Updated Aug 07, 2022

Best Books on Ukraine

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— According to the most prominent book blogs on the internet, these are the best books on Ukraine and some are about Russia and Ukraine's long history. Each of the books on this list were recommended in at least three of the articles, ranked by how frequently they were mentioned.

In his home Kyiv, the forgotten protagonist of this true story aspired to be a cubist painter. His abilities led him to several positions in a Europe reshaped by the First World War: intelligence operator, influential statesman, underground activist, and lifelong conspirator. During the Second World War, Henryk Józewski managed Polish intelligence in Ukraine, governed the borderland province of Volhynia in the interwar years, participated in the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet underground, and plotted against Poland's Stalinists until his imprisonment in 1953. His personal narrative is significant in and of itself, but it also sheds new insight on the underpinnings of Soviet authority and the beliefs of those who opposed it. This book argues that Józewski's tolerant attitudes for Ukrainians in Volhynia were part of Poland's strategy to roll back the communist threat by following the arc of his life.

To save Józewski, his Polish milieu, and his Ukrainian ambition from oblivion, the book mines archive documents, many of which have only been available after the fall of communism. An epilogue ties his legacy to the Soviet Union's demise and the 2004 democratic revolution in Ukraine.

Our favourite quote from Sketches from a Secret War

Stalin began his agricultural collectivization strategy in 1929, thereby launching a second Russian revolution by forcing millions of peasants off their property and onto collective farms. The outcome was a devastating famine, one of the deadliest in European history. Between 1931 and 1933, at least five million people died in the Soviet Union. Instead of delivering aid, the Soviet Union took use of the disaster to solve a political problem. Anne Applebaum contends in Red Famine that more than three million of those killed were Ukrainians, who died not as unintended victims of faulty policy, but because the state sought out to kill them. Red Famine is a devastating and comprehensive portrayal of regular people striving to survive exceptional wickedness.

Today, Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union, has placed Ukrainian independence in its sights once more. Applebaum’s compulsively readable narrative recalls one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century, and shows how it may foreshadow a new threat to the political order in the twenty-first.

Our favourite quote from Red Famine

Eastern European literature studies have typically focused on a single language, culture, or nationality. Glaser demonstrates how writers working in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish during much of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century were in constant dialogue with one another in this extremely innovative book. The marketplace served as both a physical location where members of these many societies and cultures interacted with one another and a rich topic for artistic expression. It is typical to mention Gogol's influence on Russian writing, but Glaser demonstrates that he had a significant impact on Ukrainian and Yiddish literature as well.

She also demonstrates how Gogol must be understood not only in his adoptive city of St. Petersburg, but also in his native Ukraine. The physical and cultural setting on the outskirts of the Russian Empire impacted the development of Ukrainian and Yiddish literatures during this time. As diverse as these writers appear to be, an understanding of their shared relationship with Russia illuminates them even more. Glaser's work creates a significantly more complex picture of Jewish (especially Yiddish) literature in the context of Eastern European and Russian culture than historians have previously permitted.

Our favourite quote from Jews and Ukrainians in Russia's Literary Borderlands

Vasily Grossman's ultimate memorial, written after the Soviet authorities banned his masterpiece, Life and Fate, is Everything Flows. The fundamental plot is straightforward: Ivan Grigoryevich gets liberated from Soviet camps after thirty years and must battle to find his place in an unfamiliar environment. But Ivan's story is just one of many in a novel that tries to capture the entire misery of Soviet history. As a result, we learn of Ivan's cousin, Nikolay, a scientist who never allowed his conscience get in the way of his job, and Pinegin, the informant who got Ivan transported to the concentration camps.

The narrative is then interrupted by a wonderful little play in which a series of informers come forward, each offering reasons for the unacceptable things he did—inexcusable and yet, the informers argue, understandable, almost inescapable in Stalinist Russia. The story of Anna Sergeyevna, Ivan's sweetheart, who recounts about her eager involvement as an activist in the Terror famine of 1932–33, which killed three to five million Ukrainian peasants, lies at the heart of the book. Everything Flows reaches a level of unfathomable clarity comparable to Dante's Inferno's last cantos.

Our favourite quote from Everything Flows

D'Anieri delves at the internal dynamics of Ukraine, as well as those between Ukraine and Russia and Russia and the West, that arose with the fall of the Soviet Union and eventually led to war in 2014. This book traces how Ukraine's split from Russia in 1991, dubbed a "peaceful divorce" at the time, led to what many today refer to as "a new Cold War." He claims that the conflict has gotten worse as a result of three underlying factors: the security issue, the geopolitical influence of democratization, and the incompatible ambitions of a post-Cold War Europe. Rather than a quiet situation being squandered, D'Anieri contends that there were deep-seated pre-existing conflicts that could not be resolved, which has grave implications for the conclusion of the Ukraine crisis. The book also demonstrates how this conflict fits into larger patterns of current international conflict, making it useful for researchers interested in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia's relations with the West, and conflict and geopolitics in general.

Our favourite quote from Ukraine and Russia

Serhiy Zhadan's ode to Kharkiv, the predominantly Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine where he lives, is a gripping book. Zhadan, a leading post-Soviet Ukrainian author, uses prose and poetry to confront the disappointment, ambiguities, and complexities that have distinguished Ukrainian life in the decades since the Soviet Union's demise. His story paints a vivid picture of the lives of working-class Ukrainians who are battling an unforgiving fate: the path forward appears to be barred at every turn by demagogic forces and relics of the Russian past. The nine interrelated stories and accompanying poems by Zhadan are set in a city that is both familiar and mysterious, and his characters are both familiar and weird. His novels reveal the grit and heaviness of halted lives, the universal longing for companionship, and a wistful knowledge of the off-kilter and even perverted nature of love, following a kind of magical-realist logic.

Our favourite quote from Mesopotamia

Meet four generations of women from the same turbulent family living under one roof in the tumult of 20th century Lviv, each trying to find their way through decades of upheaval in an ever-shifting city.

Great-Granma, tiny and fearsome, formed by a life of exile, hardship, and doomed love, is now battling to preserve her iron hold on her daughter, granddaughter, and great-lives. granddaughter's Then there's Aba, arthritic but dedicated; cowed and loathed by her mother, her one shot at happiness snuffed out, and her dreams of pursuing painting dashed. Third, Marianna, the magnificent opera star who is shot during a demonstration and whose life and martyrdom throw a shadow over the young life of the fourth and last woman, her daughter.

The character of Lviv (or Lwów, or Lvov, depending on the period in history) is even more essential than these four women. A city of marketplaces and monuments, streets and spires, where history and the present mix, civilizations collide, and stories emerge from every nook and cranny.

Our favourite quote from The House with the Stained-Glass Window

Serhiy Zhadan, one of Europe's most promising novelists, is the master chronicler of every conflict. The Orphanage is a harrowing novel that excavates the human collateral damage produced by the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, recalling the bleak terrain of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to Arms. When enemy forces storm a nearby city, Pasha, a 35-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, heads out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha currently lives, which is now in seized territory. Pasha finds where his true loyalties lay in an increasingly desperate quest to rescue Sasha and return him home as he ventures into combat zones, crosses shifting borders, and forges difficult relationships along the way.

This is a highly personal narrative of brutality, written with raw passion, that will be remembered as the quintessential novel of the Ukrainian war.

Our favourite quote from The Orphanage: A Novel

This intriguing collection of texts by modern Ukrainian writers, historians, philosophers, political analysts, and opinion leaders includes thoughts on Ukraine's past or histories, as well as analyses of the present, conceptual concepts, and personal anecdotes. From the Holodomor to the Maidan, from Russian aggression to cultural diversity, from the depths of the past to the complexities of the present, the authors give a multi-faceted vision of Ukrainian memory and reality.
Anyone interested in Ukraine should read this book.

This book features notable Ukrainian historians, writers, philosophers, political analysts, and intellectuals as contributors.

Our favourite quote from Ukraine in Histories and Stories

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