Read more to understand more: 10 books about the complex history of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Ukrainians
Russia occupied Crimea and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk region in 2014. In 2022, it launched a full-scale invasion, trying to take over the Ukrainian capital and the entire Ukraine. But the history of Russia’s attempts to conquer Ukraine and destroy Ukrainian identity lasts much longer, for more than three centuries.
Modern-day Russia inherited its violent genocidal practices from both the Russian Empire and Soviet regime. So it seems only logical to learn more about the history, both ancient and quite recent, to understand the current war and relations between two states and two nations. In this article, we gathered ten books, which may help with that.
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
A book by the Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum tells the story of one of the most horrible pages of Ukrainian history and one of Stalin’s greatest crimes – Holodomor. The most lethal famine in European history followed agricultural collectivization in the USSR between 1931 and 1933.
In Red Famine, Applebaum argues that Ukrainians were not accidental victims of the collectivization policy, the state deliberately set out to kill them. The republic’s borders were sealed, all available food was seized, and millions of people starved to death. The story of Holodomor is essential to understand the history and horrors of the Soviet period for Ukrainians, but it also becomes undeniably relevant today, when Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union, is weaponizing food once again.
The Gates of Europe:
A History of Ukraine
by Serhii Plokhii
Today, Ukraine is fighting for its independence against the Russian invasion. But it is not something new – Ukrainians have a long history of struggles to preserve their land, language, and traditions.
Ukraine was influenced by the empires that used it as a strategic gateway between East and West – from the Roman and Ottoman empires to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. But also, the location between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, made Ukraine a meeting place for various cultures and religions.
Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhii offers to examine the country’s long and diverse history from the times of Herodotus to the modern Russian invasion in order to better understand Ukrainian present and future.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder
The book explores Putin’s fascination with an obscure Russian philosopher and writer, Ivan Ilyin. God, Ilyin says, made a mess of the world, but fortunately there was one pure and innocent being – the Russian nation. Snyder’s book shows how Ilyin and his works have probably shaped Putin’s own imperialistic views, and why modern Russia poses a threat to democracy in both Europe and America.
“Russia found allies among nationalists, oligarchs, and radicals everywhere, and its drive to dissolve Western institutions, states, and values found resonance within the West itself,” the annotation reads.
A recent photo with this book captured the hearts of Ukrainians and international audiences – as a Ukrainian soldier was spotted reading it in a trench. “A reader is the highest honor for an author,” Snyder wrote while sharing that photo on Twitter.
Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays by Ukrainian Intellectuals
The book presents a collection of texts by contemporary Ukrainian writers, historians, philosophers, political analysts, and opinion leaders. 16 prominent Ukrainians reflect on Ukraine’s past and present, on events that, in their opinion, shaped Ukraine as a country and influenced them personally: Holodomor, Revolution of Dignity, Russian aggression and more.
“It is revolutionary, because Ukraine is often discussed in the world by non-Ukrainians. And our goal was to let Ukrainian voices be heard in English for an international audience. Moreover, one of the main messages of the publication is the plurality of Ukraine,” says Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor of the book.
Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag by Oksana Kis
Under the Soviet regime, tens of thousands of Ukrainian women were imprisoned in the Gulag, forced labor camps with harsh, inhumane conditions. A great majority of them were political prisoners sentenced to up to 25 years.
In the book, Oksana Kis analyzes 150 personal memories of former prisoners as well as official documents, and in detail covers various aspects of the everyday life of Ukrainian women in the Gulag. An anthropological study focuses on topics of nationality, religious practices, influence of imprisonment on woman’s body and mind, sexual violence, and more.
Girls cutting their locks:
A book of memories / the Russo-Ukrainian War by Yevhenia Podobna
In 2014, when Russian modern military aggression against Ukraine first started, thousands of women enlisted as volunteers to protect Ukrainian sovereignty.
The book by Yevhenia Podobna is full of memories of 25 women who fought in the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) in 2014-2018 as shooters, machine gunners, medics, motor gunners, snipers etc. They tell stories about military operations in the Luhansk and Donetsk region, liberation of Ukrainian towns and villages from Russian invaders, about comrades and locals, military manners and customs. Reflections on being a woman in the army in the times of war is a prominent topic of this work as well.
The book was published by Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance and is available for free online download in English and Ukrainian.
The Orphanage: A Novel by Serhiy Zhadan
A novel set in the early years of Russian military aggression in the East of Ukraine gives a better understanding of what those events turned out to be for residents of those frontline regions. It was written by Serhii Zhadan, one of the most prominent contemporary Ukrainian writers and poets who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Orphanage tells the story of Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher. When Russian soldiers invade a neighboring city, he sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives. The place is on the other side of the frontline though. Venturing into the combat zone, Pasha risks his life to save his nephew and bring him home.
In Wartime: Stories
by Tim Judah
The book, written by the British reporter and political analyst Tim Judah, documents life in different parts of Ukraine throughout 2014. It is a lively blend of research and personal stories that shows diverse Ukraine and provides a lot of food for thought.
In Kyiv, at first glance people seem to live their normal busy lives. And yet the memories of the Revolution of Dignity, of protests, and fire, and people killed in the heart of the city are still very fresh. In the Donetsk region, many found themselves trapped in the gray zone near the frontline, and in Lviv, on the other side of the country, mothers tended to the graves of sons who died fighting.
“I wanted to show that there are people living in Ukraine who have their own opinion, their own position – and would like to decide their own fate,” Tim Judah says.
by Maria Matios
The book portrays the devastating Soviet occupation of the Ukrainian region of Bukovyna in the Carpathian Mountains in 1930’s and 1940’s. The events unfold shortly before, during, and after World War II. The book was awarded “Book of the year” award back in 2005 and received the most honorable Ukrainian Award – Shevchenko National Prize
The main character, Darusia, witnesses the horrors of occupation as a little girl. KGB officers torture and kill the child’s family and blackmail her. As the story goes on, Darusia tries to overcome her childhood trauma and learns to live on her own.
Russian war crimes that shock the world today – torture chambers for children in Kherson, massacre of civilians in Bucha, or numerous cases of rape – they aren’t something new. Previous generations of Ukrainians had seen it all before.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko
A prominent novel of contemporary Ukrainian literature, a family saga by Oksana Zabuzhko covers the period from 1940 to 2004 over more than 800 pages – and tells the story of three generations of a Ukrainian family.
The book is built like a museum, with chapters called “halls”. Each takes the reader to a different time period with different members of the family. The characters live through the key events in Ukrainian history – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Holodomor, the Thaw – but also through their personal dramas, which are, however, always intertwined.