The best books that capture the spirit of the Ukrainian people

Diane Chandler Author Of The Road To Donetsk
By Diane Chandler

The Books I Picked & Why

Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine

By Anna Reid

Book cover of Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine

Why this book?

I loved this highly readable history of Ukraine. Written in the early 1990s, when I too worked in Ukraine, Borderland begins with the newly independent nation’s struggle to build itself a national identity. Reid captures this time and its people so well – the peasant women in the covered market, the old men playing chess in Independent Square. Ukraine is literally translated as, ‘on the edge’ or ‘borderland’ and Reid explores the toll of its history – pograms, famine, purges, war, Holocaust, and Chernobyl… She travels through villages of whitewashed cottages, bringing their hardy inhabitants to life with her often quirky observations. She meets old folk who were alive during the famine of 1932/33, others who survived the gas chambers. At every turn, the magnificent Ukrainian spirit is in vibrant evidence. 

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The Survivor of Babi Yar

By Othniel J. Seiden

Book cover of The Survivor of Babi Yar

Why this book?

I read this book as research for my own novel and found it an incredibly moving fictional account of one Jewish Ukrainian boy’s survival in WWII. Yar means ‘ravine’ and, in 1941, over the course of just two days, 33,000 Ukrainian Jews were lined up by German occupiers on the edge of Babi Yar outside Kyiv and machine-gunned, falling then into their mass grave. His whole family is murdered, but eighteen-year-old Solomon somehow survives this horror and escapes to the north of Kyiv, where he falls in with a group of Jewish partisans. Their mission is to destroy Nazis and to ensure the survival of Jews and Judaism. Hiding out in a dense forest, they subsist only with the selfless help of a non-Jewish Ukrainian couple and a Catholic priest. 

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Grey Bees

By Andrey Kurkov, Boris Dralyuk

Book cover of Grey Bees

Why this book?

I knew the Donbas coal mining communities well in the 1990s, and also met the enigmatic Kurkov some years back when invited to the Kyiv Book Fair. So I was intrigued by his novel about life in the Donbas since Russia invaded in 2014. While most people have fled the region, Sergey has remained in the grey zone, a vast stretch of no-man’s land between the lines of Ukrainian loyalists and Russian-backed separatists. The war is simply the new backdrop to his solitary life. As he says, such near isolation could help one better understand oneself, one’s own life.’ If anything gives his life meaning now it is his beloved bees, whom he takes on a fascinating and thought-provoking road trip to Crimea in search of flowers and peaceful pollen. 

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A Boy in Winter

By Rachel Seiffert

Book cover of A Boy in Winter

Why this book?

I loved this beautifully written novel which embraces and honours the Ukrainian spirit. It is 1942 and the Germans have arrived in a small town in Western Ukraine. When the schoolmaster and his wife are rounded up and murdered along with all the other Jews, Yaisa, a local peasant girl, instinctively hides their two young sons away. The massacre is witnessed with horror both by a Ukrainian Auxiliary, now remorseful at having joined the German police, and by a German engineer who is building roads with forced Ukrainian labour. Now the hunt is on for the Jewish boys – and for Yaisa too. An incredibly moving read that both hones in on one small town and pans out across the vast and varied landscape of Ukraine. 

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The Winding Path

By Jaroslaw Wenger

Book cover of The Winding Path

Why this book?

For me, this engaging memoir of a Ukrainian who fought in WWII reads like a personal diary, such is the informality of Wenger’s skillful storytelling. In 1943, at the tender age of 20, he was forced from his village into the German Baudienst (building service). Conditions were miserable and when the Ukrainian Division was recruiting soldiers, he joined up, German uniform and all. Hunger, bitter cold, and flea-ridden beds were mild endurances compared to other horrors he experienced; early on, he was forced to witness a mass execution of Jews, later to join a firing squad against his friends. Wenger finally ended up in a British POW camp in Scotland, then married and settled in the UK. This incredible man turned 99 in February 2022, the day before Russia invaded Ukraine. 

This book is only available here in both Ukrainian and English. 

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