The best books about Ukraine

12 authors have picked their favorite books about Ukraine and why they recommend each book.

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A Boy in Winter

By Rachel Seiffert,

Book cover of A Boy in Winter

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. 


Who am I?

My passion for Ukraine and its incredible people began when I managed a European Union aid programme there in the 1990s. Ukraine had just become an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and we were supporting its path to democracy. I travelled throughout this stunning country umpteen times and met thousands of warm, welcoming people, who quickly found their way into my heart. The Road to Donetsk is my tribute to Ukraine. It won the 2016 People’s Book Prize for Fiction, an award I dedicated to the Ukrainian people. Today, my memories of all those I met weigh heavily on my mind. 


I wrote...

The Road To Donetsk

By Diane Chandler,

Book cover of The Road To Donetsk

What is my book about?

Ukraine, 1994. Communism has collapsed and an idealistic Vanessa Parker enters the world of overseas aid, bringing with her youth and passion to do good. Newly independent Ukraine and its people completely win Vanessa's heart. As does Dan, a jaded American who gently mocks her determination to change the world, but helps her navigate the political minefield of overseas aid. Their love unfolds in the stunning lilac-filled capital of Kyiv, on visits to the sparkling seas of Odessa, the pristine ski runs of the Carpathians, and even to the chilling spectacle of Chernobyl. It is in the coal mining communities of the Donbas, however, that Vanessa does indeed create change, with a micro-credit scheme for the wonderful, resilient and entrepreneurial wives of the miners.

The Holocaust by Bullets

By Patrick Desbois,

Book cover of The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews

In deeply personal terms, Father Desbois describes how his curiosity about his grandfather’s incarceration in Ukraine led him to study the atrocities committed there against the Jews. The book is written in an almost conversational style, creating a sense of intimacy between Father Desbois and the reader. Desbois is able to persuade those who witnessed atrocities to open up and confess what they have seen and what they remember. Together with a team of ballistic experts, interpreters, historians, and archaeologists, he identified numerous sites of mass graves. Desbois, who popularized the term “The Holocaust by Bullets,” has been instrumental in expanding our understanding of the Holocaust beyond the death camps and the ghettos to the more intimate killings that took place in Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.


Who am I?

My father survived the Holocaust in Budapest and my mother’s immediate family fled Poland just before she was born, leaving behind a large extended family. I grew up witnessing the trauma of suffering and loss. As a professional historian, I had already written several books on Russian-Jewish history, mostly on culture and theater, when I joined a group that was interviewing Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. Since 2014, I have been teaching courses on the Holocaust at the University of Michigan and soon after became involved with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I serve on the Academic Committee.


I wrote...

In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust

By Jeffrey Veidlinger,

Book cover of In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust

What is my book about?

Between 1918 and 1921, over a hundred thousand Jews were murdered in Ukraine by peasants, townsmen, and soldiers who blamed the Jews for the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Largely forgotten today, these pogroms—ethnic riots—dominated headlines and international affairs in their time. Aid workers warned that six million Jews were in danger of complete extermination. Twenty years later, these dire predictions would come true.

Drawing upon long-neglected archival materials, including thousands of newly discovered witness testimonies, trial records, and official orders, acclaimed historian Jeffrey Veidlinger shows for the first time how this wave of genocidal violence created the conditions for the Holocaust. He explains how so many different groups of people came to the same conclusion: that killing Jews was an acceptable response to their various problems.

Days of Terror

By Barbara Claassen Smucker,

Book cover of Days of Terror

I’ve read this book several times and I don’t believe I ever manage to get through it without shedding a few tears. Have tissues handy. A Mennonite family living in Ukraine in the 1920s has their village destroyed by Russian soldiers. The central character, ten-year-old Peter Neufeld, makes a decision to help his older brother Otto escape after he’s participated in counter-attacks, going against the family’s adherence to passive resistance. The Neufelds decide to leave a land of oppression and move to Canada where they will make an effort to assimilate rather than live apart as they have in Ukraine. It’s a journey filled with challenges and heartbreak, but always with the strength of love of family and humanity as a sustaining factor.


Who am I?

As a child, I was an avid reader and particularly fell in love with historical fiction. My favourite corner for reading was on top of the woodbox by my grandmother’s cookstove. Warm and cozy, I delved into such books as Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason and Jack Schaeffer’s Shane. How wonderful to land for a few hours in the world of Shakespeare’s London or the grasslands of the frontier west. When I worked as a children’s librarian and then began writing books myself, this early love has remained with me—so it factored into the books I chose for schools—and some of the novels I wrote such as The Runaway and Firebird.


I wrote...

Firebird

By Glen Huser,

Book cover of Firebird

What is my book about?

Set during World War I when thousands of Ukrainian immigrants were interned in concentration camps all across Canada, Firebird follows the journey of fourteen-year-old Alex Kaminsky, searching for an older brother who has disappeared. Riding the rails, staying with an immigrant Norwegian family in Edmonton and then, when authorities are on his trail, finding sanctuary with an elderly school teacher in Calgary, Alex finally discovers Marco close to death in a camp in Banff. 

My hope is that Firebird will allow young people of today to walk for a while in the shoes of these Canadian immigrant boys—back in the midst of a war that tore families apart not only on the battlefields of Europe but in the quieter corners of Canada.

The Gates of Europe

By Serhii Plokhy,

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

Plokhy’s engaging and well-documented study provides an excellent overview of the entire history of Ukraine and the repeated story of invasion, war, and occupation by its neighbors Poland and especially Russia. In particular, it provides sharp analyses of the complex relations between Ukraine and Russia from the time of its Czars through Stalin, the post-Stalinist Kremlin leadership, and Putin, providing contemporary readers penetrating insights into the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The book depicts in dramatic detail and narrative the century-long struggles of Ukraine for sovereignty, its century-long oppression by its neighbors, the terrible mass starvation and murder it suffered from both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in World War II, and its eventual independence—threatened by Russia in the 21st century through the present. In the contemporary context, Plotky’s text provides an illuminating understanding of Ukraine and its conflicted and often tragic history.


Who am I?

My work since the 1970s has focused on the major political struggles of the day as they impact U.S. democracy and provide challenges for understanding and action. As a professional philosopher, I focused on ways that history, philosophy, and theory provide key tools for the interpretation and critique of salient issues. I've written books on U.S. politics and the media, the Gulf War and Iraq War, 9/11 and the War on Terror, and am particularly interested in the interaction between Russia, the U.S., and Europe; hence, the rise of Putin in Russia, the New Cold War, and the 2020s conflict in Ukraine and the response of Western democracies.


I wrote...

American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascent of Donald Trump

By Douglas Kellner,

Book cover of American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascent of Donald Trump

What is my book about?

American Horror Show describes the authoritarian personality and right-wing populism of Donald Trump and how he incarnates certain features of American Demagoguery that present a clear danger to US democracy. I demonstrate how Trump uses media spectacle, Twitter and social media, and his daily rallies with his base to organize a right-wing populist movement that sees Trump as its Leader. Finally, I investigate the number of pro-Russian members of Trump’s early administration, and his bond with Putin, raising questions of why a Republican President would be in thrall to a Kremlin KGB agent and thug, and asking whether Trump is Putin’s “Useful Idiot,” or his “Poodle,” whose policies and behavior Putin unduly influenced. I argue that Trump’s Authoritarian Presidency threatens the interests of U.S. democracy and our alliances with democratic allies.

Ukraine

By Marta Dyczok,

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

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.


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.

Borderland

By Anna Reid,

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

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. 


Who am I?

My passion for Ukraine and its incredible people began when I managed a European Union aid programme there in the 1990s. Ukraine had just become an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and we were supporting its path to democracy. I travelled throughout this stunning country umpteen times and met thousands of warm, welcoming people, who quickly found their way into my heart. The Road to Donetsk is my tribute to Ukraine. It won the 2016 People’s Book Prize for Fiction, an award I dedicated to the Ukrainian people. Today, my memories of all those I met weigh heavily on my mind. 


I wrote...

The Road To Donetsk

By Diane Chandler,

Book cover of The Road To Donetsk

What is my book about?

Ukraine, 1994. Communism has collapsed and an idealistic Vanessa Parker enters the world of overseas aid, bringing with her youth and passion to do good. Newly independent Ukraine and its people completely win Vanessa's heart. As does Dan, a jaded American who gently mocks her determination to change the world, but helps her navigate the political minefield of overseas aid. Their love unfolds in the stunning lilac-filled capital of Kyiv, on visits to the sparkling seas of Odessa, the pristine ski runs of the Carpathians, and even to the chilling spectacle of Chernobyl. It is in the coal mining communities of the Donbas, however, that Vanessa does indeed create change, with a micro-credit scheme for the wonderful, resilient and entrepreneurial wives of the miners.

The Winding Path

By Jaroslaw Wenger,

Book cover of The Winding Path

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. 


Who am I?

My passion for Ukraine and its incredible people began when I managed a European Union aid programme there in the 1990s. Ukraine had just become an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and we were supporting its path to democracy. I travelled throughout this stunning country umpteen times and met thousands of warm, welcoming people, who quickly found their way into my heart. The Road to Donetsk is my tribute to Ukraine. It won the 2016 People’s Book Prize for Fiction, an award I dedicated to the Ukrainian people. Today, my memories of all those I met weigh heavily on my mind. 


I wrote...

The Road To Donetsk

By Diane Chandler,

Book cover of The Road To Donetsk

What is my book about?

Ukraine, 1994. Communism has collapsed and an idealistic Vanessa Parker enters the world of overseas aid, bringing with her youth and passion to do good. Newly independent Ukraine and its people completely win Vanessa's heart. As does Dan, a jaded American who gently mocks her determination to change the world, but helps her navigate the political minefield of overseas aid. Their love unfolds in the stunning lilac-filled capital of Kyiv, on visits to the sparkling seas of Odessa, the pristine ski runs of the Carpathians, and even to the chilling spectacle of Chernobyl. It is in the coal mining communities of the Donbas, however, that Vanessa does indeed create change, with a micro-credit scheme for the wonderful, resilient and entrepreneurial wives of the miners.

The Winter Horses

By Philip Kerr,

Book cover of The Winter Horses

The central theme of The Winter Horses involves an almost extinct horse breed (Przewalski) with ties to prehistoric cave horses located in the middle of one of the worst wars in our human history, World War Two. As starvation and Nazi occupation reduce the humanity within, heroes surface to protect not only the horses but the desperate survivors who have adapted to living on the fringe. The book has much to recommend besides the local saviors, a young female Jewish teen surfaces who is on the run and befriends the horses. She along with the past horse caretaker precariously exist within the occupation, until she is forced to lead the horses away from death, through a snowy and treacherous terrain all while being pursued. This book explores the importance of protecting our fragile almost extinct animals, counterbalanced with highlighting the horses’ strong adaptive abilities that allowed them to survive so…


Who am I?

My journey to wildlife storytelling had a very unusual beginning, I started out as a wildlife photographer with an intense curiosity for bears and other North American wildlife. I would pursue these animals wherever it took me and ended up with a large photographic portfolio of these majestic creatures. This quest resulted in remarkable, interesting, and sometimes dangerous wildlife encounters, which I shared in my book, Wild Among Us. My combination of images and storytelling has been a complete immersive experience and has made me appreciate the varied and specific behaviors each animal possesses. These unique adaptive animal behaviors when presented with an interesting adventure story always has interested and captivated me.


I wrote...

Wild Among Us: True adventures of a female wildlife photographer who stalks bears, wolves, mountain lions, wild horses and other elusive wildlife

By Pat Toth-Smith,

Book cover of Wild Among Us: True adventures of a female wildlife photographer who stalks bears, wolves, mountain lions, wild horses and other elusive wildlife

What is my book about?

Wild Among Us is a true adventure story about the sometimes-hazardous encounters Pat Toth-Smith, a female photographer, has undergone while pursuing her career. Experiences of being cornered by bull moose, growled at by a grizzly mom protecting her cub, and multiple other wildlife encounters highlight the dangers and excitement of her work. Her adventures not only include the perils associated with stalking wildlife but also the sometimes-precarious situations she must navigate as she travels the highways alone, with the potential human predators. The results of her labors are the colorful observations of wildlife behavior, impressive wildlife photos, and her hard-earned survival skills. *Winner of USA Best Book, E-LIT Bronze Medal & Living Now Gold Medal Awards.

The Lost

By Daniel Mendelsohn,

Book cover of The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million

If you’ve ever found yourself obsessed with a family mystery, you’ll be captivated by The Lost. Mendelsohn had always wondered what happened to his great-uncle and aunt, and their four daughters, during the Holocaust. His search starts with ordinary genealogical curiosity but quickly spirals into an epic quest. I admire Mendelsohn’s elegant, lyrical prose and was swept up in his ruminations on what we owe the past. His discoveries are heartbreaking but they also spark hope—by rescuing one ordinary family from oblivion.


Who am I?

As a child, I was drawn to the silences in family stories and as a young adult, the gaps in official records. Now I’m a former English professor turned full-time writer who is fascinated with who gets written out of history, and why. I love exploring overlooked lives, especially women’s lives—from Stalin’s female relatives to nineteenth-century shopgirls, and most recently, a pair of early medieval queens.


I wrote...

The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World

By Shelley Puhak,

Book cover of The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World

What is my book about?

The remarkable, little-known story of two trailblazing women in the Early Middle Ages who wielded immense power, only to be vilified for daring to rule. Brunhild was a foreign princess, raised to be married off. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a lowly palace slave. And yet-in sixth-century Merovingian France, where women were excluded from noble succession these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms. Yet after the queens' deaths—one gentle, the other horrific—their stories were rewritten.

The Dark Queens sets the record straight, resurrecting two very real women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of an unfamiliar time and striking at the roots of some of our culture's stubbornest myths about female power. The Dark Queens offers proof that the relationships between women can transform the world.

The Reconstruction of Nations

By Timothy Snyder,

Book cover of The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999

This modern classic is still a must-read for my students nearly twenty years after its first publication. Nothing else comes close to its sweep over time and space as it explains how the legacies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth continue to shape the relations between its successor nations and their founding narratives. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the protests in Belarus have made this well-written book even more essential to understanding the region.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by Central and Eastern Europe all of my adult life. Many cruises along the Danube and around the Baltic Sea have allowed me to see the stunning best of the region. Since the early 1990s, I’ve taught the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Russian Empire to a generation of students. Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at University College London since 2013, my next challenge is to promote the history of Poland to allcomers via the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, the wonderful city which is my home.


I wrote...

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame

By Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski,

Book cover of The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame

What is my book about?

I tell the compelling story of the last decades of one of Europe’s largest and least understood polities: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Drawing on the latest research, I explain its turbulent path to destruction by the neighbouring powers: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. But far from seeing the Commonwealth as a failed state, I show the ways in which it reformed itself, drawing on its own civic values and the ideas of the Enlightenment. All too briefly, the Commonwealth threw off the stranglehold of Russia and regained its sovereignty, and on May 3, 1791 it gave itself a modern Constitution, fit for the nineteenth century.

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