As the Russo-Ukrainian war unravels and wanders into uncharted territory each day, it becomes more and more evident that Ukraine remains among the most complex and yet little-understood regions in Europe. It does not help that it is also especially difficult to grasp the nuances, perspectives, and the gravities of a humanitarian crisis while embroiled in one. Here’s a short list of books that offer a navigation guide, with each work providing an understanding of Ukraine through political, historical, ethnographic, and, above all, humane lenses.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, Serhii Plokhy
Serhii Plokhy’s Gates of Europe is a historiography of breathtaking scope, and among the most widely read books on one of the largest and least-understood European countries. Plokhy views modern Ukraine as the confluence of Europe, Russia, and the Asian East, tracing the country’s diverse socio-political fabric from its founding Neanderthal settlements, through Ottoman rule, to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
This context, he believes, is essential to understanding the political crises and domestic and foreign policies relevant to contemporary Ukraine. Plokhy is no ardent Russophile – yet, his analyses remain unsullied by blind pro-Ukrainian sentiment, which other works of this nature would otherwise be inclined toward. Lauded for his even-handedness, he is as quick to lament Ukrainian grievances under Soviet rule as he is at depicting Ukraine’s mistreatment of its minority Jewish community.
The Orphanage, Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler.
Among the recommendations of the author of Gates of Europe Serhii Plokhy is The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan, one of the most widely-read writers in Ukraine. Set during the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian crisis, the novel follows Pasha, a 35-year-old language teacher of both Ukrainian and Russian descent. Perhaps owing to this fragmented sense of identity, Pasha refrains from taking sides in the war – this sense of moral and political ambiguity is certainly intentional, underscoring Zhadan’s larger argument about the need for mutual empathy and understanding in the midst of conflict.
Despite his own indifference, however, Pasha is compelled to navigate the circumstances of the war when he endeavours to rescue his nephew, on the other side of the border, in the region controlled by separatists. Emotional and political turbulence is shown through the three-day journey Pasha undertakes to bring his nephew home, and the uneasy, shifting alliances, civic lawlessness, and absolute devastation that come to characterise it. Powerful, lyrical, and authentic, Zhadan’s writing is a product of the very soul of the contemporary Ukrainian crisis.
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum
In the early 20th century, as Western Europe saw the rise of Hitler and Moussolini, hunger ravaged the Eastern front. A famine had gripped the Soviet Union in 1932 – allegedly, a deliberately engineered one intended to suppress revolutionary elements and target minority ethnic groups, including Kazakhs and most predominantly Ukranians.
Written by American journalist and historian Anne Applebaum – whose illustrious bibliography includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History – Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine is a compendium of first-hand testimony, memoirs, archival material, and the work of a plethora of Ukrainian scholars. She synthesises academic literature, identifying the failure of collective farming and fund industrialisation by exporting foodstuffs abroad as potential causes.
Her historiographical chapters probe disinformation and propaganda; her work on how narratives of the famine have been framed in both Soviet and post-Soviet eras has been lauded for its scholarly contributions to the field. While Appleaum herself is less inclined to vouch for this sentiment, the holodomor – the Ukranian word for the famine, literally “murder by starvation” – is still remembered by many Ukranians as a genocide sponsored by Stalinist Russia.
Everything Flows, Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows proves to be an evocative, emotionally-charged supplement to Applebaum’s Red Famine. Set against the backdrop of the 1933 famine, the novel follows Ivan Grigoryevich, a man released from the gulag after three decades, reacquainting himself with a world that has since forgotten him. Grossman captures the varied experiences of the famine through rhapsodic prose – short fiction interspersed with essays criticising Stalin, firsthand accounts of the famine, and experiences of the gulag put together from real oral testimony, among other fragments and vignettes.
The novel remains unfinished, or, at the very least, rushed, as Grossman, who had fallen sick in the last few years of writing it, found himself with a ticking clock to beat. The resultant effect is almost akin to the writer inviting the reader to complete the ending on his behalf, creating a strangely interactive experience between his reality and that of an audience reading him decades in the future.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen
To write Voices from Chernobyl, journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed over 500 people caught in the crossfire of the 1986 disaster, from ordinary citizens to firefighters, from liquidators (workers called to clean up the site) to politicians. Hers is the first book to present firsthand, personal accounts of the tragedy.
Alexievich allows the interviews to speak for themselves, arranging them in a monologue form with minimal editorial intervention. Through testimony upon heartbreaking testimony, she builds an intense, devastating, and honest depiction of the disaster that contaminated over 2,600 kilometres of the land surrounding the plant, and took the lives of an estimated 3,000 Ukranians. In late February 2022, Russian forces captured the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky explains his second poetry collection, Deaf Republic, as a meditation on “what happens to language in a time of crisis, how we carry on and how we try to remain human.” It centres around the fictional town of Vasenka, located in an unnamed occupied country, where a young deaf boy has been killed by invading soldiers. In a gesture of protest and solidarity, the townspeople start feigning muteness and deafness.
Here, Kaminsky draws on personal experience, being hard-of-hearing himself, and having had to navigate the complex, multi-hyphenate identity of being Soviet Ukrainian and Jewish, and living under political asylum in the United States. Owing to an extensive cast of characters reminiscent of ancient Greek literature, and a narrative that imparts an air of “poetic drama”, the collection has been hailed as a “contemporary epic”.
Ukraine and Russia: From Civilised Divorce to Uncivil War, Paul D’Anieri
Why did war between Ukraine and Russia break out in 2014? This question is the main preoccupation of Paul d’Anieri’s Ukraine and Russia: From Civilised Divorce to Uncivil War. Arguing that the dissolution of the Soviet Union only introduced a “new Cold War”, d’Anieri makes a case for three potential causes – Ukraine’s desire to ally with NATO and the resultant security dilemma, the impact of democratisation on a post-Cold War Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s own internal affairs.
His analysis spans the period between 1991 and 2015, and this relatively contemporary lens renders his book pertinent to understanding the war unfolding in Ukraine today. His is a more pessimistic, though realistic conclusion; that any potential for conflict de-escalation in the region necessitates compromise and a rewiring of political priorities on part of all stakeholders involved – Ukraine, Russia, and the West.