The chatter about the Ukraine War is thundering, and it feels like everyone is on the bandwagon. Yet, as I listen to it across social media and in conversations, it is clear that most of us know little about this nation. It is unlikely that the conflict will end soon. However it develops, it is bound to affect us all, so why not sit down with a few good books and better understand the gritty reality parading across your television screen?
Yes. I am being a tad snide. But, I am also being truthful. It’s time to do our homework. Reading history, novels, essays, and other works written by Ukrainian or Russian writers and historians worldwide is essential to sense the magnitude of our times.
This list of suggested books is hardly definitive, but it is a good beginning. If you are lucky enough to have a local library in your corner of the world or can afford to download books on Kindle, this list consists of those books written in or translated into English.
Snag a few titles. You will become engrossed. I promise. – Jinx Davis
Red Famine by Anne Applebaum
This book serves as a sequel to the well-known book of Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986). Harrowing and definitive, Red Famine captures the horror of ordinary people struggling to survive extraordinary evil. This book accounts for the famine, suffering, cannibalism of the desperate, and the actions of the activists who visited Ukrainian villages to confiscate the peasants’ food.
Applebaum describes the efforts of Stalin and the Soviet government to hide what was going on and how it used fake news to lure Western media and silence their terror. Approximately 4 million died between 1932-33.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart
It is 2013, and Ukrainian president Yanukovych has declined to sign with the European Union and has, instead, opted to align Ukraine with Russia and Vladimir Putin. This decision creates a crisis and leads to massive protests that become increasingly violent.
This beautiful novel uses a variety of mediums, from non-linear storytelling, newspaper accounts, and ancient Ukrainian folk songs. Pickhart tells the story of four people whose paths cross during the chaos of this crisis. Her main protagonist is Ukraine, itself. Her writing is flawless, tragic, and tender.
Nothing is True, but Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev
Russia is a world erupting with new money and power, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality. Life is a whirling, glittering carnival. Values, history, and identities switch topsy-turvy. Russia is now a new form of authoritarianism, far subtler than before, challenging the global order. This read offers a wild ride into this wild frontier.
The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation By Andrew Wilson
It is an animated and learned investigation of who Ukrainians say they are, how they came to be so, and how others view them. Andrew Wilson spells it out so the Western world may understand what Ukraine is and why it matters. Get the fourth edition.
Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa
Frontline Ukraine is both a searing critique of Western policies after the Cold War and a thorough revision of cheerful and monochrome accounts of Ukraine’s latest revolution. Your eyes will open wide upon reading this book.
Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoly Vasilyevich Kuznetsov
Few of us are innocent.
Anatoly Kuznetsov was a twelve-year-old living in Kyiv, Ukraine, when the Germans occupied the city in 1941. He observed the war crimes committed against Jews, Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, and Soviet prisoners of war. More than 33,700 people lost their lives in a two-day massacre, followed by as many as 66,000 over the next two years.
Kuznetsov began writing about what he had seen, later supplementing his manuscript with survivor and eyewitness testimony, supporting documents, and the efforts of the Soviet government to conceal any trace of the atrocities perpetrated at Babi Yar. The serialized book was published in the USSR only after extensive censorship, but Kuznetsov converted the original full text to film and smuggled it out of Russia when he defected.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
Today’s conflict is only the latest in a long history of battles over Ukraine’s territory and its existence as a sovereign nation. Serhii Plokhy argues in The Gates of Europe, we must examine Ukraine’s past in order to understand its present and future. Situated between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Ukraine was shaped by the empires that used it as a strategic gateway between East and West—from the Roman and Ottoman empires to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
Andrei Kurkov has written a successfully brooding and satirical novel, which creates an enduring sense of dismay and strangeness. This is one of the most attention-grabbing and interesting thrillers written in contemporary Ukraine and it will reveal much about structures of corruption that communism left behind.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
April 25, 1986, in Chernobyl, was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. This is nonfiction that reads like sci-fi and shows the epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.
Borderland – A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
Borderland tells the story of Ukraine. A thousand years ago it was the center of the first great Slav civilization, Kievan Rus. In 1240, the Mongols invaded from the east, and for the next seven centuries, Ukraine was split between warring neighbors: Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Austrians, and Tatars. Again and again, borderland turned into a battlefield: during the Cossack risings of the seventeenth century, Russia’s wars with Sweden in the eighteenth, the Civil War of 1918-1920, and under Nazi occupation. Ukraine finally won independence in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets
Belorusets has delivered the first new full-length fiction out of battered Ukraine: a slim set of stories that are unsettling and illuminating. Her text presents a portrait of a traumatized community. The main players are all women, all displaced by a war that has been going on for years, and their common fate emerges via overlap. The stories reveal the pains of the moment and the timeless coping mechanisms known as humor and imagination.
This book is her first. Her previous experience was in other arenas, especially arts activism on behalf of exploited workers, including photography shown at the Venice Biennale.
Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration by Adriana N. Helbig
Hip Hop Ukraine portrays the music as a forceful influence on worldwide social and cultural expression. Its origins in the American dispossessed gave a voice to many who identified with a similar race/class/ethnic experience, which has become tailored to local contingencies. Nevertheless, as Helbig suggests, despite the complexity that is hip hop, at times the music is in practice the expression of an individual voice and about how that voice is used to silence others. Thus Hip Hop Ukraine also speaks to that which can become lost in translation.
— “Slavonic and East European Review”
Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War by Paul D’Anieri
This book by political scientist Paul D’Anieri focuses on answering the question: why did the war between Ukraine and Russia happen in 2014? Some scholars see it as an inevitable result of Russian revanchism—a reaction to the drastic change in Russia’s geopolitical status after 1991, which was very similar to that of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. D’Anieri questions this approach and looks for the main factors that caused this conflict. He also criticizes two other explanations: (1) that Putin is personally responsible for the invasion of Ukraine and used the war to bolster his authority in Russia; and (2) that the Russian invasion can be explained in terms of international security—control over Ukraine is crucial for Russia’s security in the region.
All three explanatory strategies are seen by Paul D’Anieri as too “essentialist” or “invariant,” characterizing Russia as innately and unchangingly aggressive. To use a mathematical metaphor to describe the war in Ukraine, Russia is a constant. D’Anieri rejects this perspective. He stresses the dynamic character of international relations in the region, which excludes the existence of actors with unchangeable interests. Thus, his analysis rests on two important assumptions. First, the reasons for Russia’s war against Ukraine should be traced back to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Second, relations between Russia and Ukraine, internal political processes in both countries, and their relations with the West should all be considered.
The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Zanna Sloniowska
Political tensions have always infiltrated the life of the young narrator in this beguiling debut about four generations of women in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine.
Sustained by strong characterization and convincing dialogue, Sloniowska’s lively story, strongly rooted in history, politics, and cultural identity is told through a conversational voice that resonates with real affection, some hope, and much regret.
Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov
Ukraine’s most famous novelist dramatizes the conflict raging in his country through the adventures of a mild-mannered beekeeper.
Little Starhorodivka, a village of three streets, lies in Ukraine’s Grey Zone, the no-man’s-land between loyalist and separatist forces. Thanks to the lukewarm war of sporadic violence and constant propaganda that has been dragging on for years, only two residents remain: retired safety inspector turned beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich and Pashka, a “frenemy” from his schooldays.
With little food and no electricity, under the ever-present threat of bombardment, Sergeyich’s one remaining pleasure is his bees. As spring approaches, he knows he must take them far from the Grey Zone so they can collect their pollen in peace. This simple mission on their behalf introduces him to combatants and civilians on both sides of the battle lines: loyalists, separatists, Russian occupiers, and Crimean Tatars. Wherever he goes, Sergeyich’s childlike simplicity and strong moral compass disarm everyone he meets.
But could these qualities be manipulated to serve an unworthy cause, spelling disaster for him, his bees, and his country? – Waterstones
The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan
Born in Luhansk in 1974, Zhadan is one of Ukraine’s most celebrated contemporary writers. Yet, if his early novels had a rebellious, beatnik vibe about them, The Orphanage, originally published in the Ukrainian language in 2017, takes his favorite genre, the road movie, past new horizons.
The novel’s protagonist, Pasha, is an apolitical literature teacher in his mid-thirties, living near the frontline in Donbas. Sharing a home with his elderly father and ex-girlfriend, Pasha’s journey of transformation begins when he goes to collect his teenage nephew from a nearby orphanage. The boy has been sent to the boarding school-style institution by his mother, who hopes it will keep him safe and fed while she is forced to work. But no place is spared by violence.