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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why did I love 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.

By Timothy Snyder,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Bloodlands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans call the Second World War "the Good War." But before it even began, America's ally Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens-and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war's end, German and Soviet killing sites fell behind the Iron Curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of…

Book cover of Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future

Why did I love 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.

By Svetlana Alexievich,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Chernobyl Prayer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

'Absolutely essential and heartbreaking reading. There's a reason Ms. Alexievich won a Nobel Prize' - Craig Mazin, creator of the HBO / Sky TV series Chernobyl

- A new translation of Voices from Chernobyl based on the revised text -

In April 1986 a series of explosions shook the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Flames lit up the sky and radiation escaped to contaminate the land and poison the people for years to come. While officials tried to hush up the accident, Svetlana Alexievich spent years collecting testimonies from survivors - clean-up workers, residents, firefighters,…

Grey Bees

By Andrey Kurkov, Boris Dralyuk (translator),

Book cover of Grey Bees

Why did I love 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. 

By Andrey Kurkov, Boris Dralyuk (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Grey Bees as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With a warm yet political humor, Ukraine’s most famous novelist presents a balanced and illuminating portrait of modern conflict.

Little Starhorodivka, a village of three streets, lies in Ukraine's Grey Zone, the no-man's-land between loyalist and separatist forces. Thanks to the lukewarm war of sporadic violence and constant propaganda that has been dragging on for years, only two residents remain: retired safety inspector turned beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich and Pashka, a rival from his schooldays. With little food and no electricity, under constant threat of bombardment, Sergeyich's one remaining pleasure is his bees. As spring approaches, he knows he must take…

Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman,

Book cover of Life and Fate

Why did I love 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.

By Vasily Grossman,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Life and Fate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based around the pivotal WWII battle of Stalingrad (1942-3), where the German advance into Russia was eventually halted by the Red Army, and around an extended family, the Shaposhnikovs, and their many friends and acquaintances, Life and Fate recounts the experience of characters caught up in an immense struggle between opposing armies and ideologies. Nazism and Communism are appallingly similar, 'two poles of one magnet', as a German camp commander tells a shocked old Bolshevik prisoner. At the height of the battle Russian soldiers and citizens alike are at last able to speak out as they choose, and without reprisal…

Gulag: A History

By Anne Applebaum,

Book cover of Gulag: A History

Why did I love 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.

By Anne Applebaum,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gulag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • This magisterial and acclaimed history offers the first fully documented portrait of the Gulag, from its origins in the Russian Revolution, through its expansion under Stalin, to its collapse in the era of glasnost.

“A tragic testimony to how evil ideologically inspired dictatorships can be.” –The New York Times

The Gulag—a vast array of Soviet concentration camps that held millions of political and criminal prisoners—was a system of repression and punishment that terrorized the entire society, embodying the worst tendencies of Soviet communism. Applebaum intimately re-creates what life was like in the camps and links them…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Soviet Union, World War 2, and World War 1?

9,000+ 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 World War 1.

The Soviet Union Explore 282 books about the Soviet Union
World War 2 Explore 1,535 books about World War 2
World War 1 Explore 745 books about World War 1

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