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.

The books I picked & why

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The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

By Serhii Plokhy,

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

Why 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.”

Ukraine: Movement without Change, Change without Movement

By Marta Dyczok,

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

Why 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.

Death and the Penguin

By Andrey Kurkov,

Book cover of Death and the Penguin

Why 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.

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

By Anne Applebaum,

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

Why 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.

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

By Catherine Belton,

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

Why 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.

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