Just past noon on election day, the last Sunday in October, in the little brick administration building in the Ukrainian village of Derhanivka, an old man with a weathered face and gray stubble, wearing a blue coat and mud-spattered boots, asked an election commissioner for help. He had forgotten his spectacles at home. He pointed to a pair of reading glasses on the table next to the woman who checked off his name on the voter roll — could he borrow them? Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to read the names on the ballots. Glasses in hand, he stepped behind the yellow cloth of the first voting booth. A few minutes later, before taking his ballots to the boxes at the other end of the room, he returned what he borrowed, then bellowed: “Thank you for the glasses!”
The woman he thanked was bundled in a long winter coat and scarf and sat hunched against the room’s chill. She looked up, raised her eyebrows, and replied, equally loudly, “Honey!” — which is even more staccato in Ukrainian, a single syllable sliding from the briefly sensual mmm to the plosive closure at the word’s end: Med!
The man was a beekeeper — a fact that I grasped with a little help from my interpreter, Alina, a university student in Zhytomyr. Which led me to concede: and why not ask for a sweet favor in return?
I was visiting as an international election observer — but this was hardly a demand for a bribe that we needed to report to the OSCE. Instead, it was a Proustian moment for me, the tasting of honey in the market being one of my favorite experiences when I first visited Ukraine twenty years ago. And which I repeat whenever I return, as I did recently when I travelled to rural west-central Ukraine, and a few months before in the southern city of Kherson, where a woman selling organic honey at an open-air stand ladled her wares — flavored by tangy mixed herbs, the dark buckwheat and the pale linden blossom — onto the hollow between my thumb and forefinger, dripping each variety, one at a time, with her little wooden spoon. Take the sweet gift to your mouth. Taste.
The word for bear in Ukrainian is vedmid’. In Russian it’s medved’. They both mean the same thing: “He who chases after honey.” As one history of honey in Ukraine recounts, people once hunted for it like bears: they found a hollow of a tree trunk, smoked out the bees, ruined the nest, took the honey.
But beekeeping, human honey-seekers discovered, offered golden treasure that renewed itself. In the eleventh century, Yaroslav the Wise ruled Kyivan Rus’, the empire from which Ukraine and Russia both trace their origins. Along with conquests, converting his kingdom to Orthodox Christianity, and building Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv, wise Yaroslav oversaw the creation of the first written code of laws in the region. Multiple sections in the code were devoted to beekeeping, including the punishments for taking what is not yours. For snatching bees from someone else’s hive, the thief was required to pay three hryvnia to the owner and three hryvnia to the prince; for stealing an entire hive, the fine went up to ten marten pelts, though it was only half that if the stolen hive was empty.
Recent tallies show more managed bee colonies in Ukraine (3.5 million) than in the United States (2.5 million), managed by 700,000 beekeepers, most of them amateurs, who produce an estimated 40 percent of the honey — only a fraction of which makes it to market. In fact, more honey is made in Ukraine than in any country in the European Union. (Of course, Ukraine is not yet in the EU. Recall that it was the failure of the previous president of Ukraine to sign an EU trade agreement that sparked the protests that became a revolution.)
Among other things, a bee colony needs enough honey to sustain it in the winter, the attainment of which requires cooperation within the hive. Likewise, in this village on the banks of the Rostavytsya River, where the human population is half the size it was at the end of the nineteenth century, neighborly exchange is more than a nicety. So, in return for the loan of reading glasses, perhaps a man gives of a jar of light acacia honey to the woman who helped him see.