Books to Help You Better Understand Ukraine, its Culture, History and Politics*
Ukraine: A History, Orest Subtelny (University of Toronto Press)
Published in 1988, this book by the Harvard-educated Ukrainian-Canadian professor quickly emerged as the definitive text on the history of Ukraine, at a time when the country was emerging from Soviet rule. Previous history books, those allowed by Moscow, told Ukraine’s story through a Soviet lens. But Subtelny’s 700-plus page tome traces the details of the Ukrainian nation from the medieval times of Kyiv Rus’ to the period of independence in the 20th century. The fourth edition, published in 2009, includes an overview of modern-day challenges following Ukraine’s renewed independence of 1991 and offers readers a window into the political developments, economic transformation and cultural changes up to the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Revolutionary Ukraine, 1917-2017: History’s Flashpoints and Today’s Memory Wars, Myroslav Shkandrij (Routledge)
Ukraine’s turbulent past is explored through its revolutionary struggles beginning with the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, which provided an opportunity for the declaration of an autonomous state called the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The victory is short-lived, as in 1921 the majority of this first Ukrainian state is absorbed into the Soviet Union. The generation that led the Ukrainian movement is destroyed by terror, fabrication of nationalist conspiracies resulting in imprisonment and the forced starvation of the Holodomor (1932-33). However, the War for Carpatho-Ukraine in 1938-39 and the Second World War mobilized a new wave of nationalist revolutions and lead to the Ukrainian underground movement once again calling for independence. The final section addresses the period of postindependence focusing on the 2013-14 Euromaidan protest and the declaration that “Ukraine is not Russia.”
The Affirmative Action Empire, Terry Martin (Cornell University Press)
A meticulously referenced work detailing the Soviet Union’s evolving nationality policy uses a rich collection of Soviet archival documents. Martin skillfully illustrates how leaders of the Soviet Union initially sought to curate a carefully controlled national consciousness for its ethnic minorities, only to later perceive these nationalist sentiments as a threat to Soviet unity. The result was a forceful quelling of the rising tide of nationalism, and the re-establishment of Russian superiority within the multi-ethnic empire.
The Tango of Death, Yuri Vynnychuk (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing)
In Ukraine, literary critics compare Vynnychuk to Italy’s Umberto Eco. The author, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-war Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, weaves intrigue, tragedy and humour in this adventurous and moving story of a Ukrainian, a Pole, a German and a Jew, whose friendship and courage endure the challenges of cataclysmic events.
Perverzion, Yuri Andrukhovych (Northwestern University Press)
This novel is written by the co-founder of a famous Ukrainian literary group called the “Bu-Ba-Bu” which stands for “burlesque, side-show, buffoonery.” The group aims to perform carnival-like interpretations of events in Ukraine. Perverzion is full of absurdity, eroticism and hyperbole which present Ukrainian literature as part of Western trends of postmodernism. More simply: It’s an ironic story about the disappearance of Stanislav Perfetsky, the eccentric poet and hero of the Ukrainian underground, and recounts his possible final days.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, Oksana Zabuzhko (Amazon Crossing)
Ukraine’s most articulate and complex female voice during the initial post-Soviet decade brought the country its first international bestseller with Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex. Her third novel is a dramatic multigenerational saga sprawling over six decades (and 727 pages) that looks at the effects of seismic political and cultural shifts for Ukrainian women.
Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages, Maria Matios (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing)
Published in 2003 by the award-winning Ukrainian author and politician, the novel is an engaging drama that tells the story of Darusya, a woman who doesn’t speak and lives in the countryside, her family and the locals in her isolated village in the Carpathian Mountains on the Ukrainian-Romanian border. The origins for Darusya’s affliction are revealed through this compelling tale, which won the Taras Shevchenko National Prize, one of the most prestigious in Ukraine.
Red Famine and Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum (Anchor)
Her 2004 book, Gulag: A History, won her a Pulitzer prize, and Red Famine is equally rich in historical research as it takes on one of the seminal events in Ukraine’s history – the Holodomor. The book captures the deliberate policy measures of forceful agricultural collectivization and Sovietization of Ukraine, which led to the most lethal famine in Europe’s history. The death by starvation of millions still reverberates today.
Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder (Basic Books) This compellingly told and well-researched work of history looks at the plight of the peoples of Eastern Europe (Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) who are caught between Stalin’s regime and Hitler’s Reich. Deeply humane, this is a must-read if you want to know more about not just the perpetrators of these atrocities but also their victims.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, Bill Browder (Simon & Schuster)
In this chilling, true story, which reads like a political thriller, Browder exposes the corruption and brutality of Putin’s Russia. It details how his unlikely journey from financier to human-rights activist led him to fight, against all odds, for justice against the Russian regime. After his lawyer was tortured to death in Russian prison, Browder became even more intent on revealing the mafia-like state of Putin’s Russia, eventually leading to the establishment of the Magnitsky Act both in Canada and the United States. Red Notice serves as a stark reminder of the lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to safeguard its kleptocratic regime.
Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, David Remnick (Vintage)
Widely acknowledged as a staple in the literature on the collapse of the Soviet empire, this work intertwines historical record with the author’s own experience from 1988 to the end of 1991. As a journalist, Remnick tells the stories of the people he encounters – from government apparatchiks to those barely able to afford the bread on their table – and their varying experiences during the turbulent era of Soviet rule. Lenin’s Tomb presents a unique comparison and contrast of the many storylines taking place during the last years of the Soviet Union, ultimately giving the reader an intimate understanding of the scale of corruption, ineptitude and the everyday failings of the system that eventually led to its demise.
Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine, Olia Hercules (Weldon Owen)
The newest cookbook from an award-winning Ukrainian chef and author explores the diversity and range of the country’s cuisine. Born in the southern Ukrainian town of Kakhovka, an hour-away from Turkey by air, Olia Hercules grew up eating fresh cherries, strawberries and watermelons. Hercules uses the region’s summer kitchens – the small structures outside the main house used for cooking and preserving – to share the stories, and recipes, of a unique culture. Beyond borscht indeed.
* Copied without permission from an article in The Globe and Mail by Nadia Gereliouk, PhD candidate at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto. Full link to article copied below. Links to Amazon.com provided by the Ukrainian Culture Center of Los Angeles. Books to help you understand Ukraine, beyond the headlines, The Globe and Mail, Nadia Gereliouk.