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The Cost of Bread in Times of War

The war made Ukrainians whose towns and cities were besieged or occupied by Russians view bread, a seemingly trivial product, in a new light. UNIAN visited several communities in Chernihiv Oblast and found out how people provided themselves and the defenders with bread and who had to give their lives for it.

By Iryna Synelnyk

Bread has traditionally been an essential part of the daily diet of Ukrainians. Some people enjoy it so much that they eat it with almost all the dishes. Some, on the contrary, eat it sparingly to stay in shape. While in times of peace, money determines the price of bread, several tens of hryvnias do not encourage much thinking about the everyday meaning of this product. You get it whenever you feel like eating bread. And when you’re out of it, you can always get a new loaf nearby.

Instead, in wartime, the cost of bread is estimated by hours in line for it or days without it. In times of war, bread comes at a terrible price. It cost the lives of those who could not deliver the bread to the community, or those who waited in line but were gunned down by enemies before they could get a loaf.

Those unfortunate Ukrainians under siege or occupation now appreciate the bread much more.

“A Military Target”: Artillery Striking a Bread Line

Lives and health were the cost of bread to those Chernihiv residents who stood in line for it in the regional center on March 16.

Artillery shelling by Russian troops on the outskirts of Chernihiv resulted in mass murder. People lined up for bread at a makeshift kiosk. At around 10:00 Russian army carried out a heavy artillery strike. It killed 14 civilians and injured dozens more.

Among others, a 67-year-old US Minnesota citizen died from the attack. According to residents of Chernihiv, the man cared for his friend in the hospital. He was bringing whatever food he could find in the besieged city to people in the hospital ward. On that fateful day, the women in the ward pleaded with the American not to go anywhere, but he was set on going out to get some bread.

Meanwhile, in Russia, they tried to make this tragedy, like many others, look “ambiguous.” The official representative of the Ministry of Defense of Russia, Major General Igor Konashenkov, stated that “videos of civilians who died in Chernihiv, who Russian servicemen allegedly shot, were distributed on all propaganda resources of the Kyiv regime.”

“I want to emphasize that there were no Russian servicemen in Chernihiv,” he said.

However, the Russian army besieged the city for a month and subjected it to daily shelling and airstrikes.

As residents of Chernihiv slowly go back to leading an everyday life after the retreat of the Russian occupiers, they continue to share their stories about the price of bread in a war on social networks.

Thus, Lyubov Potapenko admitted that round white bread would always smell like war for her.

“I didn’t get a round white bread smelling of war and the city’s siege today. The heavenly dispatcher took pity on me, so he sent an oval-shaped loaf. And two kilos of legumes – chickpeas and peas,” she said after receiving humanitarian aid.

In the comments to that post, another woman, Nadiya Tymoshenko, shared that for her, “wartime bread is a loaf brought to her by her recent acquaintance under fire” – at that time, people shared the last piece with strangers.

The woman also told how, one day, one of her neighbors appeared on her doorstep: “We know your husband has diabetes; we have dried rye bread for him.”

Or another situation, when she found two loaves of bread in the house and took the second one to her friend’s father; the man was hiding from bombings in the same cellar where he once hid “from the Germans.” However, he was only three years old then.

“Bread in times of war means a five-minute mesmerized stare at a bread stand, for the first time without a line next to it but with plenty of fresh bread in the window,” said a woman from Chernihiv, who survived the siege.

“At-risk” Bread Trucks: Ruscists Shot at Cars Bringing Bread to the City

In times of war, bread comes at a cost to human lives. An incident with men from the Ichnya community is a testimony to that statement. 38-year-old Mykola Omelchenko and his bride’s father, Serhiy Bondarenko, went to Pryluky on February 28, according to Mykola’s sister Oksana Omelchenko. They went together to be safe. Even though there were already many Russian soldiers in the vicinity, no one thought that the trip for bread would be the last for the men.

Having loaded the truck with bread at the Pryluky bread factory, they could not return the same day due to the curfew.

“The next day, at 8 AM, my brother called to tell me they were departing. I couldn’t reach him after that,” says Ms Oksana.

Two dead men were found next to a shelled minibus on March 1, at the entrance to the village of Olshana. Marauders had already looted the truck. Nearby, another shelled car stood, facing the opposite direction. The driver of that car was taking a sick person to the hospital in Pryluky.

“No one could think that my brother would die there. He was afraid to go through the village of Monastyryshche. And the danger caught up with them near Olshana. We still don’t know the circumstances of my brother’s death,” says the deceased’s sister.

The dead driver of the minibus with bread. Photo of the Facebook group “Irzhavets”.

She emphasizes that the pain of loss does not subside. The loss of her brother is a great grief for the family, especially for his children. 15-year-old Ivan and 9-year-old Polina lost their father that day. 

Not everyone in the village of Olshana knows about the story behind the shelled bread truck. Only the security guard of the local enterprise in the village can point to the location where the truck was shelled. He says that Russian military equipment was standing in the field, next to the road. Corn is already rising in that field. Nobody knows why the civilians were shot there.

Signs with the village’s name are still missing, but a bouquet is tied to one of the pillars that used to hold the sign to commemorate the people who perished there.

The Bread Factory Increased Production Volumes

During the war, it became clear in many communities that having their bakery, however small, is true bliss. If there is also a supply of flour available, then that community is twice as lucky. And if there is a whole bread factory in the community, it is heaven-sent. 

After all, it means that not only the residents of the community but also their closest neighbors will have a higher chance of surviving the occupation. This helped the Sosnytsia community get through the darkest hours.

A resident of the Konyatyn village of this community, Ms. Nadiya, recalls that they only had some trouble getting bread in the first days of the war.

“They brought bread from Sosnytsia to the store, but there was very little of it. Our shopkeeper burst into tears because she was at a loss and didn’t know how to share the bread among the locals,” she says.

We solved this problem by giving half a load to each person. And a little later, even though the community’s population increased (those fleeing the war from other settlements came to the village), there were no bread shortages.

The Sosnytsia bread factory worked as usual even when the hostilities unfolded in the region. The head of the factory, Hennadiy Drobyazko, says that the first day of the war – February 24 – was an ordinary working day, albeit an uneasy one: because the female workers only talked about the fact that tanks were coming to the village.

Hennadiy Drobyazko with a work shift. Photo by Iryna Synelnyk.

The Russian military did indeed enter Sosnytsia, but they behaved quietly; they set up roadblocks at the exits from the village and did not bother the locals.

“We had a flour supply of about 15-20 tons; that should have been enough for up to a month. But if in peacetime we baked 600-700 kg of bread per day, during the war we increased the production to 3,000 kg,” the head of the enterprise says.

Drobyazko says that the tricky issues were the provision of salt and yeast. At a time, even local residents brought whatever supplies they had saved to the factory. The village education department also helped: they collected flour, salt, sugar, and yeast from all schools and gave them to the bread factory. Later, they went to Shostka (Sumy Oblast) for yeast. They tried to make sourdough, but because of the peculiarities of the production technology, they couldn’t make enough bread with it. They even tried to mix sourdough and yeast bread recipes. But then a sufficient amount of necessary ingredients finally came. When the bread factory ran out of salt, an enterprise that used to make pickles supplied the much-needed ingredient.

They also managed to find the flour. In particular, about 40 tons were brought from Krolevets, from Sumy Oblast. According to Drobyazko, trips for yeast and flour were hazardous. And the fact that these trips resulted in success is incredible luck.

It wasn’t easy to deliver even the baked bread to the community villages because sometimes the trucks couldn’t get beyond the Russian checkpoints.

“One day, the driver was delivering bread as he saw an enemy column crossing the road in front of his car. He was fortunate not to have been hit. The man stopped the truck in time because his hands were shaking from fear,” the head of the bread factory shares.

The bread came to some villages via forest roads. The bread truck would unload the bread there onto a tractor.

A special crossing over the Desna river was built to supply bread to the Zadesensky part of the community. A boat brought the bread to the village of Pekars.

Dobyazko says that during the occupation, the sense of unity was strong in the community. If flour needed unloading, the residents came and quickly did everything; if the factory required firewood, the forestry farm allocated the trees, and the people came together to cut down and stack the wood. Similarly, the employees of the bread factory worked with complete dedication. After all, their work provided bread for the Sosnytsia community and the neighboring ones that could somehow reach the factory against all odds. 

Grandma’s Recipes for Ukrainian Soldiers

The center of the Kiptiv community is 50 km removed from Chernihiv on the highway to the capital; some villages are 35 km away. During the offensive of the Russian army on Kyiv and the siege of the regional center of Chernihiv Oblast, the active hostilities took place very close to the community. Ukrainian military personnel was stationed in the villages of the Kiptiv community, and they needed the support of the locals, including the rations.

“At first, feeding more than 1,000 soldiers per day was difficult, but then everything worked out,” says Iryna Dubyk, head of the culture, family, youth, and sports department of the Kiptiv village council.

She emphasizes that the community residents clearly understood that if you don’t feed your army, you’ll have to provide for the enemies soon enough! Ms. Iryna remembers how residents of the Kiptiv community shared their food supplies, even slaughtered pigs and chickens, and gave dairy products so that the Ukrainian soldiers had a tastier lunch.

Later, the food supply improved. However, bread had to be baked locally, and the flour and yeast were scarce. An old mill in one of the settlements of the community managed to solve the issue with the flour. The mill was constructed in the 1950s but it worked on a generator. A local resident, Volodymyr Shokun, and his sons kept it in working order. 

While fighting was going in the outskirts, the miller ground so much grain that the millstone cracked. Now the man is looking for a replacement, although it is not an easy task. The lack of yeast did not prevent bread baking either, since local women remembered an old sourdough recipe.

Nataliya Vlasenko, a mother of a big family, also baked bread for the soldiers (after the death of her husband, the woman is raising five children aged 6 to 22 on her own). Ms. Nataliya says that cooking skills run in her family, so she remembered her grandmother’s oven-baked bread recipe.

The recipe is simple: to start the bread, you take 100 grams of flour and the same amount of water. If you add a little sugar, the fermentation process will speed up and be faster on rye or whole wheat flour. Daily, the leaven needs to be mixed over four days, and you should add 100 grams of flour and water. On the fifth day, the leaven is ready.

The recipe for her sourdough bread is as follows: 8 tablespoons of sourdough, 600 ml of water, 20 grams of salt, 10 grams of sugar, vinegar, and oil, as well as 1 kg of first-grade or second-grade flour. Knead the dough to rise and then form loaves. The ready loaves will need to rise a little more, and then they are prepared for baking.

With a professional oven, the woman could make 50-60 loaves of bread daily for the Ukrainian military.

Miller and an old mill. Photo by Iryna Synelnyk.

Iryna Dubyk recalls that the bread was delivered to the military at first, and then, due to shelling, they handled the logistics themselves. According to her, the poignant moments were when the defenders took freshly baked bread in their hands and kissed it.

“The soldiers told us that they were happy to defend Chernihiv Oblast, where residents loved their military so much that they took good care of them and baked fresh bread for them,” she says.

Finally, the author of these lines has her tale of bread in times of war. The village of Lyubechi was surrounded by Russian troops almost immediately. No one could either leave the settlement or enter. All goods have disappeared from shelves in stores. Bringing food here, primarily bread, had become a problem. The loaves were baked by a local bakery as long as there was flour and yeast. Later we managed to bring bread from the village of Ripki.

The loaf was a reward for waiting in line for many hours. It was hard to resist eating it on the spot. Warm and mouthwatering. But it was necessary to bring it home and divide it among everyone.

I was very impressed by a story on television, which showed the day-to-day of a bakery in a big city and a large assortment of bread and bakery products on the shelves of supermarkets. Having lived without bread for several weeks, I was dumbfounded by this luxury.

My neighbor, who survived the Holodomor and the Second World War, never threw away any bread and used to say that “bread is the head of everything”. She taught her and the neighbor’s children and grandchildren to respect bread and the work of people in the fields.

But to fully understand what she meant, you would have to experience living without any bread.