Six books that explain the history and culture of Ukraine

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. By Serhii Plokhy. Basic books; 395 pages; $29.99. Allan Lane; £25
The author is Ukraine’s most distinguished historian writing in English. “Chernobyl,” his book on the 1986 nuclear disaster, is a masterful account of its causes and consequences. This covers the many centuries in which the territory of Ukraine was plundered and invaded by powers from all cardinal directions. Mr Plokhy shows how Ukrainian language, culture and identity have flourished in adversity, helping to explain why, despite only recently gaining their own state, Ukrainians are heroically fighting to defend it.

Borderland: A journey through Ukrainian history. By Anna Reid. Basic books; 368 pages; $18.99. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £10.99
Once a contributor to The Economist, the author first published this expert blend of memoir, travelogue and history in 1997, but updated it in 2015. It stretches from Lviv in the west of the country to Donetsk in the east, and from Kiev to Odessa on the Black Sea coast. Its narrative includes portraits of fascinating Ukrainians past and present, including Taras Shevchenko, the national poet, and Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a 17th-century Cossack hetman. Ms. Reid does not avoid the horrors of the country’s past, with its genocide, deportations and famine; but it also finds room for hope. His vacation in Crimea is now a bittersweet memory.

The Ukrainian night: an intimate history of the revolution. By Marcie Shore. Yale University Press; 320 pages; $26 and £25
The title comes from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, and the book is a fragmentary and cerebral account of the pro-democracy uprising in Ukraine in 2013-14 and its (ongoing) aftermath. The author captures the feelings of those swept up in the tumult in Kyiv – the sense of solidarity and moral imperative – and the motivations of those who headed east to fight Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass. She describes the strange mix of atavistic ideology and modern technology at work in the Kremlin’s interference, and the implications of the fate of Ukraine for the future of Europe.

Red Famine: Stalin’s war against Ukraine. By Anne Applebaum. Double day; 496 pages; $35. Allan Lane; £25
The famine Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in 1932-3 killed an estimated 4 million people. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence, the Holodomor, as the disaster is known, has become an essential part of Ukrainian historiography and identity. Anne Applebaum (who wrote for The Economist in the 1980s and 1990s) evokes the terrible horror of the episode and argues convincingly that the famine was used to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. It highlights the similarities between the subterfuge and criminality of Bolshevik methods in Ukraine and the tactics employed more recently by Vladimir Putin.

Death and the Penguin. By Andrei Kurkov. Old; 240 pages; £9.99
The grim realities of post-Soviet life in Ukraine (and elsewhere) were a gift for satirists, but also a challenge. Novelists struggled to compete with the abuse and corruption that erupted all around them. In this story, first published in 1996 and published in English in 2001, Andrey Kurkov succeeded. Viktor, the hero, is an unlucky writer in Kiev. He is employed by a newspaper to write the obituaries of living people, who will soon be victims of clan violence. Meanwhile, Viktor keeps a sick penguin as a pet. A memorable portrait of anarchy and cynicism, but also of endurance and the basic need for affection.

Tales from Odessa. By Isaac Babel. Translated by Boris Dralyuk. Pushkin Press; 192 pages; £10.99
Isaac Babel is one of the many celebrated descendants of Odessa, the irresistible city on the Black Sea founded by Catherine the Great in 1794. It is a place with a unique cosmopolitan atmosphere and a glorious cultural history, including the beautiful boulevards and Italianate architecture are now under threat. by the invading Russian forces. Tales of Babel about pre-revolutionary Jewish gangsters in Odessa features a narrator with “glasses on [his] nose and fall in [his] heart” and the fearless Benya Krik, the king of the city’s gangsters. “Everyone makes mistakes,” Benya told the mother of a man shot dead by one of his henchmen. “Even God.”

Recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis by The Economist is available here

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