30 Books on Ukraine: History, Culture, & Fiction

by | Sep 24, 2022 | Books

If you’re trying to make sense of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, here are 30 books on Ukraine to help you understand the country better. The list includes books on Ukrainian history, World War II, and the Holocaust in Ukraine as well as novels set in Ukraine.


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Ever since the beginning of this year, I’ve noticed that lots of people have become interested in Ukraine and Russia. I know this because I’ve tried borrowing books from the library and the wait time can be quite long. There are a few books on Ukraine and lots of books on Russia. Sometimes it’s not easy knowing which one to choose.

So in this list of Ukrainian books that I’ve read, I’m giving you my honest opinion on whether they’re worth reading or not. You can see at the end of this article, you’ll find my top 5 books on Ukraine.

If you’re dying to read more about Russia and Putin, check out my list of the top 12 books on Russia and Putin.

I’ve been interested in Russia since I majored in Russian and East European history at university. However, I took a break following graduation and my move to Asia, to read more books on China than on Europe. Ever since the invasion, I’ve been on a marathon to read as much as I can about Ukraine and Russia.

Table of Contents

I’ve divided this list of 30 books into 6 categories.

Just jump to the section that most interests you by clicking on the link below:

Books on Ukrainian History

If you really 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 alone is a hard read—it’s too jampacked with facts, dates, historical figures, place names, and events on a history that if you’re like me are unfamiliar with.

Borderland is much more engaging than The Gates of Europe. It’s part travelogue and part history. It really 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 and elsewhere but Ukraine was the most affected.

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: 4 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.”

The Gates of Europe book cover

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, read the 400-page The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy.

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 the subject.

But a warning:

If it’s the first book you read on Ukraine, it might not be easy to get through.

For me, it was hard to keep people, places, and events straight.

A name enters on one page never to be heard from again or not to be heard from again until 20 pages later. By then, I’d forgotten who that person or place was. Even writing the names down didn’t help because my list became too long.

When I finished the book, I still had so many questions. What is Kyivan Rus? Who are the Cossacks? Was Ukraine ever a country before 1991? Do Ukrainians see themselves as Ukrainian or Russian?

But why is it still worth reading?

Never fear, though.

You can easily get through this challenging book.

Timothy Snyder, who I will talk about in just a second and who I will gush about throughout this article, is currently (fall of 2022) teaching a FABULOUS course through Yale University on Ukrainian history on YouTube. He uses Serhii Plokhy’s book for the course and you can EASILY read the book and listen to his lectures. Then I think reading The Gates of Europe will be an enjoyable experience.

If you don’t want to watch his course, I recommend following The Gates of Europe up with Borderland or vice versa. The latter book helped solidify answers to the above questions.

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.”

Borderland book cover

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

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

However, I absolutely ADORED this book. Probably one of the top 5 books on Ukraine. In fact, I became so engrossed in it while I was in Costa Rica that could not unglue myself from my hotel room on a day when I could have been looking at monkeys and sloths.

And if you check out the bibliography of some of the other Ukrainian books on this list, you’ll find that Borderland is often mentioned.

Who is the author?

Anna Reid is a British journalist and author who writes about Eastern Europe.

What’s the book about?

Basically, the book is part travelogue and part history.

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 Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.

In each chapter Reid visits a different Ukrainian city, describing what she sees there and what the Ukrainians and Russians she meets say about their country.

These observations and conversations are mixed in with the history of Ukraine.

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

  • What is Ukrainian identity? Are Ukrainians really Russians?
  • Should Ukraine even be a country? Or it is really 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. Vladimir Putin thinks Ukraine shouldn’t exist and that Ukrainians are actually Russians. Many people in Ukraine think otherwise.

Highlights of the Book

It was fascinating to read that most Russians felt even in the 1990s that Ukraine should be part of Russia and that most Ukrainians were themselves trying to figure out how they feel about themselves as a country.

Is it worth reading?

Compared to The Gates of Europe, Borderland is an easier and more enjoyable book to read about Ukrainian history. I also like how Reid connects the events of the past with the events of the present.

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.”

the book cover of the Red Famine

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

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.

Who is the author?

Anne Applebaum is a Polish-American journalist and historian, specializing in Soviet and Eastern European affairs. She currently writes for the Atlantic.

She was briefly an adjunct fellow at the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. However, her political beliefs are not that of the extremists of the Republican party today.

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.

What is The Red Famine about?

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

Is it worth reading?

If you want to really understand the famine in Ukraine, Red Famine is the most up-to-date book on the subject. It’s also fascinating, revelatory, and accessible to the average reader.

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

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.”

Bloodlands book cover

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. The other best one is Black Earth, which I’ll also talk about on this list of books on Ukraine. I review his other book on Russia, The Road to Unfreedom, in my post on books on Russia and Putin.

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

Who is the author?

Timothy Snyder is a professor at Yale University specializing in the history of the Holocaust and Central and Eastern Europe. He is also fluent in 5 European languages and can read 10 in total.

His books, lectures, and presentations are absolutely brilliant. You can find his lectures and presentations all over YouTube. His course at Yale on Ukrainian history is also on YouTube.

What’s it about?

Snyder refers to Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus 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 class, the wealthier peasants, and basically anyone his paranoid and psychotic brain thought was out to get him.

Is it worth reading?

Yes, it is definitely worth reading. It is one of the best books on Ukraine.

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 book cover

Midnight in Chernobyl is another excellent 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’ interest and created scenes for dramatic effect. The book just told it like it was.

So, if you want to know the real history, read this excellent book.

What’s it about?

As I mentioned, it’s about the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. 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?

Lots of answers to fascinating questions!

Is it worth reading?

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

The way Moscow covered it up is another reason why Ukraine should never be under Russian rule ever again. Chornobyl was only 60 miles from Kyiv, yet 5 days after the disaster, Moscow failed to inform the Ukrainians (or anyone for that matter) about the accident and still made Kyiv hold its annual May Day parade.

More books on Chernobyl

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 book cover

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

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.

What’s the book about?

The book is a collection of 16 essays and interviews with Ukrainian intellectuals (historians, writers, journalists, political analysts, and philosophers).

It’s divided into 8 sections focusing on a specific theme (history, stereotypes, motherland, painful topics, relationships with Poles and Jews). All or nearly all 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.

Why did I like this book?

Honestly, there are just so many highlights in Ukraine in Histories and Stories that there would be too many to list them all here.

I think my favorite is being able to make sense of the key figures in Ukraine’s history. If someone were to ask me who the most important Ukrainian historical figures are, after reading this book, I could now tell you.

The other thing I like is the book’s honesty. Toward the end, the essays focus on uncomfortable and painful topics in Ukrainian history in which Ukrainians are the perpetrators and not the victim. These include the Holocaust, Ukrainian Nationalism, and the treatment of the Tatars.

Books on the History of Jews 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 or at least 12% of the population.

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.”

Black Earth book cover

I thought I understood the Holocaust. I’ve read some books and seen some movies about it. 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 has been misrepresented in movies and books.

Why should you read this book?

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 their death.

And the title, Black Earth, is referring to Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine is one of the main reasons that Hitler invades 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 Black Earth 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 in order to protect Germans from discrimination. Putin also claims that he is protecting Russians from discrimination in order to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

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

What you’re going to get from this book:

He shows that a lot of ideas we had about the Holocaust are not really true:

  • Were the Nazis really as organized and disciplined as people think they were?
  • What role did the Ukrainians as well as the Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, French, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, etc. play in the Holocaust? The Ukrainians have been accused of being as bad as the Germans, Were they really? Were the Ukrainians more abhorrent than other nationalities in Europe?
  • In France, 75% of the Jewish population survived. In the Netherlands, 75% of the Jewish population perished. And in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, nearly all of the Jews died. Why?
  • How did the Nazis persuade the people of Eastern Europe to help them murder the Jews? Why did they go along with the Nazis?
  • I had always thought that the Jewish people were mostly killed in gas chambers at places like Treblinka and Auschwitz. But Snyder shows that most Jews were killed in another way.
  • Why did Hitler want to exterminate the Jewish people? Did Hitler always have plans to exterminate them?
Is it worth reading?

Yes, yes, and yes!

I think the book will give you an idea of why Putin (like Hitler) wants Ukraine so badly.

But if you have any interest in the Holocaust, Black Earth is a must-read.

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 book cover

In the Midst of Civilized Europe is about the Ukrainian pogroms of 1918-1921, resulting in the death of over 100,000 Jews.

I haven’t started the book yet as I am still in the middle of another book. However, I’m eager to start it because its point of view of the Holocaust is different from Timothy Snyder’s.

In this book, the author argues that the Holocaust didn’t begin in 1939 or 1941. Instead, it started earlier in Ukraine with the pogroms of 1918-1921.

He writes that 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 motivated more by anti-communism rather than antisemitism. I’m not saying I agree with this opinion at all. However, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Germany hadn’t invaded these countries.

Nevertheless, the book’s focus is on the pogroms in Ukraine from 1918 to 1921. If this is a part of Ukrainian history that you’re interested in, this seems to be the best and most recently published book I can find on the topic.

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 book cover

Tears Over Russia is another book about the pogroms of 1918-1921. It’s not exactly a traditional history book, though. It’s more of an oral family history of what happened to one Jewish family in Ukraine.

What’s the book about?

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 flight from Ukraine to the United States in the 1920s.

The pogrom during those years was particularly deadly as it’s estimated that 100,000 Jews lost their lives in Ukraine.

What I liked about the book

The book helped me understand what a pogrom was like and what was happening to the Jewish people in Ukraine at the time.

The family’s escape from Ukraine was also fascinating.

What I didn’t like about it

What happened to the writer’s family is sad and horrible, but the book has some flaws.

The writing isn’t very good. 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. Lots of irrelevant things.

The other problem with Tears Over Russia is a lack of context. There is very little mention of what’s going on in Ukraine (civil war) and Russia (a revolution) from 1917-1921. 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.

The book is also missing an explanation of why the pogroms happened at that particular time. Why did the Ukrainians turn on the Jews so violently? What happened? What led to it?

Is it worth reading?

I’m glad I read it, but at the same time, I’m hoping there is a better book out there covering the same topic.

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

By Daniel Mendelsohn

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Lost book cover

 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.

What’s it about?

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 never survived 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.

Is it worth reading?

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.”

Babi Yar book cover

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.

Who is the author of Babi Yar?

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 for the longest time.

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.

What is Babi Yar about?

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 but they also took Ukrainians and Russians there to be shot throughout the war.

Why I liked this book

I learned so much about the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of Ukraine that changed my understanding of this period.

First, I had always assumed Jews were mainly killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz and Treblinka. But Babi Yar shows that in fact they were mostly shot in public right where they had always lived.

Second, what life was like for Ukrainians under Nazi occupation is rarely shown. Babi Yar shows that in fact Ukrainians also suffered during the war albeit not anywhere near the extent that the Jewish people suffered.

I also loved the characters in this 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 saw the communists for who they were, and after a while, he saw that the Germans were even worse than the Russians.

Is it worth reading?

Of all the books on Ukraine that I’ve read, this is the one that still sticks with me.

12. Odessa Stories

By Isaac Babel, 1931

My Rating: 2 out of 5
Odessa Stories book cover

I like stories set in cosmopolitan and multicultural cities at the turn of the twentieth century, so I was looking forward to reading a book on one of those kinds of cities—Odessa.

It was also written by one of the Soviet Union’s greatest writers, Isaac Babel.

What’s it about?

Odessa Stories is a collection of short stories that 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. These gave me a more vivid image.

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.

What did I think?

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.

This is my least favorite Ukrainian book.

More books by Isaac Babel

Books on the Maidan Revolution & the War in Eastern Ukraine

If you want to understand what’s going on in Ukraine now, you’ve got to look at the Maidan 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 annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.

However, perhaps the BEST book in this section is In Wartime. It’s a great book looking at what Ukrainians on both sides were thinking in 2014.

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.

book cover of The Ukrainian Night

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. So, I’m confident that she knows what she’s talking about.

And then I watched her lecture on the Revolution of Dignity, and I was so impressed.

What’s the book about?

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.

Is it worth reading?

It’s interesting reading about the protestors’ personal experiences.

There’s an especially interesting description of an interaction between 2 protestors who didn’t like each other before the Euromaidan but then bonded because of their experience. One was Jewish and the other a Neo-Nazi.

I wish the author had expanded her book and analyzed the roots of the protest as well as interviewed the voices of those in the East who opposed the protests.

Sometimes it was hard to follow what was going on. The author jumps around a lot from person to person and then back again to the original person. It’s ok. You just need to keep a list of the different people she interviews. I was too lazy to do that.

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.”

book cover of Ukraine Diaries

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 history as it’s being observed at the moment to be fascinating. It gives me a different perspective and understanding of how the events of 2013 and 2014 unfolded.

Andrey Kurkov is a famous Russian-Ukrainian writer. He’s from Russia, but he considers himself to be Ukrainian by choice. Kurkov keeps a daily diary. These are his entries 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 is 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.

What can you learn from this book?

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.

Someone was shooting at and killing police officers. Since protestors didn’t have guns, who was it and why?

Before the Russian all-out invasion this year, Ukraine was as divided as the United States currently is. I remember hearing Sean Penn say in an interview how he admired Ukrainian unity and compared it to America’s disunity. Well, Sean Penn should read this book and I think he’ll see a lack of national unity as bad as the U.S. has now.

Is it worth reading?

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

Which book is better?

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

15. 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.”

book cover of In Wartime

Before reading In Wartime, I didn’t think another book by a western writer would help me make any more sense of the country than I already had.

However, I was wrong.

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.

Who is the author?

Tim Judah, a reporter and political analyst for the Economist, has written several books on Serbia and Kosovo. He’s reported from several countries including El Salvador, Iraq, Uganda, and Afghanistan. His articles on the Donbas region of Ukraine have received high praise.

What is the book about?

Judah 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 asked them their opinion about events in Ukrainian history, the invasion of Crimea and eastern Russia, Ukrainian identity, Holodomor, antisemitism, communism, Russia, the Soviet Union, etc.

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

Is it worth reading?

A lot of time has passed since the book was written, but I think even now reading it will help to understand how divided Ukraine was in 2014 (or perhaps still is). It’s also good to understand those who support Russia and Putin and to understand why they were so dissatisfied with what was happening in Ukraine at that time.

What I also found interesting was how 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.

This is one of my favorite books on Ukraine!

Books on Volodymyr ZElensky

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
book cover of The Fight of Our Lives

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.

I had really, really 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.

What’s it about?

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 it’s true that 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 the writer, Iullia Mendle. She is Zelenskyy’s former press secretary. I loved reading about her life story–entering school without knowing how to speak Russian, earning a Ph.D. in modern Ukrainian literature, working in journalism, and being Zelenskyy’s press secretary.

Through her story, she discusses 4 important topics that no other books have gone very deeply into. These include corruption in the Ukrainian education system, language and bilingualism in Ukraine, Russian disinformation, and the war with Russia.

The book covers the Russian invasion up to the fall of Mariupol.

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

Is it worth reading?

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

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 2018 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.

16. 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.”

White Guard book cover

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).

What’s the book about?

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?

Why is it such a great novel?

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

17. Taras Bulba

By Nikolai Gogol, 1835

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Taras Bulba book cover

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 really looking forward to reading a book about Ukrainian Cossacks.

What’s Taras Bulba about?

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.

Who is Nikolai Gogol?

Gogol was born in the Ukrainian Cossack town of Sorochyntsi. His father was a descendant of Ukrainian Cossacks. After he finished his education, he moved to St. Petersburg.

Gogol wrote books on Ukrainian life and history. However, he was most famous for his satires of Russian imperial life.

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.

Is it worth reading?

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 time 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.

I also ended up having a very negative view of the Cossacks.

However, I can appreciate the book for its historic depiction of Cossacks. Were they really like this? Perhaps. Taras Bulba is supposedly a blend of several historic figures. However, Gogol wrote the book in the 1840s about events that would have taken place in the early 1600s.

18. 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.”

book cover of Everything Flows

I picked up this book because I had heard it was about Holodomor. It’s also by one of the Soviet Union’s (Ukrainian-Jew) greatest writers, Vassily Grossman. After finishing his masterpiece, Life and Fate, I wanted to read something else by him.

Who is Grossman?

Vassily Grossman’s life and his criticism of the Soviet Union are incredibly fascinating.

He was born in Ukraine to a Jewish family.

During World War II, he worked as a journalist embedded with the Red Army. He reported on the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow, and the Battle of Berlin.

Grossman 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.

His mother was still in Ukraine during the Nazi invasion and subsequently was murdered. He blamed his second wife for the death of his mother because she had refused to let his mother live with them in Moscow.

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. His masterpiece, Life and Fate, was confiscated by the State and was not published until 1988.

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

What is the book about?

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 managed to stay out of the Gulag by making compromises. Then he runs into the man who informed on him that led to his arrest and imprisonment. Luckily, he meets Anna and they fall in love.

So where do Holodomor and Ukraine fit in?

In two lonely chapters, Anna describes the famine and her experience as the head of a collective farm in Ukraine. That’s it. I wasn’t expecting the famine to only be such a small part of the book.

Is the book worth reading?

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, there isn’t enough space devoted to the topic to make it worth reading.

Plus, as far as storytelling goes, the book is a disjointed mess. There’s absolutely no plot. At all.

The book starts out well. Ivan gets out of prison. He visits his cousin. Then travels to another city. But then the story gets cut off and Grossman has these long chapters railing against communism. He never really gets back to the story except to mention that Ivan meets Anna and falls in love. Then Anna tells her story and Grossman goes off on what’s wrong with communism.

The story just doesn’t flow, which is ironic given its title.

More books by Vassily Grossman

19. 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.”

book cover of The Memory Keeper of Kyiv

The only novel I’ve found that’s completely dedicated to 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.

What’s the book about?

The book is divided into 2 parts.

One part 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. It was hard to read because what happened to the family and to the people around them was so horrifying.

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 this part was the weakest of the novel. I found it a nice, refreshing change of pace after reading about the gut-wrenching horrors of the famine.

That being said, Cassie did grate on my nerves. She was self-absorbed, obtuse, wishy-washy, and weak. When you put her up against Katya, Cassie was even more annoying.

Is it worth reading?

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 really grabbed hold of me and the famine is an important story that must be told. Those two reasons make it 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.

21. 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.”

the book cover of the Ukrainian novel, The Orphanage

I’m going to start off 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 feels 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 a 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 what I think is that he really comes to terms with what side he’s always been on. I mean the guy is a teacher of the Ukrainian language, so it’s obvious which one he needs to pick.

Pasha is not an admirable guy—he’s cowardly, weak, and emotionally immature. He says and does stupid things throughout the book. People are always getting annoyed with him.

His nephew, on the other hand, is smart, aware of what is going on, and emotionally mature. I wish we got more of his point of view than we did.

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.

Who’s the author?

I didn’t realize until after reading this book that Serhiy Zhadan is considered one of Ukraine’s best modern writers.

Zhadan is also a renowned poet and musician. He is based in Kharkiv, a city that was just liberated from Russian occupation.

Is it worth reading?

Yes! This is one of my favorite Ukrainian books.

Other books by Serhiy Zhadan

22. 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 book cover

Voroshilovgrad is a typical story about a guy named Herman and his journey back to a hometown that 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 miserable–poor and corrupt and little opportunity for success. Herman intends to stay only one night but ends up never leaving.

He reconnects with people from his childhood and tries to save his brother’s gas station.

And there’s a bit of magical realism. You’re never sure whether what is happening is real or not. The scenes of magical realism are the best part of the book, and I usually don’t like magical realism.

Is it worth reading?

I read Voroshilovgrad because I wanted to understand the Donbas and why they are so pro-Russian. The book says nothing about Russia.

But I did get a vivid impression of the people and the place. The Donbas is poor and neglected and 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.

Herman is a pervert. He can’t seem to stop himself from grabbing women’s breasts, thighs, etc., without their consent.

Getting through the book was a real slog. I was so bored with Herman, and I didn’t understand what motivated him to stay in his hometown.

The female characters are smart and strong-willed, but they’re also treated as nothing more than sex objects.

If you want to read one book by one of Ukraine’s most important modern writers, read The Orphanage instead.

23. 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 book cover

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

The story takes place in the Grey Zone–the 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 to 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.

Is it worth reading?

Yes, most definitely. It’s one of the better Ukrainian books.

Interesting characters. Vivid descriptions of the war and the mood of Ukraine.

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.

Who is the author?

Andrey Kurkov is another one of Ukraine’s most respected writers. He wrote 3 other books on this list: Ukraine Diaries, Death and the Penguin, and Penguin Lost.

Grey Bees and Ukraine Diaries are his best books.

Kurkov traveled three times to eastern Ukraine since the war started. He said he based the character, Sergey, on a lot of the apathetic people he met in the Donbas.

24. 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.”

Death and the Penguin book cover

If you’re looking for a Ukrainian book that’s not so damn 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.

What’s it about?

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 one by one. Is this more than a coincidence?

Is it worth reading?

Death and the Penguin is the first in a series of 2 books about Vikor and Misha. I actually 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

25. Penguin Lost

By Andrey Kurkov

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“To keep records was to breed secrets.”

the book cover of the Ukrainian book, Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov

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 back 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.

Is it worth reading?

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, I 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!

26. 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 Will Die in a Foreign Land book cover

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

Who is the author?

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.

What’s it about?

The book focuses on 4 people during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014.

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.

Is it worth reading?

Excellent writing. Well-rounded fascinating characters. Captivating story.

I like how the writer really embodied the characters in the book.

If you want to get a sense of the mood of the Maidan Revolution, read it!

27. 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.”

Lucky Breaks book cover

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

What’s it about?

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, you can see it. It’s there in the descriptions of the setting, the names of places, dates, or people’s attitudes and actions.

Is it worth reading?

If you are someone who needs happy people in your books, this is definitely not the book for you.

However, if you’re looking for feminist Ukrainian literature or you like stories with no plot, then Lucky Breaks is for you.

28. 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.”

the book cover of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

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.

What’s the story about?

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.

Is it worth reading?

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.

29. The Museum of Abandoned Secrets

By Oksana Zabuzhko, 2012

My Rating: No Read Yet
book cover of The Museum of Abandoned Secrets

I’ve owned this book 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.

What’s the story about?

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.

30. 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.”

book cover of Dog Park

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

What’s the story about?

The story begins in 2016 in Helsinki. Olenka is watching a family play in a dog park, 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.

Is it worth reading?

The first part of the book is a bit clunky and it’s a bit of a struggle trying to figure out where the story is going. But then the different layers of the mystery is peeled away and 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.

Sofi Okasen is not Ukrainian. She’s Finish, so I have to admit, I can’t be too certain that she was able to capture real life in Ukraine.

Conclusion

I know you’re not as crazy as I am and you’re not going to read all 30 Ukrainian books.

So, which ones are the best of the best?

Honestly, that is not an easy question to answer.

But I will try.

My top 5 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. In Wartime

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Books on Ukraine
Books on Ukraine

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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.

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