kitchen seems very organic, since many of the members of the varenyky collective are themselves active in creative contexts.
With their eyes lowered and filled with concentration, their hands form palm-sized moons with braided-like margins from fine white dough. What is it all about, the art of forming varenyky? The evening is carried out in their name—but are the organizers of Monday Kitchen more concerned with the politics and symbolic appeal behind the Ukrainian dish?
The Art and Politics of Forming Varenyky
Misha (22) calmly instructs the guests, as some of them are joining Monday Kitchen for the first time. At first, small knolls of the potato-mushroom filling are to be placed on punched out paper-thin circles of dough. Then, they are closed, the corners turned in to create the characteristic half-moon shape, the insides tightly sealed in wavy ‘stitching’ with delicate fingertip movements. “This is important, otherwise they’ll come loose in the boiling water,” Misha says.
Misha is from Mariupol, just like Vladik (28)—together with Mitya Churikov (37) from Kyiv, they form the core team of Monday Kitchen. Vladik is also known as a tattoo artist under his pseudonym Inter Vladik, Mitya is actually a filmmaker, and Misha used to write beats for the russian battle rap scene, including major YouTube projects. Later, he started working with clay. “Life in a place where almost half the population works in factories has never seemed happy and fulfilling to me. That’s why, when I was still in high school, I tried to enrich it with art,” he says.
Later, away from flour, pots, and dough, he talks about his former life in Mariupol, which took a tragic course with the russian invasion on February 24, 2022. When the rap battles stopped because of the pandemic, he, like his father, started working as a welder at Azovstal—the steelworks that tragically became world famous when they turned into the last bastion for Ukrainian civilians and soldiers during the russian capture of Mariupol. There is always a hint of irony when Misha speaks—even when he talks quite calmly about his traumatizing experience of fleeing.
The war caught us asleep; we woke up to the sirens. Having already been in a similar situation back in 2014, we didn’t really take it too seriously, and soon we found ourselves in a situation where we had to make fires outside to cook, risking our lives every time we went searching for drinking water. We spent the nights wrapped in jackets in the hallway, living each day knowing that it could be our last. It went on like this for a month, then, when the rockets hit our house for the first time, we packed up a few things at lightning speed and ran in the direction where supposedly there was a russian block post. There, the russian soldiers checked our papers and tattoos and we were let through, together with hundreds of people we waited outside to be carted to russia. But this was not so easy, because every ‘liberated’ person is forced to go through the so-called ‘filtration’. So my friends and I were sent on a bus to a camp in the ‘Donetsk People's Republic’, and from there to another camp. They took our fingerprints, took photos, did a very thorough phone check, conducted a verbal and written questioning ‘about the current situation’. Whoever said the right things was allowed into russia, whoever didn’t—well, it’s terrible to even imagine what would happen to you. At the border with russia, I was interrogated even more harshly. I continued on my own and got on a train for refugees to Ryazan, because I had acquaintances there. The food had been meager and terrible the whole time, and on the train we had instant noodles and canned meat, which made me feel sick. After 20 hours of travel, we were met by journalists with cameras—they reported how we had been ‘rescued’ and would now be taken to dwellings prepared especially for us: a new camp, this time a sports complex. I spent a few days there, in the dining room there was a giant TV. I could see reports about the ‘liberation’ of Mariupol and the ‘fakes of Bucha’—it was a surreal feeling. Eventually, I was able to leave for Berlin via Estonia and I understood: ‘I am safe’. The fear of the unknown—never having been to Europe, not knowing the language—is incomparable to the incessant fear of death I had experienced during the months before. Then, in Berlin, I met Vladik and that’s how I became part of Monday Kitchen. Since the very first meeting I have been in love with the project. I always have a good time with good people and can’t wait for the next Monday meeting—to feel like I’m ‘on my plate’ again. Now my sister and her boyfriend are also in Germany, the war had separated us. I dragged them to Monday Kitchen right away, of course.
Safe Space and Charity Initiative: ‘Monday Kitchen is varenyky socialization’
“The Monday Kitchen project began at the moment when the panic eased. It was the second month of the russian invasion”, Vladik recounts. “There was this idea we had to meet up for dinner, to share experiences. We found a suitable place and wanted to meet explicitly on Mondays, to counterbalance the ‘hardest day of the week’, so to speak—that’s how Monday Kitchen was born.” New people joined all the time, everyone cooked something of their own; people got to know each other, exchanged experiences. “Monday Kitchen became a kind of safe space.”
Via Instagram, the collective now reaches a broad predominantly (but not exclusively) Ukrainian community, for whom the kitchen turned into a place of community and solidarity—a place where Ukrainian culture can be cultivated in involuntary exile and cooking can be celebrated as a symbolic act of political debate in a protected setting.
As part of the varenyky events, donations are being collected, in the cold season for generators, for example. “We try to help however we can,” says Vladik, who had only moved to Kyiv from Mariupol in 2021, working as a cook at a restaurant chain to pay his rent. While this was hard, underpaid work, he learned how gastronomy workflows function—and can now draw on that knowledge for Monday Kitchen. When asked what this project means to him, he replies, “Monday Kitchen, that’s varenyky socialization.”
The Monday Kitchen project never seems to stand still. It is in a dynamic process. New aspects are constantly being added: for example, the plan to create a video archive in the future with the members’ personal (escape) stories. Telling their story, listening, discussing, showing solidarity within the collective and with Ukrainians in general—that is the social ‘filling’ of the varenyky kitchen.
Varenyky Folklore in Digital and Physical Space
Varenyky, the Ukrainian version of dumplings (present in many cultures with different shapes and fillings, and which can be stuffed with sauerkraut, potatoes and mushrooms, cheese, meat, but also sweet fillings, for example, with cherries), have a tradition that goes back a long way: folklore indicates that they are associated with pagan customs from pre-Christian times, when the first farmers settled in the lands of what is now Ukraine and began to cultivate a wide variety of grains.
According to Ukrainian customs, varenyky have symbolic, mythological, and even protective significance. In Ukrainian online forums, as well as in culinary and cultural magazines of the Ukrainian diaspora, various effects are attributed to varenyky: they are seen as a special talisman, as a symbol of well-being, as a ‘medicine’ for pregnant women. The rounded shape of the varenyky resembles the shape of the moon, according to the page ‘Authentic Ukraine’, the kneading of the dough is associated with the universe, and the filling symbolizes the ‘continuation of the genus.’
When asked what varenyky—and Monday Kitchen in general—mean to him, Misha, who currently lives with his sister and her boyfriend in a small town in Schleswig-Holstein, says: “No matter how hard I try, I can’t put it into words. The least I can say is: this is my second life.”
He proudly presents a sheet of freshly formed varenyky moons before completing the final step in the process. Herbs and spices, such as parsley stalks and bay leaves, are already floating in the boiling water in the stainless steel pot: The recipe their collective uses comes from Vladik’s grandmother, it has merely been tweaked a little, Misha reveals, while he carefully, but with a sure hand, releases the varenyky into the simmering water.
Criticism and Geopolitics: On the ‘Democratic Value’ of Ukrainian Varenyky
At a long table set up diagonally in the exhibition space, the varenyky lovers, one after the other, take their seats, plates of steaming dumpling moons in front of them. Next to the varenyky something like herb curd is served: “Vegan,” Vladik points out with a smile. Joining them for the first time are Anne (32) from South Korea and her best friend Oleksiy (34). Anne explains that she found out about Monday Kitchen via Instagram and suggested Oleksiy to go together.
“Not only do they create a sense of home and familiarity for many who have been directly affected by the war, but they also welcome outsiders like me—and share that warmth,” Anne finds. Oleksiy shares how he came to Germany in 2014, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of the russian war in the Donbas. “I really liked the idea: Cooking varenyky like when I was a child with my mother and then having a discussion about political issues,” says Oleksiy, who works as an IT specialist in Berlin. “For me, it was important to support this event, as, among other things, they raise money for a generator and for the Ukrainian army.”
This Monday, a critical comment reaches the varenyky collective via Instagram, which they immediately make public: “It’s great that you send us medicines and generators and stuff like that, but honestly, it doesn’t matter if you get killed by a russian drone sleeping under a warm blanket,” filmmaker Sashko Protyah writes under a new Monday Kitchen post. Vladik knows Protyah, who fled from one trouble spot to the next—Zaporizhzhya—from Mariupol times.
“Ukrainian varenyky contain far more democratic values than all this European human rights activism blablabla,’ Protyah says. “My current neighborhood was just attacked by russians, probably by drones. We definitely need more air defense weapons: just for survival, to save our lives.” After some reflection, supposedly, he adds: “Of course, it is a message to all German people, not to volunteers from Monday Kitchen—we really appreciate your support.”
One thing is certain: Varenyky are not merely a national dish. In concentrated form, Ukrainian folklore and cultural heritage are stored in them, being passed on from one generation to the next. It can also be transferred to other countries and spaces, as it is currently the case in wartime. The iconic dumpling moons become carriers of Ukrainian culture in exile—and metaphors of political self-determination.
This text was written in late December 2022 in German, a shortened version was published at Ukraine verstehen. The Monday Kitchen collective is still very active, meetings are held on a regular basis and the concept keeps changing, while the varenyky remain as a symbolic core.
Varenyky activists in action: An (analog) photo documentation of the Monday Kitchen event on December 12, 2022. Photos: Elisabeth Bauer.
Yelizaveta Landenberger (*1994) is a research assistant in the Department of East Slavic Literatures and Cultures at the Humboldt University in Berlin and also works as a freelance translator and journalist. Among other things, she is interested in Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union, disinformation, culture(s) of remembrance and (pop) cultures from contemporary Eastern Europe. In 2021 she received a translation fellowship from the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA, and she has worked as a translator for various art projects, most recently translating a major exhibition of Ukrainian art for Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Her articles have appeared in German-language media such as taz, dekoder, and Philosophie Magazin.
Elisabeth Bauer (*1994) studies Slavic Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin and has a bachelor's degree in art and visual history. She is a student assistant in the Department for East Slavic Literatures and Cultures at the Humboldt University in Berlin and an editor of the trans-university literary journal novinki. Throughout her studies with research visits to Kyiv, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, she aimed to combine academic and journalistic approaches, focussing on topics such as complex diverging historical narratives in Babi Yar (Kyiv) and ideologically charged memory politics imprinted in urban spaces (Moscow). Since 2013 she has been working as a freelance journalist, publishing on cultural, political or memory-political topics in media such as taz, WELT, ZEIT ONLINE, Philosophie Magazin, Theater der Zeit, Various Artists, and Ukraine verstehen.