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Books on the history and culture of Ukraine

By Kobo • February 24, 2024Big Ideas in Books

Learn about Ukraine from the remarkable novelists, scholars, and poets who know the country best

Though news has slowed in the two years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war still progresses daily.

For readers who want to better understand the region, the underlying causes of the current conflict, but also the Ukrainian people, we've assembled this mix of fiction and non-fiction books. Each in its own way offers readers a sense of Ukrainian perspectives and sensibilities captured at different points in history.


Non-fiction

Books by scholars and journalists on contemporary Ukrainian society and the geopolitical context around the current conflict.

Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid

Originally published in 1997, Borderland was most recently updated in February 2023.

English journalist Anna Reid traces the history of Ukraine from 1240, when a Mongol invasion set off conflict among the dominant forces in medieval eastern Europe, through to the country’s incorporation into the Soviet Union and its emergence as an independent state following the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Reid's account of contemporary history examines the struggle to establish an historically aware and inclusive Ukrainian sense of national identity in the face of Russian hostility that exploded into open warfare in 2022.

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Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum

Renowned historian Anne Applebaum turns her studied eye (she is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gulag: A History as well as Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956) to one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed: the starvation of five million people in the USSR under Joseph Stalin. Applebaum argues that more than half of the death toll was not from misguided agricultural policy leading to famine, but from the deliberate monstrous intention of Stalin to wipe out the Ukrainian people so he could replace them with cooperative Russian peasants.

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Our Others: Stories of Ukrainian Diversity by Olesya Yaremchuk

This book offers an overview of fourteen European ethnic minorities that live in modern Ukraine and includes interviews, photographs, and academic writing on the history of each group.

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The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy

Another history of Ukraine, told here by Harvard’s professor of Ukrainian history, Serhii Plokhy. He sees Ukraine’s history as a pattern of conflicts common to Slavic nations, an ongoing struggle for independence from encroaching empires. Ukraine’s situation as a strategic East-West gateway has made this struggle particularly acute and long-lasting.

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Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration by Adriana N. Helbig

Music professor Adriana Helbig brings readers into world of urban music and dance competitions, hip hop parties, and recording studio culture, where African immigrants meet local Ukrainians—and a new voice of protest is born.

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Fiction & Poetry

Contemporary and classic writing from Ukraine's most influential literary artists.

The Ukraine by Artem Chapeye

Includes the story "The Ukraine," which was published in The New Yorker in 2022.

In 26 pieces of writing that blur lines between fiction and non-fiction, writer and activist Artem Chapeye (the pen name of Anton Vasilyovich Vodyanyi) conjures the sights, sounds, and smells of his country—even for readers who aren't sure whether to say "the" before its name.

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The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan

This novel takes place in occupied eastern Ukraine at a time when the threat of military conflict was a constant presence. It’s considered a literary masterpiece and a high point in writing about the impact of war on civilians.

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Hardly Ever Otherwise by Maria Matios

In this short novel originally published in 2007 but set near the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, three narrators describe the events around a murder in a small village, each offering their own alibi and reasons for having had no motivation for having taken part in the crime.

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Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov

In this picaresque satirical novel, an eccentric beekeeper must escort his bees to across war-torn parts of Ukraine to somewhere that they can peacefully collect pollen. On the way he meets people on every side of the conflict, each arguing for the rightness of their cause and seeking a way to turn the simpleminded beekeeper to side with them.

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The Lost Button by Irene Rozdobudko

Infatuation turns to obsession in this psychological thriller about a young screenwriter who finds himself fixated on an enigmatic actress.

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Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky

A shattering and beautiful book about a country occupied by an invading force where all residents have gone deaf and now communicate by sign language. They find ways to resist, often violently, and with brutal consequences.

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Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets

Pencil-sketch stories—some profound, others darkly comic—of women living in the impoverished Donbass region of Ukraine, where Russian occupation has been a daily reality since 2014.

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Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov

This story collection by political dissident and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov—who in 2014 was imprisoned in Russia for publicly criticizing the government’s invasion of Crimea—is equal parts fictionalized autobiography, artistic exploration, and philosophical provocation.

Sentsov was freed from prison in 2019 via a prisoner swap, and since 2022 he has been fighting under the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

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