Marina Berlin is a writer and media critic who grew up speaking three languages. She holds degrees in sociology and film, and is the creator and host of Pop Culture Sociologist–a podcast that analyzes media from a social perspective. Her words have appeared in Strange Horizons, IGN, Vice, Tor and many other outlets. She's currently working on her first novel, which was included on the honor list for the Otherwise Fellowship, dedicated to encouraging the exploration and expansion of gender in SF/F. You can chat with her on twitter at @berlin_marina, or read more of her work on her website.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a war in my country.
I know a lot of people around the world can say that, and I know the current war in Ukraine is relatively “privileged”, on a global scale–it’s gotten sustained media attention and financial and military aid from a lot of rich, Western countries. That’s a lot more than can be said for many other nations under attack by a neighboring aggressor. That doesn’t change the fact that for the past year I’ve had to watch the place where I’m from be destroyed, little by little, as the world watches.
I should say, the war doesn’t affect me directly. My family left Ukraine in the Nineties, when I was a child - I’ve been back several times since then, but I spend my days in safety. It’s “only” my friends and extended family who are in the line of fire.
It’s odd to start an essay about food by talking about war, but I don’t have to go far to give you a concrete example of how deeply food has been pulled into this conflict. Maria Zakharova, a prominent official representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said this a few months ago about the origins of the conflict:
“[Ukrainians] couldn’t let everyone have borscht. It had to belong to only one nation, one people. They couldn’t allow every homemaker across different countries to make it her own way.”
This is the first and last time I’m going to quote a Russian propaganda troll, and needless to say Russia invading Ukraine had nothing to do with borscht. In fact, the inclusion of borscht as a UNESCO intangible heritage is a response to the war. But this is the context I’d like you to have when we start talking about Olivier salad.
In Russian and Ukrainian the dish is called simply olivye—I was many years old when I realized it had any relation to a French name. I can’t say how old I was when I tasted it for the first time. It’s a dish that’s made for every major celebration, so I’m sure I must have had it as a baby, as soon as it was deemed safe for me to chew through its soft, creamy texture.
It’s made for birthdays, graduations, homecomings, and most importantly, for Novyi God. Novyi God is the biggest, most important holiday in many ex-Soviet countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Translated, it simply means “New Year”, but there’s a reason I don’t say “New Year’s Celebration” when I talk about the holiday in English.
At the beginning of the 20th century, celebrating the New Year was already a big event all over Eastern Europe. In the Eastern Orthodox calendar the birth of Jesus happens in early January, so Christmas comes after January 1st. As a result, New Year is the first big holiday of the season.
After the revolution of 1917, religion was, in effect, banned in the territories that eventually became the Soviet Union (although some churches, synagogues and mosques continued to function, with full government support, but that’s a story for another time). There was a need to minimize if not erase the religious holidays, and replace them with fully civilian ones.
Novyi God became the major holiday, outshining all others. It was when everyone had time off from work and school, it was a dress-up holiday when people attended costume parties (my last Novyi God in Ukraine I was a snowflake), it was the holiday for which a tree was decorated. It was when you got presents from Ded Moroz, AKA Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter Snegurochka (a play on the word snow).
There are traditions and customs tied to Novyi God, about what to eat and how to spend it, to have good fortune in the new year. As just one example of what makes this holiday different from whatever you’re probably used to celebrating on December 31st, Novyi God includes elements of Chinese zodiac and cosmology. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, studying Mandarin at university, that I realized having a 12-year rotation of animals symbolizing each year wasn’t originally a Soviet thing. I grew up knowing exactly which of my family and friends were tigers, monkeys, rabbits, etc.
At school, in Odesa, at the yearly celebration we clapped and sang for Ded Moroz to come out, with his blue winter coat and big bag of presents. I didn’t know about Christmas or Hannukah back then, despite being Jewish. The only holiday that existed in my life—that’s in any way meaningful still, to be honest—is Novyi God.
There’s a reason olivye is a celebratory dish. It requires a lot of ingredients, and a lot of labor, even though it’s ostensibly very simple to make. Olivye is something you make as a group, as a family, each person taking over an ingredient or two until everything is ready to be mixed and chilled.
Olivye is when everyone comes together to celebrate a special time, and its flavor is associated with something luxurious, comforting, and joyful. You can’t be sad when having olivye with a thick piece of rye bread. Olivye is like a sparkly crown, turning an ordinary, dreary day into a celebration.
Sometimes, when I tell English speakers about this dish they’ll say—oh, you mean potato salad? Or, “Russian potato salad”? I fully respect whatever relationship you may have with that dish, but to me, everything I’ve ever seen described as “potato salad” has felt like a stripped down version of olivye. Yes, potatoes are the basis, but they’re supposed to be a canvas for all the other ingredients. Olivye is a mixture of flavors and textures, while “potato salad” is usually just potatoes with a few other things sprinkled in.
In a way, “potato salad” is like olivye if it was stripped of all the ingredients that make it expensive or cumbersome to prepare. But doing that is defeating the purpose of the dish. Olivye is meant to be aspirational. It’s not something you can whip up in five minutes, or have every day. It’s what you save and savor for special occasions.
Every family celebrates Novyi God differently, and people also do different things at different stages in their lives. People get together with family or friends, or they go out to a party or a restaurant. They watch old Soviet movies (yes, “Novyi God movie” is a genre) or special concerts, but there’s one constant that almost everyone abides by.
On one of the towers of the Kremlin, overlooking the Red Square, there’s a clock. It was built in the 15th century, and is one of the oldest of its kind still functioning today. At midnight on December 31st the bells chime twelve times and the new year officially begins.
I didn’t visit Moscow until I was in my thirties, but I remember the sound of that clock for as long as I remember Novyi God. It was broadcast on TV every year, and the chime of those bells was like a spell. The rush when the first bell rings, to fill everyone’s glasses, to say the last words you’ll ever say to your loved ones in the year that’s about to be gone. Everyone in the room starting to count down loudly, with huge smiles on their faces. The solemn, heavy sound of each bell ringing through the silence of the night, and then—it’s over. The year has ended, a new year has begun, and everyone congratulates each other and drinks and the world is made new again.
All our mistakes are left in the old year, and right in that moment, on the cusp of midnight, is when we are wholly new. When the possibilities are endless, and we are reborn as the next version of ourselves, that can still accomplish whatever we always wanted, overcome the challenges that got us down before, experience the happiness that may have eluded us.
The chiming of the last bell is the moment when all the magic of Novyi God is at its most potent and concentrated. It’s when something in the universe fundamentally changes for the better. A moment of pure joy and optimism.
The Russian president usually makes his yearly speech right before all the cameras switch to the clock, awaiting the first chime.
I remember the first year it was Putin. On January 1st I met my friends, we were just crossing from middle school to high school, and we lifted our glasses and toasted to this new president, who seemed far more sensible, far more promising than Yeltsin, who all our parents thought of as a useless drunk.
I distinctly remember the things we said about Putin back then. How he seemed like such a good sign.
Last year, on December 31, 2021, we didn’t watch Putin’s speech—not wanting to miss the clock, we muted the TV while Putin was on it. He was standing in his usual spot, over a view of empty, nighttime Moscow, with the Kremlin in the background. My dad said it was like looking at the Reichstag shortly before it was burnt down. That was two months before Putin launched the attack on Ukraine.
When the war started, everyone I knew thought that whatever happened, it would end in days. Then weeks. Then months. I remember for ages after the invasion I had moments of going about my day and suddenly thinking—no, it’s not possible. I must have imagined it. There can’t be Russian tanks right outside Odesa. That’s inconceivable.
A few months into the war I met a friend from Kharkiv who left Ukraine at the same age I did. She told me her grandfather, who lived in a small town in the Kharkiv region, passed away a month before the war started. I offered my condolences, but then we kept looking at each other and finally I said—you’re thinking what I’m thinking, right? How lucky it is that he died when he did. How lucky that he didn’t live to see this. She tearfully agreed.
It’s what I’d been thinking of since it all started, in between worrying about the friends and family who are all, thankfully, still alive. I had been close to my grandfather, who was born and raised in Odesa, and was a WWII veteran, but for the first time ever I was glad he’d died a few years ago. That he hadn’t lived long enough to see Putin’s war.
This year, on December 31st, we didn’t watch anything that happened on the Red Square. We didn’t listen to the clock strike twelve, or the chiming of the bells. On Novyi God, the biggest holiday of the year, Russia made sure to bomb widely across all of Ukraine, especially at night, though I only found out about it the next day.
I’m writing these words in late January, though you’re reading them right around the time of the one-year anniversary of the invasion. It has been a full year, and Ukranians are still dying, civilian infrastructure is still being destroyed, people are still losing their homes and going wherever they can to survive.
It was hard to remember the magic of Novyi God this year. There was a current of sadness and tragedy underneath what’s supposed to be the most joyful and optimistic night of the year. It’s the first year I can remember when we didn’t buy new ornaments for the tree. I’m sure some people clung to the holiday even harder, in these times, but for us it just became less important. Instead of shiny new rabbits we used the rabbits from twelve years ago. We didn’t make cute rabbit-shaped decorations for the house or the dinner table.
But we did drink champagne at midnight. We did congratulate loved ones across seas and continents. And we did have olivye.
- The International Rescue Committee works to help people facing humanitarian crisis to survive, recover, and rebuild their lives. According to their Senior Director of Emergencies, they are “meeting with partners and local civil society organizations in Poland and Ukraine to assess capacity for responding to an increase of refugees and people in need.” There are a number of ways in which you can support their efforts.
- Nova Ukraine works closely with Ukraine-based organizations and is assembling supply packages for refugees. You can donate here.
- CARE is currently raising money for a Ukraine Crisis Fund to provide immediate aid.
Marina's Olivier Salad
This recipe makes a decadent, celebratory bound salad that is right at home at a holiday feast. Prepared as written, it produces enough to generously serve 6-8 as a side.
Remember: Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.