35 Books on Ukraine: Fiction & Nonfiction

by | May 25, 2023 | Books, Ukraine

“In many ways, the current conflict is an old-fashioned imperial war conducted by Russian elites who see themselves as heirs and continuators of the great-power expansionist traditions of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. On Ukraine’s part it is first and foremost a war of independence, a desperate attempt on behalf of a new nation that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet collapse to defend its right to existence.”

The Russo-Ukrainian War by Serhii Plokhy (May 2023)

Looking for some books on Ukraine?

Are you as fascinated by what is happening in this country as much as I am?

In this blog post, you’ll find a list of the best books on Ukraine including books on Ukrainian history, contemporary Ukrainian society, the Revolution of Dignity, the Russo-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian fiction, and much more.

I’ve read almost all the books on this list, so I’ll tell you which ones will help you most understand what’s currently happening in this amazing country: Why did Russia invade? Why are Ukrainians resisting so fiercely? Why democracy took hold in Ukraine but not in Russia?

Oh and if you want to understand Russia and Vladimir Putin better, check out this list of the best books on Russia.

So grab a cup of tea and let’s get started!


Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Please see this website’s Disclosure for more info.

In this post, you’ll find…

I’ve divided this list of 35 books into 7 categories. Just jump to the section that most interests you by clicking on the link below:

Books on Ukrainian History

If you want to understand why the people of Ukraine are fighting so hard for their freedom, pick up one or two of the following books on Ukrainian history.

Start with The Gates of Europe and then follow it up with Anna Reid’s Borderland or vice versa.

The Gates of Europe is a book on the complete history of Ukraine. It’s jampacked with dates, names, and events that can be hard to keep straight if you’re not familiar with Ukrainian or Russian history.

Borderland is much more engaging than The Gates of Europe. It’s part travelogue and part history. The book helped me make sense of Ukraine’s history and its present situation.

After that, dig into Timothy Snyder’s brilliant and revelatory Bloodlands. It recounts all of the terror Ukraine (and Poland and Belarus) suffered at the hands of Stalin and Hitler. If any book will tell you why it is so important that Ukraine is independent and free, it is Snyder’s book.

My other favorite book on this list that you should read is Applebaum’s The Red Famine. It’s about the famine that Stalin deliberately created in Ukraine called Holodomor.

If you still can’t get enough Ukrainian history, then dive into Ukraine Histories and Stories. It covers a variety of topics from history to culture to identity.

1. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

By Serhii Plokhy, 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“It [the Cossack Uprising of 1648] transformed the political map of the entire region and gave birth to a Cossack state that many regard as the foundation of modern Ukraine. It also launched a long era of Russian involvement in Ukraine and is widely regarding as a starting point in the history of the relations between Russia and Ukraine as separate nations.”

For those of you wanting one book that explains the complete 2,000-year history of Ukraine from its beginning to the twenty-first century, The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy is an essential read.

A professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, Serhii Plokhy was born in Russia but grew up and got his degree in history in Ukraine. He’s written several books on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern European history, and is considered the foremost expert on these Slavic countries.

But a warning:

If you’re unfamiliar with Ukrainian or Russian history, it might not be the easiest to get through. At times it can be hard to keep all the names of people, places, and events straight.

I recommend reading Plokhy’s book while watching Timothy Snyder’s History of Ukraine class on YouTube.

Other Books by Serhii Plokhy:

2. Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine

By Anna Reid, 2015

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Being a borderland meant two things. First, Ukrainians inherited a legacy of violence. ‘Rebellion; Civil War; Pogroms; Famine; Purges; Holocaust’ a friend remarked, flipping through the box of file-cards I assembled while researching this book. ‘Where’s the section on Peace and Prosperity?” Second, they were left with a tenuous, equivocal sense of national identity.”

Don’t you love it when a book turns out to be MUCH better than you expected?

I didn’t have high hopes for Borderland, mostly because the reviews were mixed.

However, I ADORE this book. I became so engrossed in it while I was in Costa Rica that I could not unglue myself from my hotel room on a day when I could have been looking at monkeys and sloths.

The book is partly an account of the author’s travels through Ukraine in the 1990s and partly an account of the history of Ukraine.

It’s divided into two parts:

  • Part 1 is about Ukraine in the 1990s, right after independence.  
  • Part 2 is about Ukraine in the 2000s during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.

In each chapter Reid visits a different Ukrainian city, describing what she sees and hears. These observations and conversations are mixed in with the history of Ukraine.

Two of the major themes of the book, which are relevant for understanding the war today are…

  • What is Ukrainian identity? Are Ukrainians Russians as Putin claims they are?
  • Should Ukraine even be a country? Or it is just a part of Russia?

These questions that Reid asked back in the 1990s are the essence of what Ukrainians and Russians are fighting over today.

Compared to The Gates of Europe, Borderland is an easier and more enjoyable book to read about Ukrainian history.

3.      Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

By Anne Applebaum, 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5

“The first lesson which is becoming an integral part of Ukrainian consciousness is that Russia has never had and never will have any other interest in Ukraine beyond the total destruction of the Ukrainian nation.”

To understand why Ukraine needs to win this war with Russia and remain an independent country, read Red Famine by Anne Applebaum.

This EXCELLENT and very easy-to-read book is about the famine that Stalin created across the USSR from 1932-33. In Ukraine, the famine is known as Holodomor, and it was particularly worse than anywhere else in the Soviet Union.

Applebaum has some excellent articles on Ukraine and Russia in the Atlantic and some interesting interviews that you can find on YouTube. She has another excellent book on totalitarianism that you should also read.

Red Famine covers the years between 1917 and 1934. However, it focuses mostly on what happened from 1932-33. These were the years of the great famine when over 3.5 million Ukrainians starved to death.

Applebaum looks at the chain of events that led to the famine and the impact it had on Ukraine. You learn how the Ukrainian peasants reacted to collectivization, how they suffered during the famine, and how the people in the cities responded to that suffering.

She discusses what motivated Stalin to create the famine and how everyone else went along with his policies of deliberate starvation.

The book concludes with a look at how the famine relates to the broader history of Ukraine.

Her style of writing may not be as scintillating as Michael Lewis’s, but I like her clear, matter-of-fact, balanced, and unmelodramatic way of presenting history.

Overall, this fascinating and revelatory book is the most up-to-date book in English on Holodamar, so it’s worth reading.

More Books by Anne Applebaum:

4. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder, 2012

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“For both Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was more than a source of food. It was the place that would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics. rescue their countries from poverty and isolation, and remake the continent in their own image. Their programs and their power all depended upon their control of Ukraine’s fertile soil and its millions of agricultural laborers.”

If Timothy Snyder had a fan club, I would be the president of it. There is no historian that I admire more than him. The man is brilliant and he has written some of the BEST history books I’ve ever read.

Bloodlands is one of his best books. I think it’s this book particularly that made me so passionate about Ukraine.

If you want to understand why Ukraine should NEVER fall under the control of Russia or any foreign country ever again, read this book.

Snyder refers to Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic states as the Bloodlands because it was in these countries where Hitler and Stalin murdered 14 million people between 1930 and 1945. He describes how, why, and where these murders took place.

Hitler tried wiping out not only the Jewish people but also the Ukrainians in order to move the Germans into Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe.

Stalin also tried killing off the Jews, Ukrainians, Tatars, the Polish intellectual, political, and military classes, the wealthier peasants, and anyone his paranoid and psychotic brain thought was out to get him.

Overall, Bloodlands is a book that is worth reading. I guarantee that you will not be able to look at Russia, Germany, Poland, and Ukraine the same ever again after reading this book.

More Books by Timothy Snyder:

5. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbothom, 2019

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“the origins of the accident lay with those who had designed the reactor and the secret, incestuous bureaucracy that had allowed it to go into operation.”

Midnight in Chernobyl is another excellent Ukraine book on one of the most fascinating events in modern history: the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl (formerly transcribed from Russian as Chernobyl; Chornobyl is the Ukrainian transcription and now the accepted way as Chornobyl is located inside Ukraine).

I read Midnight in Chernobyl right after watching the HBO series, Chornobyl. The book cleared up a few questions I still had after watching the series. I also got a more accurate account of events than what was depicted in the series. For example, the TV series created fictional characters (a female scientist) to appeal to viewers’ interests and made up events that didn’t happen for dramatic effect. The book just told it as it really happened.

Here are some questions Midnight in Chernobyl tries to answer: What caused it? What features of the Soviet system led to it? What actions on the night of the accident and subsequent days made everything worse? How did the Soviet government cover up the accident? What happened to the firefighters and nuclear power plant people afterward? What happened during the trial? How did the nuclear accident lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union?

If you want the perfect example of how incompetent, corrupt, and dishonest the Soviet Union was, read this book!

More Books on Chornobyl

6. Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays By Ukrainian Intellectuals

By Volodymyr Yermolenko (Editor, Contributor), Peter Pomerantsev (Foreword), & 16 more, 2020

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“We, Ukrainians, are in love with Europe, Europe is in love with Russia, while Russia hates both us and Europe, but behaves differently towards us and Europe.”

Ukraine in Histories and Stories is a great book for those of you who’ve already read The Gates of Europe and want to delve deeper into the history and culture of this fascinating country.

It’s also a great book for those of you struggling (like me!) with trying to understand who the Cossacks are and what Ukrainian identity is.

The book is a collection of 16 essays and interviews with Ukrainian intellectuals (historians, writers, journalists, political analysts, and philosophers). The essays focus on a specific theme–history, stereotypes, the motherland, and relationships with Poles and Jews. Nearly all of them mention Russia in one way or another.

Each writer was asked to write about Ukraine as if he, she, or they were talking to a non-Ukrainian and trying to help them understand the country.

I like that the book is honest about Ukraine’s own mistakes. Toward the end, the essays focus on uncomfortable and painful topics in Ukrainian history in which Ukrainians are the perpetrators and not the victims. These include the Holocaust, Ukrainian Nationalism, and the treatment of the Tatars.

Books on Jewish History in Ukraine

On the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had one of the largest populations of Jewish people in the world. In fact, 3 million Jews lived in Ukraine. In other words, at least 12% of the population was Jewish.

In the Holocaust, it’s estimated that between 1.2 and 1.6 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

However, even before that, Jews suffered for centuries from discrimination and persecution in Ukraine. They faced laws forbidding them from owning farmland and strict quotas in education. Any time something went wrong in Ukraine or Russia, the Jewish population was blamed. This resulted in pogroms in which the Christian population would murder, rape, and torture the Jews and burn down and destroy synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes. The last major pogrom (1918-1921) in Ukraine before the Holocaust resulted in the death of over 100,000 Jews.

To learn more about the Jewish population of Ukraine, I’ve compiled a list of books on the Holocaust, the pogrom of 1918-1921, and some fiction books.

7. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

By Timothy Snyder, 2015

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future.”

I thought I understood the Holocaust. But after reading Snyder’s book, Black Earth, I realized that I had gotten a lot wrong. Don’t worry. I’m not here to say that 6 million Jews weren’t murdered. They were. But how, by whom, when, and why have been misrepresented in many movies and books.

Even though Black Earth is about all the countries Germany invaded and not just Ukraine, I decided to include it here in case you are looking for the most up-to-date research on the Holocaust in Ukraine–how they were killed and what role Ukrainians played in it.

And the title, Black Earth, refers to Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine was one of the main reasons that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. His idea of lebensraum (the German need for more living space) rests on colonizing Ukraine since it has some of the richest soil in the world.

I also chose the book because Snyder’s description of Hitler’s tactics, motivation, and thinking are so similar to those of Putin’s. One example is how Hitler claimed he was taking over the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to protect Germans from discrimination. Putin also justifies his invasion of Ukraine by claiming he is protecting Russians from discrimination.

But even without these ties to Ukraine, Black Earth is an important, revelatory, and groundbreaking book on the Holocaust.

More Books by Timothy Snyder:

8. In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust

By Jeffrey Veidlinger, 2021

My Rating: Not Yet Rated

In the Midst of Civilized Europe is about the Ukrainian pogroms of 1918-1921, resulting in the death of over 100,000 Jews. I have not had a chance to read this book yet.

In the book, the author argues that the progroms created the conditions for the Holocaust to happen. In this opinion, Hitler and the Germans are not solely responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews. The blame should be placed more on the Ukrainians and Poles than on the Germans. Hitler was also motivated more by anti-communism rather than antisemitism.

I’m not saying I agree with this opinion at all. The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Germany hadn’t invaded these countries.

However, this is a highly-rated book about a topic that is not covered deeply enough in other history books on Ukraine.

9. Tears Over Russia: A Search For Family and the Legacy of Ukraine’s Pogroms

By Lisa Brahin, 2022

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“He wore a smile on his face, making his thoughts transparent: he was going to have a ball with all these Jews, who were known to the peasantry as a group of people who didn’t fight back. The peasants used to say in Russian, “The Jews are like sheep; they let you do what you want with them.” This solo bandit thought that he would get rich by holding up a caravan full of Jews.”

Tears over Russia is a captivating story about one Jewish family’s experience living in Ukraine during the pogroms of 1918 to 1921 as well as their escape from Ukraine to the United States in the 1920s. It’s estimated that 100,000 Jews lost their lives in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it’s a very disorganized book that needed better editing. It feels like the author sat down with members of her family, listened to their life stories, recorded them, and then wrote down verbatim what they said regardless of whether it moved the story forward.

I wish the book gave more background to what was happening in Ukraine (civil war and a war of independence) and Russia (Bolshevik Revolution) at that time. The writer mentions the names of historical figures, but if you don’t know anything about Ukrainian history, you won’t know who they are or why they are so significant.

If you want to understand the pogroms, this book is a good companion to a more comprehensive history of Ukraine, the USSR, and Europe during these years.

10. The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

By Daniel Mendelsohn

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 I read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million a long, long time ago, so I don’t remember the details. I remember being really engrossed in the story and impacted emotionally by it as I always am with stories of the Holocaust.

The author, Daniel Mendelssohn, has always been interested in his family’s history. After coming across some letters written in 1939 by his great uncle in Ukraine to his grandfather, he is motivated to find out what happened to this great uncle and his family, who didn’t survive the Holocaust.

He travels around the world looking for the answer to what happened until eventually, he ends up in the Ukrainian village where his ancestors were from. There he finds out the fate of his grandfather’s brother and his family.

The writing is good and the story is very moving. If you’re looking for a book on the Holocaust that took place in Ukraine, you can’t go wrong here.

It’s also featured in Ken Burns’s documentary on the Holocaust and it’s a National Book Award Winner.

11. Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel

By Anetoly Kuznetsov 

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“When the order was first published nine Jews out of every ten had never heard a word about any Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Right up to the outbreak of war Soviet newspapers had been doing nothing but praising and glorifying Hitler as the Soviet Union’s best friend, and had said nothing about the position of the Jews in Germany and Poland. It was possible even to find among the Jews of Kiev some enthusiastic admirers of Hitler as an able statesman.”

I’d wanted to read Babi Yar ever since the Russian-American journalist, Masha Gessen, recommended this as 1 of 5 must-read books on Ukraine.

I was not disappointed at all!

This is probably the greatest novel I’ve read on what it was like to live under Nazi occupation.

Anetoly Kuznetsov was a Russian-language writer who grew up in Kyiv during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. He says that he grew up “a stone’s throw from a vast ravine, whose name, Babi Yar, was once known only to locals.” This place would have been known to more people, but for the longest time, the Soviet Union covered up what happened at Babi Yar.

When Kuznetsov was 14 years old, he started writing down everything he saw during the German occupation. Then based on these notes, he published a censored version of this book in 1966. After he defected to the United Kingdom in 1969, an uncensored version of the book was published in the West.

Babi Yar is a novel based on Kuznetsov’s life under both the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Ukraine. The main character is a boy of 12 at the beginning of the war. He lives with his mother and grandparents in Kyiv.

The massacre of the over 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar is only a small part of the book. In this part, the events of Babi Yar are told by a real Jewish woman, Dina, who was one of the rare people to escape from the ravine and live to tell about it.

However, throughout the novel, Babi Yar comes up, because the Nazis not only took Jews there but throughout the war, they also took Ukrainians and Russians there to be murdered.

Babi Yar shows that Ukrainians also suffered during the war albeit not anywhere near the extent that the Jewish people suffered. Historians and the media and entertainment industry in the U.S. rarely show this side of the war.

I also loved the characters in the book. The young boy, his mother, and his grandmother are wonderful people. But it’s the grandfather who interested me the most. He’s not a nice guy–selfish, racist, lazy, and jealous, but he’s also observant. He sees the communists for who they were, and after a while, he realizes that the Germans are even worse than the Russians.

Overall, Babi Yar is one of the best books on Ukraine.

12. Odessa Stories

By Isaac Babel, 1931

My Rating: 2 out of 5

Odessa Stories is a collection of short stories written by one of the Soviet Union’s greatest writesr, Isaaca Babal. The stories take place in the very Jewish city of Odessa. In fact, 35% of the population of the city was Jewish.

The book is divided into 3 parts:

The first part contains stories about the mob boss, Benya Krik, who ruled over Odessa’s Jewish population. These stories were the hardest ones to get into. I sometimes didn’t understand what was going on.

The second part was the highlight of the book for me. These stories are semi-autobiographical and are based on Babel’s life growing up in Odessa.

I never got to the stories in the third part because I just gave up and then I had to return the book to the library.

Odessa Stories is one of my least favorite books on Ukraine. The stories are supposed to be funny, but I didn’t find them so. My mind kept on wandering as I read them. I’d read a bit, look at something online, then go back to the book, and I’d end up having to reread what I just read. Eventually, I gave up.

More Books by Isaac Babel

Books on the Revolution of Dignity

If you want to understand what’s going on in Ukraine now, you’ve got to look at the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14, the annexation of Crimea, and the separatist movement in the Donbas. These books will take you to that period.

Both The Ukrainian Night and Ukraine Diaries tell you why the Maidan protests began, how they unfolded, and how they subsequently led to the ouster of President Yanukovych, which in turn led to the Russian occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

13. The Ukrainian Night

By Marci Shore, 2018

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Come on, let’s get serious. Who is ready to go out to the Maidan by midnight tonight? ‘Likes’ don’t count.” – the Facebook post of Mustafa Nayyem’s, an Afghan-Ukrainian journalist, that began the Maidan Revolution.

I had no intention of reading The Ukrainian Night, but when I found out that it was required reading for Timothy Snyder’s Yale Course on Ukraine, I immediately bought it, read it, and finished it in 2 days.

Only after I read it did I find out that the author, Marci Shore, is Snyder’s wife. She’s also a professor of European intellectual history at Yale University specializing in the history of twentieth and twenty-first-century Central and Eastern Europe. Watch her lecture on the Revolution of Dignity. It’s very impressive.

The book is divided into 2 parts.

Part 1: Shore tells the story of the Euromaidan Protests (November 21, 2013 – February 23. 2014) by interviewing the protestors. They describe why they joined the protests, how they participated, and how they felt while it was going on.

Part 2: The second part is about the period after the protests when Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The author interviews people living in the eastern part of Ukraine. All of them are supporters of the Maidan Revolution. Many joined the protest, and some even joined the Ukrainian army when the war started in eastern Ukraine.

Overall, it’s interesting reading about the protestors’ personal experiences. However, it’s also very limited in scope. She didn’t interview those who opposed Euromaidan, and she didn’t analyze the reasons behind the Revolution.

Sometimes it was hard to follow what was going on. The author jumped around a lot from person to person and then back again to the original person. I was too lazy to keep a running tab on all the different characters.

14. Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev

By Andrey Kurkov, 2014

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“This morning, the weather forecast on Ren-TV, as well as other Russian television channels, included Crimea, Donbas and Kharkiv in their meteorological map of Russia. I realise that a political map is generally used for these things, but surely it should be one recognised by other countries. Presumably this map is Putin’s personal map, giving a clear vision of how he sees Russia’s future. Or is the aim to prepare the Russian population for the coming occupations of Ukrainian territory? In that case, I will have to pay more attention to Russian weather forecasts in future, to check that Kiev, Warsaw, Riga and Vilnius are not included in their maps.”

I’m not sure everyone’s going to find Ukraine Diaries all that interesting. As a history nerd and someone who’s become a bit obsessed with what’s happening in Ukraine, I found reading a guy’s diary describing a revolution happening in his city while sitting in his posh apartment to still be interesting.

the guy sitting in his apartment was Andrey Kurkov, a famous Russian-Ukrainian writer. Although he was born and grew up in Russia, Kurkov considers himself to be Ukrainian by choice. Kurkov keeps a daily diary. The diary entries in this book start from the first day of the Maidan Protests on November 21, 2013 to April 24, 2014.

Kurkov lives a 5-minute walk from Maidan. He’s not a participant in the protests, but he is an observer of them and an occasional visitor to them. His diary entries include his observations and comments on what was happening in the square, on the news, to his friends, around the country, and in the government.

The entries also include mundane everyday activities, comments on his writing, and his family and work activities—paintball birthday parties, drives to school, family vacations to Crimea, and meetings and conferences.

I came away with seeing the protests in another light: From Kurkov’s entries, you can see that the Svoboda Party (fair right party) was more active during the Revolution than many Ukrainians care to admit. The protestors weren’t always peaceful. A lot of violence took place on both sides.

Yes, Ukraine Diaries is worth reading if you want to dive deep into Ukrainian history and want to understand the event that sparked the war we are now in.

If you’re trying to decide which book to read, The Ukrainian Night or Ukraine Diaries, I’d say Ukraine Diaries. The Ukrainian Night was written after the events and I’m slightly suspicious that people’s memories aren’t always accurate. Ukraine Diaries was written as the events were going on.

More Books by Andrey Kurkov:

Books on The Russo-Ukrainian War (2014-present)

The Russo-Ukrainian War started on February 20, 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea with their “little green men” and then proceeded to annex the territory while the rest of the world pretty much did nothing. Soon after the Russians and their little green men orchestrated the overthrow of the government in the Donbas. Then on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded the whole country of Ukraine.

The following Ukraine books describe the events over the past nine years.

 

15. The War Came to Us: Life and Death in Ukraine

By Christopher Miller, 2023

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“In many ways, this is the book I always wanted to write about Ukraine. In other ways, it’s the book I never wanted to write about Ukraine. After reading it, I think you’ll understand what I mean.”

In this section, I’m going to start with my FAVORITE book on Ukraine. After reading 34 books on this country and 13 on Russia since 2014, The War Came to Us is book #35 and it’s also, in my opinion, the BEST one for so many reasons.

First, though, I want to say what this book won’t tell you. It will not analyze why Putin invaded. You can read other books like Overreach by Owen Matthews and Russia’s War by Jade McGlynn for that answer. It also won’t analyze why Ukraine was so successful during the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives. I think a good book about this topic hasn’t been written yet.

However, what it will give you is a more personal and detailed account of the events over the last eight years that you cannot find in any of these other books on Ukraine.

The author, Christopher Miller, has a unique story. He arrived in Ukraine in 2010 as a Peace Corps volunteer, and what is even more meaningful to this story is that he was a teacher in Bakhmut (in 2010 it had a different name).

Miller devotes the first section of the book to his time in Bakhmut. His description of what the city had been like in 2010 makes what Russia has done to it and other cities like it so significant. It’s perhaps my favorite section of the book, and it’s the only really happy part of it too.

Part II delves into the Revolution of Dignity that erupted in November 2013. I’ve read a few books describing the protests (see the section here), but Miller’s account of them is superior in every way. He was right there in Maidan reporting on the events as a journalist for the Kyiv Post. I have not seen any books in English with such a close-up perspective and detailed account of the events.

Part III covers the Russian invasion of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. Again, Miller is right there on the ground covering the events. He’s there reporting on the Russian blockade of the Ukraine military base in Crimea and he’s running around the Donbas reporting from the airport in Donetsk City and the site of the Malaysian air jet crash and even tracking down where Russia launched their missile to blow up the airplane. He will tell you EXACTLY when and how Russia was involved in the events.  

Part IV is about the full-scale invasion. If you’ve read any of the other books on the topic or have been following the war as closely as I have, not much will be new here. There’s some new information about Zelensky in the first few days of the war that I haven’t read before and there’s some interesting reporting on the weeks before the invasion from the Donbas. Miller goes back to Bakhmut and enters the city when no other journalist dared to.

Another unique feature of this book is that Miller has a close relationship with many Ukrainians that you won’t find from the other books on this list and therefore, he’s able to get more meaningful reactions.  

Overall, The War Came to Us is a special book and it’s because of Miller’s relationship with Ukraine and because he is such a great writer and a fearless and compassionate journalist.

16. Invasion: The Inside Story of Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival

By Luke Harding, (November 2022)

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“More plausible was the axiom that without Ukraine, Russia could never be an empire or a great power. There as the threat of example, moreover. Ukraine was home to millions of native Russian speakers. If it could become a successful Western-style democracy where critical voices were allowed, then so could Russia.”

Written by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, Invasion is an engrossing and moving account of the first six months of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Harding has years of experience in the region. He was the Moscow Bureau Chief for the Guardian from 2007 until he was expelled from the country in 2011. Then from 2013 to 2014, he reported from the Maidan in Kyiv during the Revolution of Dignity, returning to the country periodically thereafter. He was in Ukraine the days before and throughout the full-scale war.

The book begins on the eve of the invasion. Harding is attending a dinner party at the home of Ukraine’s most well-known writer, Andrey Kurkov. Kurkov is skeptical and optimistic, but Harding has a sense of foreboding about what is about to happen. He is later awoken in the early morning to the sound of war. After the sun has risen, he steps outside on the streets of Kyiv to a city and a country that has been changed forever.

In the rest of Invasion, Harding takes the reader through the major events and places of the war that most of you might be familiar with—Bucha, Mariupal, Snake Island, and Chornobyl.

Even though I’ve been paying close attention to the war, I still learned a lot about what happened in Ukraine. Particularly interesting is reading about the vacation Putin and Shoigu took before the war. Did they really visit a shaman? Or how during the weeks and days leading up to the war, Zelenskiy refused to believe Russia would invade.

Harding also looks at the reasons why so many things happened in the war–why did Putin invade, why did Russia fail to take Kyiv, why is Zelenskiy such an effective wartime leader, and why did Russia torture and kill civilians in places like Bucha.

Harding is a good writer and a master storyteller. Invasion is an easy book to read and a hard book to put down.

If you’re trying to decide between Harding’s book and Plokhy’s book (I’ll review next), Harding is a better writer than Plokhy and his book is more engaging. But Plokhy’s book has a wider scope than Harding’s and Plokhy, as a historian of Ukraine and Russia, has a deeper understanding of Ukraine and Russia than Harding.

17. The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History

By Serhii Plokhy (May 2023)

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“Models and rulers changed, but the basic principle remained the same: Russia’s recognition of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the post-Soviet states would be conditional on alliance with Moscow.”

The Russo-Ukrainian War is another excellent book recounting the events of the war over the first 12 months.

Serhii Plokhy is the foremost historian on Ukraine in the English language. His book is more scholarly and unemotional than Harding’s and Miller’s and not as engaging or well-written.

However, Plokhy’s knowledge about Ukraine goes deeper than Harding’s or Miller’s books. So despite Plokhy’s lack of engaging prose, the amount of information I learned about the war kept me reading so that I finished it in three days. There’s a particularly juicy part involving the first months of the war when France, Germany, and Italy wanted to appease Russia by “pushing for a speedy end of the war at the cost of Ukrainian concessions”(page 263).

Plokhy focuses more on why events happened than on what actually happened. He concisely explains why Ukraine was left out of NATO, why Russia so easily was able to occupy Crimea and Donbas, and why Russia failed to take Kyiv but succeeded in taking Kherson and Mariupol.

The scope of this book is also much wider than Invasion. Plokhy takes the reader all the way back to 1991 when Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to leave the Soviet Union. He then succinctly lays out the course of events leading up to the Budapest Memorandum, which was supposed to give Ukraine guarantees of sovereignty and security, the Revolution of Dignity, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and its takeover of the Donbas before bringing his readers to the present-day war.

What I love most about this book is that the author gives me ammunition to refute so many of the pro-Russian lies that are used to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Plokhy clearly discusses the question of NATO expansion and lays out who wanted Ukraine to be part of NATO and who didn’t.

The Russo-Ukrainian War is not the definitive account of this conflict. It’s perhaps too early for that as there are so many things we won’t know until it’s over. Some things that Plokhy writes are just alleged and we might years later find out that the opposite happened. Or not. But it’s still an excellent first draft of the war and it will help answer a lot of questions you may still have.

18. In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine

By Tim Judah, 2016

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“One day he [Stalin] gathered all his top men. He took a chicken and it ran around. He caught it and began to pluck it until it was naked. Then it did not run around but leaned in on his leg, and he said: ‘Now you can do whatever you want with him.’ When the Holodomor started, Stalin plucked all the feathers from Ukraine and those that remained alive were ready to do anything to stay alive.”

In Wartime added a lot to my understanding of present-day Ukraine. It’s one of the few books on Ukraine in English that gives voice to the other side—the separatists in eastern Ukraine and that talks openly about the far-right Ukrainian groups.

Tim Judah, a reporter and political analyst for the Economist, traveled around Ukraine at the start of the war in 2014. He talked to ordinary people from both sides: people who supported Ukraine and those who supported Russia.

He also looked at the extremism on both sides: the right-wing fascist Ukrainian groups like the Azov Brigade and the pro-Russian fascist groups found not just in the Donbas region but all over Ukraine.

It was interesting that Judah could sense in 2014 that the war was going to get worse. He had been in the Balkans before war broke out and he could see the similarities between what Serbians and Ukrainians were saying to him.

An interesting book for understanding Ukraine at the beginning of 2014!

19. In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbass

Stanislav Vasin (2022)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Those who have lost their loved ones in this war are unlikely ever to be able to accept the flag flown by those whose bullets hit them.”

Written by journalist Aseyev Stanislav, In Isolation is a fascinating and informative collection of newspaper and magazine articles the author secretly wrote while living in Donetsk from 2015 to 2017. It is the BEST book for those of you who want to understand why the Ukrainians in the Donbas support the separatists and Russia.

Stanislav lived for most of his life in eastern Ukraine. He decided not to join the exodus of pro-Ukrainian citizens leaving the Donbas. Instead, he stayed and lived in a sort of isolation, hiding his views from his friends, family, neighbors, and the authorities. Meanwhile, he wrote articles for the Ukrainian press under a pseudonym detailing what he saw, heard, and felt from 2015 to 2017.

In the end, the separatist government in Donetsk arrested him for treason and imprisoned and tortured him for over 31 months. 

Stanislav gives readers a rare, first-hand account of the very savage and hopeless life of people in the Donbas. You’ll learn what the locals think of Ukraine, Russia, the USSR, and the war, how the militias are organized, why people join them, who’s involved in the struggles over control of the area, what role Russia is playing in the region, and who is really shelling who.

In Isolation is an honest and insightful book. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Combined with some other books on Ukraine, I think it will give you a complete picture of the country and the war.

Books on Volodymyr Zelenskyy

I’ve seen a few books come out recently on Zelenskyy. I’ve only had a chance to read one of them.

20. The Fight of Our Lives: My Time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What It Means for the World

By Iuliia Mendel, 2022

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, February 24, 2022

Written by Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s former press secretary, Iuliia Mendel, The Fight of Our Lives was originally my guilty pleasure book. I think I’m not alone in saying that I have a bit of a crush on Zelenskyy, so when I saw this book was available at my online library, I immediately borrowed it and read it in 2 days.

That being said, I had low expectations about this book. The title is kind of silly: The Fight of Our Lives. I also didn’t think anyone could do deep enough research on Zelenskyy to get a good-quality book out in such a short time.

However, I was surprisingly wrong.

It is much, much better than I thought it was going to be.

I think the reason I liked it is because the book isn’t only about Zelenskyy. There are a few chapters about his life, and, indeed, it’s not that deep. Most of what’s in the book you could also find by reading Wikipedia.

What makes this book so interesting is what Mendle shared about Ukrainian society and negotiating with Putin. She writes about corruption in the Ukrainian education system, language and bilingualism in Ukraine, Russian disinformation, and the war with Russia.

You can watch an interesting interview of Mendel on PBS where she talks about her book.

If you’ve already read a few other books on Ukraine and want to dig a bit deeper, then this is a good book to read.

21. A Message from Ukraine: Speeches, 2019-2022

By Volodymyr Zelensky (2022)

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

“I would be the happiest person in the world if the book you are holding in your hands had never been published.”

A Message from Ukraine is a collection of speeches that Volodymyr Zelensky gave from 2019 to 2022. The profits from this book go to United24, which is a charity started by President Zelensky in support of Ukraine. Contributions go to support defense, demining, medical aid, rebuilding Ukraine, and education and science.

The speeches have been personally chosen by Zelensky. There’s a short introduction by Arkady Ostrovsky, a journalist at the Economist (he’s written a great book on Russian propaganda called The Invention of Russia). The bonus in this part is you’ll get the best social media message Zelensky wrote directed toward Russia (Read my lips: Without gas or without you? Without you…).

The speeches are divided into three sections:

  • Section 1 – Speeches made before February 24, 2022
  • Section 2 – Speeches made after February 24, 2022 to foreign governments
  • Section 3 – Speeches made after February 24, 2022 to the people of Ukraine

Unfortunately, the speech Zelenksy gave during his visit to the U.S. Congress was not included in this book.

Historical Novels Set in Ukraine

There are not a lot of historical novels set in Ukraine. However, I suspect that people’s increased interest in the country will lead to more translations and more written in English.

The good news is that you’ll find at least one book on this list set during different parts of Ukraine’s history.

The White Guard takes place in 2019 during a civil war fought between Ukrainians, the Soviet Union, and the Germans.

Taras Bulba goes back centuries to the time when the Cossacks were fighting the Poles for independence and when the Cossack ruler made the fateful decision to ask Moscow for help in defeating Poland. It resulted in Ukrainians exchanging one ruler, Poland, for another, Russia. They never gained their independence again until 1991.

If you want to read about the great famine that Stalin created from 1932-33, the 2 books I was able to find are Everything Flows and The Memory Keeper of Kyiv.

For a novel set during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, read Babi Yar. It is my top 5 books on Ukraine.

22. The White Guard

By Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Yet what was going on in the wider world outside the City, in the Ukraine proper, which was bigger in size than France, with a population of tens of millions of people, nobody knew. Nobody knew anything, not merely about faraway places, but, absurdly, about villages that were only some thirty miles away from the City itself. But although nobody knew anything, people still hated with all their heart.”

The White Guard is a fabulous Russian-language classic about the Ukrainian Civil War by one of its greatest writers, Mikhael Bulgakov (he was born and grew up in Ukraine).

The novel takes place in Kyiv in December 2018. World War I has ended and so has the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks are in charge in Moscow, but not in Ukraine, where the Red Army, the White Army, Ukranian Nationalists, and even the Germans are fighting for control.

Kyiv is bursting with refugees who’ve fled the Bolsheviks in Russia. The Whites are barely holding on to power, while the Nationalists are at the city gate ready to invade. There’s a sense of anxiety and foreboding and little faith in those in power.

The story centers around a middle-class intellectual family of White supporters, the Turbins. At the beginning of the book, the matriarch of the family has just passed away. The father had died several years earlier. The remaining members of the family are Alexei (doctor, 28), Yelena (24), her husband Torburg, and Nikolka (17). The story takes place over a few days as the city falls and the enemy enters the city. But which enemy? The Nationalists or the Communists?

The highlights of the book for me were the descriptions of Kyiv. It was almost cinematic. I could picture the city as if I were there. The virgin snow covering the ground, the electric glow of the white cross held by the gigantic figure of St. Vladimir on the top of Vladimir Hill, the frost and mist on the hills over the Dnieper River.

I also liked the way Bulgakov captured the mood of the city–the anxiety, the foreboding, the gloom, and the hatred. One could just sense that something bad was going to happen.

There are hints of the pogroms taking place against the Jews: “the red rooster started to crow and, in the dying crimson sunset, the genitalia of Jewish innkeepers were hung up for all to see.”

The only place that seems to have any warmth, love, and feeling of safety was the Turbin’s apartment.

More Books by Mikhail Bulgakov

23. Taras Bulba

By Nikolai Gogol, 1835

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Taras Bulba is another book about Ukraine that is written by one of the Russian language’s greatest writers, Nikolai Gogol.

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it like I did The White Guard. The antisemitism of not just the characters but the author as well was just too hard for me to stomach. It’s too bad because I was looking forward to reading a book about Ukrainian Cossacks.

The book is about the life of a Zaporovian Cossack, Taras Bulba, and his two sons, Andrii and Ostrop. The sons have just returned home from their studies in Kyiv.

The father takes his sons to the headquarters of the Cossacks in Southern Ukraine (Zaporizhian Sich). While there, they hear rumors of the Polish Catholics oppressing the Orthodox Church and of the church falling into debt to the Jews.

The Cossacks go off to Poland to fight the Poles and along the way torture and murder the Jewish population.

There’s an interesting article in the Economist about Gogol and Taras Bulba as an example of the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Supposedly over the years, Gogol revised the book to make it sound more Russian and less Ukrainian.

I tolerated the book for the first 80%. There are moments when the characters do and say things that are antisemitic. I figured that the author was representing the feelings of that period.

But then at the 80% mark, the author goes full out on the antisemitism and it’s clear that this is not just how the characters feel but it’s how Gogol feels as well. The anti-Polish feelings are also distasteful.

However, I can appreciate Taras Bulba for its historic depiction of Cossacks. Were they really like this? Perhaps.

24. Everything Flows

By Vassily Grossman, 1970

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Yes, everything flows, everything changes, it’s impossible to step twice into the same transport.”

I picked up Everything Flows because I had heard it was about Holodomor. It’s also by one of the Soviet Union’s (Ukrainian-Jew) greatest writers, Vassily Grossman.

Grossman was born in Ukraine to a Jewish family. During World War II, he worked as a journalist embedded with the Red Army. He was with the Red Army when they entered the Nazi death camp of Treblinka and was one of the first to report on what happened during the Holocaust.

After the war, he worked on the Black Book, a document that recorded all the atrocities of the Holocaust. However, the Soviet Union wanted to suppress information on the Holocaust, so the project was shut down.

As a result, Grossman lost faith in communism. His post-war books were highly critical of the Soviet system, Stalin, communism, the Gulags, collectivization, and the famine in Ukraine. Few of them were published.

Everything Flows was Grossman’s last book, and it was unfinished when he died of stomach cancer in 1964.

The book centers around Ivan Grigoryevich. Just released after 30 years in the Gulag, Ivan is trying to fit back into Soviet society. He visits his cousin, Nikolay, who manages to stay out of the Gulag by making compromises. Then he runs into the man who informed on him, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. Luckily, he meets Anna and they fall in love.

So where do Holodomor and Ukraine fit in?

In ONLY two lonely chapters, Anna describes the famine that happened at a collective farm that she managed.

My feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand, it’s a historically and politically important book. And if you’re interested in understanding the Soviet Union more, then yes it’s worth it. On the other hand, for those looking for a book on the Ukraine famine, it’s not worth it–only two chapters on Holodomor..

Plus, as far as storytelling goes, the book is a disjointed mess. The story just doesn’t flow, which is ironic given its title. There’s absolutely no plot. At all.

More Books by Vassily Grossman

25. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv

By Erin Litteken, 2022

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“This is not about getting us to produce more food,” he said, as the impossibility of survival suddenly became so painfully clear to both of them. “They want us all dead.”

One of the few books in English on the famine is The Memory Keeper of Kyiv. Written by an American first-time author, Erin Litteken, the book isn’t going to win any literary prizes, but it’s quite moving and engrossing.

The book is divided into 2 parts.

Part 1 is set in Ukraine from 1932-33, and it follows the story of young Katya and her family as they endure Stalin’s collectivization, deportation, and famine. This part was engrossing but also gut-wrenching.

At first, I thought Katya was too goody-goody but later in the book, she showed some human traits of anger, bitterness, and hatred that gave her some dimensionality.

Park 2 takes place in Illinois in 2004. Katya is now living in Illinois. Her granddaughter, Cassie, is translating and reading a diary that Katya wrote during the Holodomor. Cassie is also getting over the death of her husband a year ago and taking care of a daughter who won’t speak. However, she meets her neighbor, Nick, and he’s handsome and seems to like her, and blah, blah, blah. You get the picture. This part is all nice and cute and refreshing, but all very predictable.

Lots of reviewers thought the second part was the weakest of the novel. I found it a nice, refreshing change of pace after reading about people starving to death. That being said, Cassie did grate on my nerves. She was self-absorbed, obtuse, and wishy-washy.

It’s not the best-written book I’ve read. The dialogue is stilted. Katya talks as if she were from present-day America and not 1930s Ukraine. The focus is very narrow. I wish the writer had broadened her description of what was going on in all of Ukraine and even the village in general.

That being said, the story grabbed hold of me and the famine is an important story that must be told. Those two reasons make The Memory Keeper of Kyiv worth reading.

Modern Ukrainian Literature

Two of the best modern Ukrainian writers are Serhiy Zhadan and Andrey Kurkov. You’ll find 5 of their books on this list and my review of each of them.

You’ll also find a few books written by female Ukrainian authors and one brilliant book by an American.

26. The Orphanage

By Serhiy Zhadan, 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“He wants to sit down and relax. Not look at anyone, not see anything. Forget all the sounds and smells. Forget the train station, forget the bus, the crumbling road, the moonlit landscapes out the window, the hapless travelers trudging through the January fields, the black, scorched forest, the dark houses, the frightened voices, the lifeless windows, the inter-sections where death may be waiting for you.”

I’m going to start with my favorite Ukrainian novel, The Orphanage. The book is set in 2014 during the early days of the war in eastern Ukraine. If you want to get a sense of what it felt like to walk through a war zone in Ukraine, read this book.

The Orphanage tells the story of Pasha, a 35-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, and his journey to bring his nephew home from an orphanage in the middle of a combat zone.

Pasha is a complex character that can easily annoy the heck out of you. At the beginning of the novel, he’s so clueless about what is going on that he sets out to get his nephew without realizing that the war has escalated to the point that it’s too unsafe to be on the streets.

While everyone around him is taking sides, he declares that he doesn’t care and that he doesn’t want to get involved. The war doesn’t concern him. It’s just politics.

But as the novel progresses and as he makes his way through enemy territory, he’s forced to choose a side or come to terms with what side he’s always been on. Pasha is a teacher of the Ukrainian language, so it’s obvious which one he needs to pick.

There is a lot of symbolism in the book that as a non-Ukrainian I failed to pick up when I first read it. According to Ukrainian reviewers, look for mentions of flags and wet dogs.

Other Books by Serhiy Zhadan:

27. Voroshilovgrad

By Serhiy Zhadan, 2011

“It was very odd; everything seemed to be coming full circle, turning back—back to nowhere, back to emptiness.”

Voroshilovgrad is a story about a guy named Herman and his journey back to a hometown he left years ago.

Herman is living in Kharkiv and working in a government office that launders money (yes really!). One day he gets a phone call from his brother’s employee begging Herman to come home. His brother, Yura, has disappeared.

He goes back to his hometown, which is somewhere in the Donbas. We never learn where exactly. But the town is pretty miserablepoor and corrupt and little opportunity for success. Herman intends to stay only one night but ends up never leaving.

I read Voroshilovgrad because I wanted to understand the Donbas and why they are so pro-Russian. The book says nothing about Russia. However, I did get a vivid impression of the poverty and hopelessness of eastern Ukraine. The people are rough, crude, and apathetic. One of Herman’s childhood friends has a tattoo covering his chest with the words, “Hitler is God”. Another friend has the nickname, “the rapist” and another one is a suspected serial killer of women, yet everyone likes him.

Sadly, the story is just really boring. Getting through the book was a slog. Herman is a dull guy. If you want to read one book by one of Ukraine’s most important modern writers, read The Orphanage instead.

28. Grey Bees

By Andrey Kurkov, 2020

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“What happened is what Putin says happened,” she insisted. “Putin doesn’t lie.”

Grey Bees is another EXCELLENT book on the war in Ukraine (before the “official” Russian invasion).

The story takes place in the Grey Zonethe land between the front lines of the Ukrainian troops and the side of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Most of the inhabitants of this zone left at the start of the conflict, either going to Russia or Ukraine or joining the separatists. Only a few remain.

The pensioner and beekeeper, Sergeyich, is one of those who refuse to leave the Grey Zone. He’s trying to ignore the war and remain neutral and inconspicuous as if doing so would keep him invisible.

But then the war starts heating up and Sereyich decides to take himself and his bees out of the Grey Zone. He ends up in Crimea where he sees the effects of Russian occupation on the peninsula.

Sergey is a bit like Pasha in The Orphanage. An odd duck. A loner who has a hard time getting close to people. Doesn’t want to take sides but can’t help it when he’s in Crimea and he sees the impact of the Russian occupation on the Tatars.

Grey Bees is one of the better Ukrainian books. Interesting characters. Vivid descriptions of the war and the mood of Ukraine.

29. Death and the Penguin

By Andrey Kurkov, 2002

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly. “Think what you like. But bear in mind this: the moment you are told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. This isn’t a film, it’s for real. The full story is what you get told only if and when your work, and with it your existence, are no longer required.”

If you’re looking for a Ukrainian book that’s not so darn depressing and will make you chuckle a bit, then pick up Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin.

The book takes place right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is finally independent. It’s a good book to get a sense of the mood of the country at that time.

Viktor, a writer who writes short stories that are too short to make money from, is like most Ukrainians at that time poor and struggling to make sense of the changes in his country.

Even the local zoo is struggling so much that it’s unable to feed its animals. It starts giving them away. Viktor adopts one of the zoo’s penguins and names him Misha.

Then one day Viktor’s luck changes and he gets a job at a newspaper writing obituaries for people who haven’t died yet. However, soon the people Viktor writes about do start dying. Is this more than a coincidence?

Death and the Penguin is the first in a series of 2 books about Viktor and Misha. I read the second one, Penguin Lost, first. Don’t do that. You need to read Death and the Penguin first or else you won’t fully appreciate the second book.

Most people say the second book is better. I disagree. I prefer this one.

More Books by Andrey Kurkov:

30. Penguin Lost

By Andrey Kurkov

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“To keep records was to breed secrets.”

Penguin Lost picks up where Death and the Penguin ends. Viktor is back in Kyiv. However, Misha, Viktor’s penguin, is missing and he must find him so that he can bring him to Antarctica.

Viktor begins working for a mafia boss. His job is to help the boss get elected. In return, he will introduce Viktor to some other mafia bosses who know where Misha is. His search for Misha takes him to Moscow and then to the war zone of Chechnya.

As I mentioned above, I read this one first and without having read Death and the Penguin, I missed the emotional connection between Viktor and Misha and found myself not caring enough whether Viktor found Misha or not.

If you enjoyed Death and the Penguin and you’re dying to know what happened to Misha, then yes read it!

31. I Will Die in a Foreign Land

By Kalani Pickhart, 2021

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“My dear mother, what will happen to me

If I die in a foreign land?

Oh, my dearest

You will be buried by strangers.”

I loved this book! I can’t believe it wasn’t written by a Ukrainian. Was it authentic? I’m not sure. But I was sure engrossed in the characters and the story.

Kalani Pickhart is an American and not even of Ukrainian ancestry. There’s an interesting interview with the author in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book focuses on 4 people during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv:

  • Katya is a Ukrainian-American doctor who is helping at a makeshift medical facility near the Maidan.
  • Misha is an engineer from Pripyat (where Chornobyl is) whose wife died very young of cancer.
  • Slava is a young activist who has survived a childhood of abuse and neglect and human trafficking.
  • Aleksandr Ivanovich is a former KGB agent who joins the protests by playing the piano in Independence Square.

The lives of all four become intertwined during the volatile winter months in Kyiv.

Excellent writing. Well-rounded fascinating characters. Captivating story. If you want to get a sense of the mood of the Maidan Revolution, read it!

32. Lucky Breaks

By Yevgenia Belorusets, 2022

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Our real flag,” she explained, “is the spot left on the wall by the hammer and sickle. Not the yellow-blue flag, but a white, empty flag showing only the shadows of the hammer and sickle, and of the wheat stalks tied with a red bandage, or else just the line dividing the yellow and blue—a thin, barely discernible straight line.”

I usually don’t like short stories but there was something about these that really moved me.

Lucky Breaks is a collection of stories (sketches might be a more appropriate word here) about ordinary women, most of whom have been affected by the war in East Ukraine.

The women are often alone, lost, disoriented, and especially sad.

Some of the stories take place in Eastern Ukraine. Others take place in Kyiv. A few are about women who have been displaced by the war and are living in the capital. Some have simply just disappeared.

The war is rarely mentioned, but if you read carefully enough, it’s there in the descriptions of the setting, the names of places, dates, or people’s attitudes and actions.

Lucky Breaks is a challenging read. Not a lot happens.

33. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

By Marina Lewycka, 2006

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“It seeped everywhere, into the most intimate crevices of people’s lives: it soured the relations between friends and colleagues, between teachers and students, between parents and children, husbands and wives. Enemies were everywhere. If you didn’t like the way someone had sold you a piglet, or looked at your girlfriend, or asked for money you owed, or given you a low mark in an exam, a quick word to the NKVD would sort them out. If you fancied someone’s wife, a word to the NKVD, a stint in Siberia, would leave the coast clear for you. However brilliant, gifted, or patriotic you might be, you were still a threat to somebody. If you were too clever you were sure to be a potential defector or saboteur; if you were too stupid, you were bound to say the wrong thing sooner or later. No one could escape the paranoia, from the lowliest to the greatest; indeed the most powerful man in the land, Stalin himself, was the most paranoid of all. The paranoia leached out from under the locked doors of the Kremlin, paralysing all human life.”

Nearly every book on this list is quite heavy. A Short History of Tractors is not. It’s a purely fun book with great characters and an engrossing story.

The book is about Nadya and her Ukrainian-British family. Nadya’s mother recently died. She and her sister have stopped talking because of a disagreement over their mother’s will.

Their 80-year-old father has decided to get married to a 30-something Ukrainian woman. It’s obvious to everyone except the father that she is marrying him for British residency and the father’s nonexistent money. Nadya and her sister must convince their father that Valentina is up to no good.

While this is all happening, the father is writing a book about the history of tractors in Ukraine. Through this history, we learn how Nadya’s mother, father, and sister survived the famine, the communists, and the Nazi occupation.

It’s a fun read. You’ll get a bit of Ukrainian history. The most interesting part is the story of how the family was sent against their will to Germany during World War II to work as slaves. Yes! This actually happened.

34. The Museum of Abandoned Secrets

By Oksana Zabuzhko, 2012

My Rating: No Read Yet

I’ve owned The Museum of Abandoned Secrets for several months now, but I haven’t dared to start reading it. It’s over 800 pages and I’m not sure I’m up for another book with that many pages. I’ve also heard the writing style is hard to get used to. There are a lot of dream sequences and stream-of-consciousness writing, which I’m not fond of.

However, it is a story that spans several generations so it’s also a bit of a historical novel, which I love. And it’s written by a woman, and I really wanted to get a women’s perspective on Ukraine. The other Ukrainian novels I’ve read so far have almost all been written by men.

Daryna is a successful TV journalist. One day she comes across a photo of Olena Dovgan, a fighter in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who was killed in 1947 by Stalin’s secret police.

Daryna becomes fascinated by Olena’s story and decides to make a documentary about her life, which opens up several secrets about Ukraine’s past.

Meanwhile, one of Daryna’s friends dies suspiciously as a result of political corruption. The story takes place around the time of the Orange Revolution in 2014.

35. Dog Park

By Sofi Oksanen, 2019

My Rating: 5 out of 5

“She thought Donbas was too Russian an area, a place people went only after losing all hope—people had lost their land and their villages, their roots and their families, their language, their faith, and their very souls. People went to Donbas because anyone could get work in the mines, and people had always fled there when they wanted to disappear from the world, whether they were evading the forces of the tsar or the Reds. Before, its melting pot had devoured serfs who had escaped from their masters, then later starving peasants from the collective farms. Later on, people were forced to come.”

I liked Dog Park. I know it has flaws, but it was a fun read with interesting characters and an interesting look at Ukrainian society and history, especially the issue of the exploitation of women in the surrogacy industry. The pace was also so much faster than other books on Ukraine.

The story begins in Helsinki in 2016. Olenka is watching a family play in a dog park when a woman from her past sits down next to her. This is the same woman whose life Olenka supposedly ruined when both lived in Ukraine. Now Olenka fears that this woman is about to do the same to her.

The first part of the book is a bit clunky and it’s a struggle trying to figure out where the story is going. But then the different layers of the mystery are peeled away. You begin to see the connection between the different parts of Olenka’s life.

The plot is suspenseful and clever. Maybe I’m slow, but I never expected the story to go in the direction it went in.

If you’re reading books on Ukraine to understand the country better, then Dog Park is excellent for that. The book looks at 3 periods in Ukrainian history: the 1990s, 2007-2008, and 2016.

Final Thoughts

I know you’re not as crazy as I am and you’re not going to read all 35 books about Ukrainian.

So, which ones are the best of the best?

Honestly, that is not an easy question to answer.

But I will try.

My top 8 books I would say you must read to understand Ukraine and why it’s resisting Russia so fiercely but also why some people in Ukraine want to be part of Russia:

  1. The Orphanage
  2. Borderland
  3. Bloodlands
  4. The Gates of Europe
  5. The War Came to Us
  6. The Russo-Ukrainian War
  7. Invasion
  8. In Isolation

If you’ve read any of these books on Ukraine, let me know what you think in the comment section below.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About The Bamboo Traveler!

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

Subscribe

Get Your FREE Japan Itinerary Guide Here!

Subscribe to my newsletter to receive the latest travel tips for Asia and get a free 4-page PDF version of my 3-Week Japan Itinerary.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest