Five Books about Ukraine: Homecoming, Food, History, Isolation

Five Books about Ukraine: Homecoming, Food, History, Isolation

The first Timothy Snyder lecture on Ukraine has gathered 1 million views on YouTube. University of California, Berkeley, offers Ukrainian language classes for the first time. Compared with 2021, 1651% more people in Germany started to learn Ukrainian via Duolingo.

In other words, the interest in Ukraine abroad surges. However, the demand quickly outpaced the supply. Accessible – but at the same time meaningful – books on Ukraine are difficult to find. No wonder – for decades, «Russian studies» were a fetish in academia. Yet, the Russian war crimes came as a surprise to many foreigners. It happened because voices from Eastern Europe were marginalised, while those from Moscow were amplified. A lot of great books were written about Ukraine in Ukrainian, but not so many were then published in foreign languages. Was it a supply problem (little interest abroad) or a demand problem (authors unwilling to engage with foreign publishers)? One way or another, only a few Ukrainian authors landed in Snyder’s course syllabus.

Therefore, it is a cumbersome task to look for worthwhile books about Ukraine, primarily written by a Ukrainian. That is why we have taken it up for ourselves. Here are a few you might add to your 2023 reading list or even buy as a present if you missed out on someone.

Serhiy Zhadan – Voroshilovgrad 

Zhadan, one of the most famous Ukrainian writers, comes from the Luhansk region. Although this area has been in the news since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, it received very little attention before 2014. 

Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad fills up the lacuna. A work of fiction, it tells a story of a young man who comes home to this region and is forced to deal with its troubled present. Although, he can easily dump his task and simply leave, once and for good, there is something that makes him stay – perhaps, love for dry black earth and low-hanging skies, for its soccer teams and homemade cognac, its buses and denim overalls.

Voroshilovgrad is not an attempt to explain Russian invasions. But it is an essential piece to the puzzle. Why wasn’t Ukraine fully successful in defending its borders in 2014? Because the state was robbed by those against whom the protagonist struggles. The price was paid by the volunteer fighters of 2014. 

The book, published in 2010, has since then been translated into some 20 languages: English (Deep Vellum), Polish (Wydawnictwo Czarne), German (Suhrkamp Verlag) or French (Noir sur Blanc), among others. 

Olena Braichenko et al., – Ukraine: Food and History

Christmas time is not only the high season for books but cooking too. National and regional cuisines constantly change, acquiring some features and losing others. It is also true for societies. Therefore, both can be studied historically.  

This is what Braichenko and her coauthor venture for. They aim to describe how natural, climatic or historical circumstances influenced the tastes of Ukrainians.

Take borshch, for instance, an iconical Ukrainian soup. Despite being widely popular, the right way to cook it does not exist. «The Soviet system of public eateries somewhat damaged borshch’s reputation, when every office canteen, café and restaurant served a standardised version regarding taste and presentation. Nowadays, however, you can savour all types of borshch prepared in different regions and following different recipes», Ihor Lylo and Olena Braichenko write. 

The book expands beyond this soup. Jews, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians have all been living in Ukraine and have influenced the way we cook and eat. Therefore, learning about Ukraine is always open to more than just that. 

The Ukrainian publishing house Їzhak released the book in English. Germany-based Initiative für Wissensaustausch, Empowerment und Kultur ships it to EU member states. At the same time, it is available for free on the website of the Ukrainian Institute. German (Knesebeck) and French (Éditions de La Martinière) translations have been pushed too.

Serhii Plokhy – The Gates of Europe 

The Russian Civil War – everyone has heard of it. However, as British historian Jonathan Smele aptly notes, it was neither «Russian» nor singular. Most Western accounts of post-1917 struggles completely ignore the fluidity of the political situation in present-day Ukraine or show it as a battleground for «whites» and «reds». In fact, a wide array of Ukrainian actors were wrangling for power against Russian actors, as well as against each other – something the foreign public had utterly ignored until recently. This episode exemplifies how fractured depictions of Ukrainian history are due to Russian domination. Not understanding this past is among the reasons why prominent foreign analysts miscalculated and thought that war would be over in a few days. 

Thus, Serhii Plokhy has an immense task upon him: to fill those gaps and rearrange the elements. He is, perhaps, the best candidate to do so. Although originally from Ukraine, he spent the last thirty years mainly in Canada and the US. Currently, Plokhy leads Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute. He authored many books on different topics within Ukrainian history but is most known for The Gates of Europe. 

This book was published in the Revolution of Dignity aftermath when Ukraine gathered massive foreign attention. At the time, Plokhy followed the emerging debates. He found «a lot of things that were said and written about the Ukrainian past» «not simply incorrect, but absolutely wrong and misleading». This made him put other things aside and labour over the general history of Ukraine. The resulting Gates of Europe is not an academic folio but an engaging story that runs 500 pages and at least 5000 years.

Plokhy was correct in sensing the empty niche on the market; thus, the book was a huge success. Written eight years ago, it received a revised edition in 2021. Recently, French (Gallimard), German (Hoffmann und Campe) and Dutch (Querido) translations were published too.

Stanislav Aseyev – In Isolation & The Torture Camp on Paradise Street

Aseyev is uniquely positioned to describe life under temporary Russian occupation, both as an insider and an outsider. A local of Donetsk, he lived throughout the onset of the 2014 invasion and stayed there until 2019. He anonymously passed on his observation to Ukrainian media under an obvious threat of Russian repressions. 

The title of the former book shows that the author was isolated from the outer world. Every day he experienced «the sense of aloneness and isolation [...] when forced to hide under the pseudonym Stanislav Vasin in my own land to be able to write about the things you will find in the pages of this book». What caused this? Aseyev has many answers, and he is blunt in his assessments. 

However, after he was kidnapped by the members of an illegal armed formation in 2017, Ukrainians almost forced his way into headlines. The Russian-Ukrainian war still was portrayed as a «frozen conflict» which many foreigners conveniently ignored to make use of relations with Russia. Therefore, bringing publicity to the Aseyev case was an uphill battle.

Torture camps exist in Europe, even if you might not know about them. They did even before the 2022 full-scale invasion. Until 2019, Aseyev was a torture camp inmate along with hundreds of others. Kidnapped from his country and isolated from his people, the journalist survived. In his second book, he tells the world about «a lifetime» of torture by electric shock, rape and humiliation overseen by FSS. 

Aseyev’s two books were published in English by the Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature. German translations are also available at edition.fotoTAPETA and ibidem. By reading them, not only do you learn the story of one person but what many Ukrainians are now getting through. 


Ukraine is love and tragedy, diversity and repression. You are to choose what you want to know. In any case, by learning more about Ukraine, you will be able to surpass those simplified representations which foreign media are often populated with.