The best books about the recent history of Russia and Ukraine that help us understand what is going on right now

Jane Rogoyska Author Of Surviving Katyn: Stalin's Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth
By Jane Rogoyska

Who am I?

I’ve spent the past few years writing about the 1940 Katyń Massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war by Stalin’s NKVD and the decades-long cover-up of their crime. My research has taken me far and wide across the recent history of eastern Europe but until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 I was convinced the events I was studying belonged firmly in the past. Now, more than ever, we need to make an effort to understand the ways in which history informs the present. I most admire writers who combine a forensic attention to detail with a deep compassion for the individuals at the heart of every story.

I wrote...

Surviving Katyn: Stalin's Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth

By Jane Rogoyska,

Book cover of Surviving Katyn: Stalin's Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth

What is my book about?

Committed in utmost secrecy in April–May 1940 by the NKVD on the direct orders of Joseph Stalin, for nearly fifty years the Soviet regime succeeded in maintaining the fiction that Katyn was a Nazi atrocity, their story unchallenged by Western governments fearful of upsetting a powerful wartime ally and Cold War adversary. Surviving Katyn explores the decades-long search for answers, focusing on the experience of those individuals with the most at stake—the few survivors of the massacre and the Polish wartime forensic investigators—whose quest for the truth in the face of an inscrutable, unknowable, and utterly ruthless enemy came at great personal cost.

The books I picked & why

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Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder,

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why this book?

This is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an essential book for anyone seeking to understand recent eastern European history. Snyder has written a clear-sighted, impeccably-researched account of how, between them, the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin brutally murdered fourteen million people in the bloodlands of eastern Europe. A chilling read.

Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future

By Svetlana Alexievich,

Book cover of Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future

Why this book?

One of the most beautiful and devastating books I’ve ever read, Chernobyl Prayer relates the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine from the point of view of those most closely involved. Nobel laureate Alexievich’s unique method of using verbatim witness accounts, which she edits into something closely resembling poetry, elevates this to the level of great literature. The Soviet government’s attempts to cover up the scale of the disaster are widely considered to have contributed to the final collapse of the Soviet Union.

Grey Bees

By Andrey Kurkov, Boris Dralyuk (translator),

Book cover of Grey Bees

Why this book?

Kurkov’s novel is about a middle-aged beekeeper who embarks on a Kafka-esque road trip across the conflict-ridden regions of eastern Ukraine to find pollen for his bees. This book provides a unique insight into the absurdity and tragedy of a conflict that pre-dates the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 by 8 years, but has been largely ignored by the outside world. 

Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman,

Book cover of Life and Fate

Why this book?

Grossman’s fictionalised expression of his experiences at the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad is one of the great Soviet novels of the 20th century. Humane and profound, it offers an insight into what World War II, and Stalingrad in particular, means to Russia. As sweeping in scale as War and Peace (and probably more challenging to read if only for the sheer number of characters and names to remember) this is a book that requires intense concentration but rewards the effort.

Gulag: A History

By Anne Applebaum,

Book cover of Gulag: A History

Why this book?

A magisterial account of the brutal system of labour camps to which hundreds of thousands of people were consigned as criminals by the Soviet state. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov offer us vivid first-hand accounts of the experience of being a prisoner in the gulag, but what Applebaum has achieved is to tell the history of an entire system without ever losing sight of the individuals who were its victims.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Soviet Union, World War 2, and Russia?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Soviet Union, World War 2, and Russia.

The Soviet Union Explore 224 books about the Soviet Union
World War 2 Explore 968 books about World War 2
Russia Explore 234 books about Russia

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Battle Cry of Freedom, The Overstory, and Stalingrad if you like this list.