Soil erosion in central Ukraine, April 2011. After decades of excessive tilling to work the soil to exhaustion, gullies are starting to appear across the country. Photo: Yuri Kravchenko.

Descending the stairs of Bessarabka Market, visitors witness the guts of cellar corridors in Kyiv’s first refrigerated chamber, which has supplied food to the city since 1911. Just twenty years later, this same cooled underground endured a lesser-known use as an impromptu morgue during the Holodomor famine. The rooms of the basement went from proudly storing the city’s nourishment to secretly housing the human bodies that had succumbed to a man-made food scarcity. That short repurposing of the market in 1933 unveils a history of drought, soil exhaustion, and maldistribution of resources.

Victim of the Holodomor man-made famine of 1932-1933, Ukraine. Since 2006, Holodomor has been recognised by Ukraine and 15 other countries as the Genocide of the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet Union.

Round a semicircular corridor and through the door of chamber 31, the installation examines narratives around fluctuating food territories and the emergence of soil appreciation. An archive of soil-related artefacts unpacks the moments that transformed Ukraine into a universal breadbasket.

Sifting through Neolithic Trypillian cultures, the conquering of ‘virgin land’, the commodification of chernozem (unique black fertile soil), the engineering of extreme weather-resistant grains, and the ongoing financialisation of agriholding interests, the installation lays ground for an understanding of the exhaustion of the Ukrainian soil amidst its shifting climatic frontier. Chernozem has shaped inhabitation in nomadic and sedentary cultures as much as these cultures have shaped chernozem. Yet the soil itself has also been exported abroad, transporting fertility to Soviet Arctic settlements in the 1930s and other places in Nazi Germany during World War II. Today, black soil in rural areas is continuously stripped away and sold in international markets.

Vasyl Remeslo performing politics in a wheat field, Myronivka Research Institute of wheat selection and seed growing, Kyiv region, 3 Aug 1976. Ukrainian plant breeder Remeslo created over 40 varieties of hardy high-yield winter wheats, which contributed to making Ukraine into ‘Europe’s granary’. His most notable achievement was Myroniv 808, cultivated today in more than 11% of the world’s grain fields. Photo: Samokhotsky.
Nikita Khrushchev performing politics in a wheat field. The importance of grain and soil to the soviet economy and cultural imaginary meant that notable politicians were repeatedly portrayed in suits amidst cereals. Moskovsky state farm, Kazakh SSR, 1964.

Six public discussions with local experts were part of the installation at the cellar, focusing on the Holodomor famine, the ecological role of kurgans (ancient burial mounds), post-Stalinist windbreaks, the politics of water in Crimea, contemporary migrant grains, and the financialisation of the soil. From this, CLIMAVORE collaborated with Ukrainian lawyers to create a propositional framework that drafted a new legal document to grant the soil the right not to be exhausted. Each event concluded with a performative tasting of specially developed CLIMAVORE breads made with ingredient mixes capable of restoring the exhausted soil of the Ukrainian steppes after centuries of over-tillage, while inviting visitors to think about future food imaginaries that can recover the soil’s structure.

CLIMAVORE: For The Rights of the Soil Not To Be Exhausted. Proposed amendment to the Ukrainian Land Law, February 2019.
Vegetation Loss June 2016–June 2018. Russian-Finnish botanist Christian von Steven first proposed the construction of the North Crimean Canal for irrigation purposes back in the 19th century. It was not until after World War II that the idea was finally adopted. Construction began soon after the transfer of Crimea in 1954, and completed in 1971. Since 2014, water flow to water-dependent Crimea has been interrupted. Photo: MTOT.
Room 31. Shortly after Bessarabska Square was built as the entrance to Kyiv in the early 19th century, a spontaneous street market began to grow on-site formed by merchants from the southern provinces and the region of Bessarabia. In 1910-11, architect Henryk Julian Gay built the indoor market on the square, with technical innovations such as a glazed roof, a water tank with compressor, and the first large-scale refrigerator in Ukraine. After the 1932 decrees that confiscated peasants’ grain, leading to the Holodomor famine, more and more starving villagers fled to cities desperately seeking food, but without success. Hundreds of dead bodies were collected daily, causing the forensic laboratory of the People’s Commissariat for Health to move into the basement of Bessarabka market, making use of the refrigerated cellars where the bodies were transported and temporarily stored. Room 31 has been opened for the first time to let the soil speak. It served as the site to host the six CLIMAVORE Soil Talks and CLIMAVORE bread tastings between Feb-April 2019.
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