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In Ukraine, One Brewery Puts Putin, Politics on its Beer Labels

June 05, 2018

By Katie Nadworny, June 05, 2018

The lights flash crimson and blue as the multi-piece brass band blares out Balkan gypsy jams and Adele cover songs in the Pravda Beer Theater. All around, locals and tourists sip their beers and wiggle emphatically along with the groove. At one point, a man hands out hundreds of plastic bottles to bang on the tables and the crowd creates a cacophony of self-made percussion as the band builds to a crescendo. In the hollowed-out middle of the venue, the brewers check the kettles and tend to the engine that drives this nightly celebration: A constant flow of excellent craft beer.

There’s more to Pravda, though, than brass bands and boozy nights in the center of Lviv, Ukraine. In the bowels of the brewery, Pravda produces a series of bottled beers that are distributed throughout Ukraine and Europe with an emphatic message of Ukrainian patriotism. They feature mocking illustrations of heads-of-state and snarky names like Putin Huilo (a word that translates to “dickhead”) and Frau Ribbentrop (bequeathing Angela Merkel with the name of the foreign minister of Nazi Germany). They are not subtle.

The recent rise of craft beer in Ukraine has coincided with a surging nationalism, driven by the tumultuous geopolitical crises the country finds itself in. In 2014, a movement against the country’s Russia-aligned president Viktor Yanukovych culminated in the bloody Maidan protests in central Kyiv. Yanukovych eventually fled and remains in exile in Russia. Soon after, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and sparked a separatist war in the country’s Russophile east which has continued to roil the region. The ongoing insecurity in Ukraine has led to an increase in nationalism and fervent patriotism—it’s not unusual to see men strolling the streets of Kyiv or Lviv in full military camo.

“Because we are Ukrainian citizens, we have our own political views,” says Yuri Zastavny, Pravda’s founder. “This is our view and this is our beer and this is our label, so we do what we want.”

Those labels pull no punches. Their “Obama Hope” beer—a hearty stout—shows the former president sitting cross-legged and grinning on an armchair, with a joint in his hand and John McCain lurking in the background. The bite comes in the caption. “As the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama is a symbol of democracy and a guarantor of the global justice... In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied part of Ukraine. This violated the world order established after World War II and set off the expansion of the Russian terrorism in peaceful Europe. Obama is still hesitating to provide real help to the Ukrainians in fighting it. He has all the chances to go down in history as the one who got it all wrong.”

Zastavny’s beer activism grew out of his involvement with Ukraine’s protests, participating both in 2014’s demonstrations in Maidan and the Revolution on Granite student protests in 1990.

“We had tents and a hunger strike because we wanted to change the prime minister. And we did change the prime minister. We have this story of popular uprisings that actually change the course of history for the country.” Originally, the desire to open a brewery was borne of enthusiasm and business savvy. “I wanted to produce something that people can touch, eat, drink,” says Zastavny. “I used to live in Belgium for three years. So I what I learned from that time is that beer can be various. It can be very different. It can be fun.”

Pravda departs from the typical Ukrainian lager with a collection of trippels, stouts, sours, wheats, and any other kind of beer that intrigues the brewers. “The idea was to bring the world’s beer culture, especially the craft revolution that started in the US, here.”

Bringing Ukrainian politics into the mix grew organically from the mood permeating the country. The events of 2014 spurred Zastavny to take a visible stand on the political situation in Ukraine. “I am not at war, I am making beer,” he says. “So, I can contribute something informationally.” Pravda’s beers are designed to be available and accessible to non-Ukrainians. Lviv was chosen as the company's base, because the city receives almost twice as many tourists as the larger capital city of Kyiv, and the plan to export Pravda beers was in place from the beginning. The company currently sells in chain supermarkets throughout Ukraine and exports to ten European countries.

“Because beer is an emotional thing and because we are Ukrainian citizens that have something to say to the outside, we decided to use our beer labels as a short Whatsapp message, or a Telegram message,” says Zastavny. “People may agree or not, but they might remember something.”

Pravda’s message can be perceived in different ways, depending on the drinker. The political beers show up in Silpo markets in the eastern part of Ukraine, where pro-Russia sentiment is much higher. However, the incendiary Putin Huilo beer is not sold in those markets. That label shows a naked Putin with a hammer-and-sickle and Kremlin tattoo across his chest, perched on a throne like an emperor with no clothes. A ventriloquist dummy-like Dmitry Medvedev sits on his right knee. In the background is a “little green man,” one of the undeclared Russian soldiers who participated in the annexation of Crimea. “Unlike Hitler and other characters, whose imperial ambitions also led to the deaths of innocent people,” the label notes, “Huilo is not just a crazy fanatic. He is a Russian billionaire.”

It’s not surprising to Zastavny that the Silpo markets don’t carry this beer. As he notes with cheeky bemusement, “It’s a little bit too offensive. We are still a small brewery.”

It’s not only pro-Russia Ukrainians who take offense at the political beers. The German tourists who come to Lviv and buy Pravda beers in their own country are not amused with Pravda’s Merkel beer that equates her with a Nazi. “We really have some Germans push back strongly and say, ‘We’re going to complain to the embassy,’” notes Zastavny. “But, with the history of the second world war, I can also complain one or two things about Germans here, going back 60 years. Let them complain! It’s still my message.”

That message grew out of a Ukrainian flash mob protest, in reaction to Merkel’s perceived close relationship to Putin at the expense of Ukraine. In 2014, thousands of Ukrainians spammed the German Chancellor’s official Facebook page with the message “Danke, Frau Ribbentrop.” Joachim von Ribbentrop’s name is most commonly known from the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which pledged non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the start of WWII in 1939. That pact that ended when Nazi Germany violated the agreement by launching an attack on the Soviet army in 1942.

“For most people here, it’s obvious that Putin is someone who’s like [Saddam] Hussein, a really criminal guy. And then when you see Merkel and other presidents shaking hands with him, it’s automatically legitimizing whatever he’s doing,” says Zastavny. “If you don’t react strongly to war in the middle of Europe, if you don’t do something about this, if you don’t try to stop it within a couple of weeks, you’re sharing that action, that criminality.”

Zastavny grins. “That’s one of the reasons for the evil label.”

Within the walls of the Pravda Beer Theater, though, the crowd is clearly focused on the beer and on having a good time. Midway through the evening, the brewers pause their work to gather in the center of the theater and shout-sing a song in unison, while the hundreds of revellers sipping their craft brews cheer them on. On the surface, Pravda is a place for fun. But amid the festivities, a visitor could order a bottle of Sila, Pravda’s Belgian trippel. The beer is sweet, strong, and rich and it’s easy to get lost in the brew’s complex buzz. After they notice the taste, they might peek at the label, and then they’ll understand there’s more to this beer than intricate flavors. The image on that bottle is a drawing of the Kremlin, with the Ukrainian flag waving atop.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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