It’s hard to know how to make sense of a humanitarian crisis like Russia’s current occupation of Ukraine, especially if you have no ties to the region or more than cursory knowledge of the geopolitical forces at play. While the best way for most of us to be of service is to donate money and supplies, to raise awareness and to lobby for the safe passage of Ukrainian refugees, in terms of having a idea of what is really happening on the ground, it helps to know more about the nation’s history. Below is a list of books for anyone hoping to better understand the background to Ukraine’s invasion and the nuances of its national identity.
Putin’s Country: A Journey to the Real Russia by Anne Garrels, 2016
I know it might seem retrograde to start this list with a book about Russia, but unfortunately understanding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mentality and the hold he has over much of the country is key to contextualizing his invasion. of Ukraine recently ordained. Garrels’ portrayal of Russia’s growing wealth gap and deteriorating conditions in many former members of the Soviet Union was shortlisted for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, and is an excellent look – albeit sobering – about a nation often misunderstood.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serheii Plokhy, 2015
Two thousand years of Ukrainian history are presented and expertly analyzed by Harvard professor Plokhy, who delves into Ukrainian nationalism and ethnic identity while devoting considerable time to recent geopolitical movements (such as the “annexation from Crimea) that have helped define the theater of the current Ukrainian conflict.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, translated into English by Keith Gessen, 1997
Let me be the first to admit that Voice of Chernobyl is a deeply heartbreaking read, but his decade of interviews with more than 500 eyewitnesses to the 1986 nuclear disaster near the Ukraine-Belarus border is crucial to understanding the devastation the accident caused to many Ukrainians (and the potential danger of a Russian seizure Chernobyl now).
life and fate by Vasily Grossman, 1980
Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1905, Grossman was a highly censored Soviet war correspondent and novelist whose defining achievement, life and fateputs forward ideas about war, humanity, genocide and moral obligation that are always provocative.
Jews and Ukrainians in Russian Literary Frontiers: From the Shtetl Fair to the St. Petersburg Bookstore by Amelia Glaser, 2012
This book is somewhat academic and difficult to track down, but it is also an unprecedented examination of how Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish writers overlap and diverge in their national and historical context. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about the experiences of Jews in Ukraine (in the 19th century and today).
Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race and African Migration by Adriana Helbig, 2014
Ukraine is often mistaken for a racially and ethnically homogeneous nation – an attitude that has manifested itself even in current refugee evacuation efforts – but this book has long highlighted the experiences of African migrants and local black populations. in Ukraine, tracing their identities through the world of Ukrainian hip-hop and complicating popular understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian.
Mapping Difference: The Many Faces of Women in Contemporary Ukraineedited by Marian J. Rubchak, 2011
Gender in the former Soviet territory is a complex and nuanced subject on which much has been written, but this collection of essays focuses distinctly and notably on the notion of modern Ukrainian femininity, seen from a wide range of perspectives.