As President Putin continues to besiege Ukrainian cities, there is no shortage of literature that can act as an aid to understanding the history and culture of the embattled country. Standing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Ukrainian culture is a confluence of West and East, bearing some of the world’s best non-fiction and fiction writers. From contemporary leading authors such as Andrey Kurkov to cookery writers such as Olia Hercules and renowned historians such as Serhii Ploky, the writers of Ukraine are a testament to a nation that is abundant in diversity, ingenuity, and first-and-foremost, resiliency.
Here are ten must-read fiction and nonfiction books on Ukraine.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy (Penguin Books), £9.95.
In what has been heralded as one of the most comprehensive, authoritative and detailed histories of Ukraine, professor and historian Serhii Plokhy covers over 20,000 years of Ukraine’s ongoing search for identity and independence, from the age of Herodotus up to the 2014 Maidan protests. As a result of the region’s geopolitical location as a crossroads, it has always served as a strategic link between East and West where many groups have historically fought for supremacy, including the Romans, Ottomans, and the Soviet Union. Plokhy, now based at Harvard, uses his knowledge of historical conflicts to draw insights into ongoing conflicts and the quest to establish Ukrainian sovereignty.
Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoly Kuznetsov (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), £21.09.
This book began as a notebook of a teenage boy, half-Russian, half-Ukrainian, who witnessed the events of the Nazis’ murder of 33,771 Jews in Kyiv’s Babi Yar ravine in September 1941. When it was published in a Soviet journal in 1966, it was heavily censored as the antisemitism of the Stalinist regime was still very much embedded in the Soviet cultural establishment that only saw “Soviet” victims of war. After Kuznetsov defected to the west, he smuggled out his complete text on film. In 1991, a monument to the Jewish victims was finally erected by the newly-independent Ukrainian government. Today, 100,000 Jews call Kyiv their home and President Zelensky is one of them. In an effort to destroy the nearby TV tower, Putin’s missiles hit the monument to Babyn Yar.
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Penguin Books), £12.05.
The historian and journalist Anne Applebaum draws on the work of Ukrainian scholars to delve into the famine in Ukraine created by Stalin, as he sought to destroy the Ukrainian national movement. The Ukrainians call it the Holodomor — the extermination (mor) by starvation (holod) of more than four million countrymen between 1932-3. Nowhere else in the USSR was the famine of those years as severe; where four-fifths of the victims were Ukrainians — peasants stripped of their property after the Stalinist regime forced them into the collective farms and then requisitioned their last stocks of seed and food until they starved to death. Applebaum not only tackles a history of the changing map of Ukraine in Red Famine, but also a portrait of the Ukrainian people, both the anti-Soviet peasant class and the nationalistic intelligentsia.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, translated into English by Keith Gessen (Dalkey Archive Press), £23.49.
On April 26 1986, the world’s worst nuclear reactor accident occurred in Chernobyl near the Ukraine-Belarus border and contaminated as much as three-quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to curate personal accounts of the tragedy from a decade-worth of interviews. Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown — from innocent citizens to firefighters — and the collection of stories, comprised in monologue form, unravel the sheer fear, anger, and uncertainty in which so many Ukrainians continue to live in.
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Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine by Olia Hercules (Bloomsbury), £19.99.
The Ukrainian cookery writer Olia Hercules’ most recent cookbook is dedicated to time spent in the “summer kitchens” — small structures alongside the main house where people cook and preserve summer fruits and vegetables for the winter months — of her parents, grandparents, neighbours and friends dotted around Ukraine. In Summer Kitchens, Hercules collates recipes redolent of the time spent in these spaces, filling the pages with evocative photography, and snippets about the people and the lush landscapes of Ukraine. She includes traditional recipes such as Borsh with duck and smoked pears, burnt aubergine butter on tomato toast, poppyseed babka to pot roast chicken with herb crème fraîche.
Since the invasion, Olia Hercules and Russian food creative Alissa Timoshkina have teamed up to launch #CookForUkraine, raising awareness of the humanitarian crisis and funds for those in need by encouraging people to cook or bake Ukrainian and eastern European-inspired dishes. Cooking may seem like a small way to contribute to a mammoth issue, but as Hercules states on Instagram: “Every single positive post or physical act of kindness, full of love, that brings attention to what’s happening, helps.”
The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (Vintage Publishing), £8.15.
A Russian writer from Ukraine, Bulgakov was born in Kyiv, where The White Guard is set in 1918, during the first year of the Russian civil war. The Bolsheviks have taken power in Russia, and the White Guards, their enemies, have fled to Ukraine, where they hope to rally the Cossacks. Although Ukraine has declared its independence, it remains at the mercy of the German occupiers, while Symon Petilura’s Ukrainian nationalists are camped outside the capital. The story revolves around the Turbin family, part of the monarchist intelligentsia, whose world collapses in the chaos and confusion of the fighting around Kyiv, ending with the Soviet invasion of Ukraine.
Depeche Mode by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Myroslav Shkandrij (Glagoslav Publications), £17.99.
Serhiy Zhadan is a poet and novelist whose work has been likened to Rimbaud, Charles Bukowski and Irvine Welsh. Depeche Mode is his debut novel, and it depicts Ukrainian youth during the turbulence of the 1990s. Described by Zhadan as a “book about real comradeship”, the novel traces three people, the unemployed narrator and his friends, Jewish anti-Semite Dogg Pavlov and Vasia, the Communist. The characters confront elements of their reality and embark on a sad and dramatic adventure around Kharkiv and further afield.
Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Quercus Publishing), £8.65.
From the author of the bestselling Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov dramatises the conflict raging in his country through the adventures of a mild-mannered beekeeper. Grey Bees is set in Little Starhorodivka, which lies in Ukraine’s Grey Zone — the no-mans-land between loyalist and separatist forces. Owing to the war of sporadic violence and constant propaganda, only two residents remain: a retired safety inspector turned beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich and Pashka, “a frenemy” from his schooldays. With the ever-present threat of bombardment, little food and no electricity, Sergeyich’s one remaining pleasure is his bees and he knows he must take them far away from the Grey Zone so they can pollinate in peace. Kurkov’s novel attracted praise for treating the unfolding crisis with imagination and a pinch of humour.
Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets (Pushkin Press), £9.45.
In Lucky Breaks, we encounter anonymous women from the margins of Ukrainian society, their lives upended by the ongoing conflict with Russia. A woman, bewildered by her broken umbrella, tries to abandon it like a sick relative; a beautiful florist suddenly disappears, her shop converted into a warehouse for propaganda; hiding out from the shelling, neighbours read horoscopes in the local paper that tell them when it’s safe to go outside. Belorusets braids these tales of ebullient style with her signature style of linguistic verve and absurdist wit. She writes of trauma amid the mundane, telling surreal, unsettling tales of survival in a country featuring twenty-three photographs that form their own captivating narrative.
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko (Amazon Publishing), £6.89.
Dubbed the “most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence”, Field Work in Ukrainian Sex became an international phenomenon when it shot to number one on the Ukrainian bestseller list and remained there throughout the 1990s. The novel is narrated in first-person streams of thought by a sharp-tongued poet with an irreverently honest voice. A visiting professor of Slavic studies at Harvard, her exposure to American values and behaviours conspired with her yearning to break free from the shackles of Ukrainian conventions. After her affair dissipates, she details the power her Ukrainian lover wielded over her. In confessing the reasons for her attraction to him, she begins to see the chains of what it means to be a Ukrainian woman. In doing so, she unravels and calls into question her country’s culture of fear and repression at the very time it was wrestling its way toward independence.