Images of book covers on the colours of the Ukraine Flag

The scenes happening in Ukraine have seen many of us turning to news sources and on-the-ground reporting as we attempt to understand one of the most violent conflicts in Europe this century. For those seeking to understand more about Ukraine’s history, its culture and the events that led to the Russian invasion, books can be illuminating. Here, we recommend reads that offer insight, context and expertise.

Absolute Zero by Artem Chekh (2017)

Ukrainian novelist Artem Chekh drew on his own extraordinary experiences fighting in the Donbas region in 2015, in which he spent 10 months on the front line. Chekh offers a visceral view through the perspectives of civilians as well as his fellow soldiers. This is his first book to be translated into English, but his seventh of eight books. It earned him considerable acclaim and recognition upon its release, winning Ukranian literary prizes such as the Gogol Prize as well as the Joseph Conrad Prize.    

Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid (1997)

In the early Nineties, Anna Reid was based in Kyiv, where she was the Ukraine correspondent for The Economist. This is an efficient and economical book, in which Reid manages to contain a millennium of history in a scant 200 pages, succinctly explaining some of the humanitarian crises Ukraine has experienced – from famine, purges under Stalin and the brutality of the Second World War – as well as capturing quintessential elements of Ukrainian culture with a gimlet eye. Ukrainian author Tetyana Denford recommends it to those wanting to read “a bit about the history of Ukraine… it’s written in a way that feels understandable and human, not political and heavy.”

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy (2016)

Serhii Plokhy is the director of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute and grew up in Ukraine. He has published more than a dozen books on Ukrainian and Russian history as an academic, although it was his 2018 history of Chernobyl (Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy) that won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction. This book, which precedes it, offers a deep and wide-ranging overview of Ukraine and its centuries-long fight for independence.

The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan (2017)

Sometimes, fiction can say more about a cultural moment than non-fiction – and there are few who do that better than Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine’s most acutely observational authors. In The Orphanage (published in 2017 but translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler), a neighbouring city is invaded by hostile forces and Pasha, a Ukrainian language teacher, sets off into occupied territory in search of his orphaned nephew. The story is a brutal exploration of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as candid and unflinching as it is beautifully written. 

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

Many people may be unfamiliar with the intricacies of Ukraine’s history and cultural identity, but few are unaware of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. This brutal and cautionary event is painstakingly told as an oral history by Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who has gathered hundreds of voices for their version of the tragedy. Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, captures unforgettable stories; those told in Chernobyl Prayer informed the Golden Globe-winning television series Chernobyl.

Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov (2020)

When Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries was released in 2014, it demonstrated the touchingly human elements of life beyond the headlines: news the Maidan revolution may have reached an international stage, along with the annexation of Crimea, but where Kurkov triumphed was to show that life continued. Babies were born, 11-year-olds had birthday parties, lovers had trysts and potatoes were harvested. Kurkov is one of Ukraine’s greatest living writers, and has already been swift to comment on the invasion (he gave a grave interview to The New York Times from his home in Kyiv); his darkly humorous novels are well worth reading, too. But Ukraine Diaries tells the smaller life stories, the ones that paint in between the lines.

Putin’s People by Catherine Belton (2020)

In this extraordinary work, subtitled How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, investigative journalist and former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times Catherine Belton elucidates each step in Vladimir Putin’s rise to power: how he brought a number of former KGB men back to influence following the Soviet collapse, expanded the wealth of a small cadre of oligarchs across London, Moscow, Trump’s American and more, and installed Putin into a seat of power unprecedented in the new Russia.

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