The best books about Ukraine from a journalist who was based there

Susan Viets Author Of Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution
By Susan Viets

Who am I?

I moved to Kyiv to report for The Independent in 1990 and fell in love with Ukraine. The beauty of Kyiv and its golden-domed cathedrals amazed me as did the vibrant culture of civic engagement that emerged. It’s not often that you witness a declaration of independence and see a new country appear on the world map. I admire the bravery of Ukrainians who have fought for both and value the warm friendships that I made. I was Ukraine’s first accredited foreign correspondent. Before that I reported for The Guardian (Budapest) and later, for the BBC (London and Kyiv). I live in Toronto and still closely follow developments in Ukraine.  

I wrote...

Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution

By Susan Viets,

Book cover of Picnic at the Iron Curtain: A Memoir: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to Ukraine's Orange Revolution

What is my book about?

In this adventure-packed memoir, Susan Viets arrives in Communist Hungary in 1988 and begins reporting for The Guardian, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. She helps East Germans escape to the West at a picnic, moves to the Soviet Union, battling authorities for accreditation as the first foreign journalist in Ukraine, and then watches the political system collapse. Lured by new travel opportunities, Viets shops her way across Central Asia, stumbling into a tank attack in Tajikistan and the start of the Tajik civil war. The book features people at the centre of dramatic events from Budapest to Bishkek and Chernobyl to Chechnya. It spans a period of momentous historical change from 1988 to 1998, ending with an eyewitness account of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

Why did I love this book?

The best and most engaging history of Ukraine that I’ve read is Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe. I’m left with the impression of lands so desired that all neighbouring powers sought to control them. Ukraine emerges as central to major historical events. In his fluid narrative, Plokhy analyses the complex, troubled history of the region. His account spans centuries, chronicling the myriad of forces shaping Ukraine. Those forces included the Vikings, Scythians, Byzantine Empire, Mongols, Polish-Lithuanian Empire, Cossacks, and the Russian Empire. Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991; the Soviet Union collapsed later that year. Plokhy’s last chapter, which discusses Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, starts by citing words from the national anthem, “Ukraine has not yet perished.”

By Serhii Plokhy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Gates of Europe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ukraine is currently embroiled in a tense fight with Russia to preserve its territorial integrity and political independence. But today's conflict is only the latest in a long history of battles over Ukraine's territory and its existence as a sovereign nation. As the award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues in The Gates of Europe , we must examine Ukraine's past in order to understand its present and future.Situated between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Ukraine was shaped by the empires that used it as a strategic gateway between East and West,from the Roman and Ottoman empires to the Third…

Book cover of Ukraine: Movement without Change, Change without Movement

Why did I love this book?

What strikes me most about this book is how prescient it is. Published in 2000, this assessment of the first few years of Ukrainian independence accurately flags that Russia never fully accepted it and explains why an independent Ukraine threatens Russia. The introduction provides an excellent, brief history of Ukraine. Later chapters focus on politics, economics, social and cultural issues, and foreign policy up to 1998. Dyczok, an academic, was an eyewitness to key historical events, reporting from Ukraine during its 1991 declaration of independence and after. I particularly recommend the chapter on Ukrainian-Russian relations. Although written long before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of Ukraine, much in that chapter foreshadows these critical events and helps account for why what happened did.

By Marta Dyczok,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Ukraine has surprised many international observers. Few anticipated its declaration of independence in 1991 or its determination to move out of Russia's shadow. Dyczok redresses the continuing dearth of information on the country. Aimed at nonspecialists and specialists alike, it presents an overview of the main government policies, and the social and cultural issues facing the new state. These are placed within their historical, regional and global framework. In contrast with the generally bleak picture that international media reports present, the book suggests that Ukraine has actually accomplished a great deal in a short time. In seven years, from 1991…

Death and the Penguin

By Andrey Kurkov,

Book cover of Death and the Penguin

Why did I love this book?

I chose Death and the Penguin for its unique, intriguing plot and also because it captures so beautifully the sinister, bizarre, shadowy undercurrent of life in Ukraine in the 1990s. At times back then, I remember wondering whether the deaths of some people that I knew were really accidents, as reported, or murders. It is precisely this state of not knowing that Kurkov handles so beautifully. Viktor, the main character in the novel, begins his newspaper job innocently enough, writing obituaries of prominent Ukrainians, still alive. One by one they begin to die. I’ll leave you to read the book to find out what happens next.

By Andrey Kurkov,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A tragicomic masterpiece' Daily Telegraph

All that stands between one man and murder by the mafia is a penguin.

Viktor is an aspiring writer in Ukraine with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap…

Book cover of Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

Why did I love this book?

This is a devastating history of the Holodomor, the Soviet state engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. As Applebaum writes so thorough were the efforts to confiscate food from Ukrainian peasants that “just being alive attracted suspicion.” Despite eyewitness reporting at the time, accounts of the famine were denied. I interviewed some famine survivors when I was a journalist based in Ukraine but did not fully grasp the horrifying scale of what occurred. This book leaves you in no doubt of that.

By Anne Applebaum,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A revelatory history of one of Stalin's greatest crimes, the consequences of which still resonate today, as Russia has placed Ukrainian independence in its sights once more—from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag and the National Book Award finalist Iron Curtain.

"With searing clarity, Red Famine demonstrates the horrific consequences of a campaign to eradicate 'backwardness' when undertaken by a regime in a state of war with its own people." —The Economist

In 1929 Stalin launched his policy of agricultural collectivization—in effect a second Russian revolution—which forced millions of peasants off their land and…

Book cover of Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West

Why did I love this book?

This is a meticulously researched book by a former Moscow-based business journalist that documents Putin’s rise to power and how the siloviki (“security men and spies”) took over Russia’s economy as well as its political and legal system. “Parts of the KGB, Putin among them,” writes Belton, “embraced capitalism as a tool for getting even with the West.” She explains how laundering “black” money in the West began under the Soviets and became widespread and sophisticated during Putin’s rule. That laundered money was used to enrich powerful Russians but also for ideological purposes and for financing the 2014 takeover of Donbas and Crimea in Ukraine. Belton, who interviewed key players, has the skills and expertise necessary for understanding dealings in this murky business and political world.

By Catherine Belton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Putin's People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller | A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Named a best book of the year by The Economist | Financial Times | New Statesman | The Telegraph

"[Putin's People] will surely now become the definitive account of the rise of Putin and Putinism." —Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic

"This riveting, immaculately researched book is arguably the best single volume written about Putin, the people around him and perhaps even about contemporary Russia itself in the past three decades." —Peter Frankopan, Financial Times

Interference in American elections. The sponsorship of extremist politics in…

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