Since the Russian invasion started on 24th February, two thousand of civilians have already died because of Russian missiles shot indiscriminately at Ukrainian cities and towns. However, the armed conflict begun much earlier, when Russia annexed Crimea and started its occupation of the Eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. Our editor Kasia Krzyżanowska has selected 5 books to encourage a better understanding of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian modern history and culture. This list is by no means comprehensive and serves as an invitation to explore Ukraine’s recent history further.
“The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books 2015)
This book by world-renowned historian and the head of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute is a nuanced and comprehensive account of the Ukrainian road to statehood and the ever-present European background. In his narrative, Plokhy underscores that “Ukraine has been a gateway to Europe for many centuries” and makes it clear that the Orange Revolution in 2004 or Maidan in 2014 were not sudden nor whimsical events, but rather they reflected the deeply rooted pro-European orientation of the Ukrainian people. The author claims that it was geography, ecology, and culture that were most influential in shaping Ukrainian identity, located on the crossroads between the Eurasian steppes and the Eastern European parklands on the one hand, and between Eastern and Western Christianity on the other. From Plokhy’s perspective, the modern Ukrainian state was created by changing imperial and state borders that cut across heterogenous ethnic identities. This book makes it clear that bilingualism and multiculturalism are a norm and the historical legacy of a post-Soviet Ukraine, which is regarded as a threat to the imperial ambitions of Vladimir Putin. Plokhy meticulously depicts how deeply flawed Russia’s claims to Crimea and the Donbas region, and now to Ukraine as a whole, really are.
“Ukraine in Histories and Stories. Essays by Ukrainian Intellectuals”, ed. by Volodymyr Yermolenko (Internews Ukraine 2019)
One of the contributing authors to this collection, Yaroslav Hrytsak, was once quoted as saying: “In Western Europe, nations are created by politicians, in Eastern Europe they are created by poets”. This book gives voice to Ukrainian intellectuals with a poetic imaginary — journalists, writers, philosophers, and historians — who through their essays explain to an outsider the complexities of Ukrainian identity (or, more appropriately, identities). These contributions — including interviews with Yuri Andrukhovych and Serhii Plokhy — guide us through Ukrainian history from the early modern times up until the Maidan revolutions, and then the annexation of Crimea and the Russian occupation in Eastern Ukraine. This collection proves that the Western analytical categories (such as the “nation-state”) do not match with Ukrainian experience, because otherwise we would perceive Ukrainian history only through the metaphor of loss and lacking (as Andrij Bondar points out in his essay).
“The Museum of Abandoned Secrets” by Oksana Zabuzhko, transl. by Nina Shevchuk-Murray (AmazonCrossing 2012)
A Lutsk-born essayist and novelist, Oksana Zabuzhko is one of the most widely translated and celebrated Ukrainian authors. “Museum”, one of her most renowned and valued novels, is a monumental quasi-familial saga, in which two main characters — a journalist and an antiques dealer — try to investigate the truths about the past of their relatives and their country. The novel’s plot spans from the 1940s until the symbolic year of 2004 and the Orange Revolution. Zabuzhko deals here predominantly with the silenced traumatic experiences of past generations (most notably, people who became UPA (Ukraine Insurgent Army) partisans and those who suffered in the Soviet stagnation era between the 1960s and 1980s). But she also manages to cover contemporary Ukrainian grievances as well — such as its complicated relationship to Western Europe. This novel is not written from memory, but rather about memory — the author has based her narrative on oral accounts of horrific experiences, since many documents from the Soviet times have been destroyed. Zabuzkho then tries to come to grips with how memory about the past is shaped and how it influences an individual’s fate.
“Regionalism without Regions. Reconceptualizing Ukraine’s Heterogeneity”, ed. by Oksana Myshlovska and Ulrich Schmied (CEU 2019)
The contemporary Ukrainian state is in fact a dynamic reality, as claimed by the authors of this collection of essays. Based on empirical analyses (using both qualitative and quantitative methods), the contributors argue that the Ukrainian post-Soviet transition can be seen “as a process of simultaneous nationalization, regionalization and transnationalization”. Instead of perceiving Ukraine as a homogenous state, the authors acknowledge regionalism as a crucial element of Ukrainian statehood. Even though Ukrainian nationality and unity is referred to as a project for civil society, it is regionalism that is “a defining phenomenon of Ukraine, more prominent than the regions themselves”. This regional differentiation manifests itself in the construction of collective memory, as Ukraine is divided by attitude to certain historical events and figures — but this division is far from a clearcut split between East and West. The authors convincingly depict how the cultural, linguistic, and political landscapes in diverse Ukrainian regions gradually unify in the face of the Russian threat.
“The Torture Camp on a Paradise Street” by Stanislav Aseyev, transl. by Nina Murray and Zenia Tomkins (2021)
“The war is still an open wound, which is why there is a place for the lionization of heroes in Ukrainian literature but no place for understanding war through laughter in it yet”, said Stanislav Aseyev in a 2021 interview with Los Angeles Review of Books contributor, Kate Tsurkan. In his book, Aseyev recounts his own horrific experience of being held prisoner and cruelly tortured for almost three years in a secret military base (previously a modern art gallery) in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. The author’s “crime” — for which he was electrocuted — was to publish political dispatches in which he described ordinary life in a city captured by Putin’s allies after the illegal annexation of Crimea. A report presented last year by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documents that torture and ill-treatment have been carried out persistently for years in the regions captured by pro-Russian separatists. Simply written, Aseyev’s book gives a painful insight into the horrific fate of those Ukrainians who opposed Putin in their own homeland even before the Russian invasion in February 2022.
In collaboration with Oliver Garner