The Top 7 Books to Read About Ukraine to Understand Its People and the Conflict

books about ukraine

Ukraine burst from the relative obscurity — to those who don’t follow international politics — of Eastern Europe onto the world’s stage as the most important region on the planet last week.

Overnight, we learned so much about the country and its people to the point that the ongoing conflict and invasion by Russia feels almost personal. Phrases like ‘Slava Ukraini!’ and ‘Russian warship go f*ck yourself’ have entered the memespace and our collective consciousness at the lighting speed of the internet.

But for those of us who want to dig a little deeper and get behind the headlines and the videos of conflict now filling our little digital screens, there is a tonne of great literature out there to help us do just that.

Here we’ve rounded up the best books about Ukraine, its people, and its history, to help you get a little better acquainted with the current heroes of democracy.

If possible, try and grab these from your local bookseller, or directly from the author’s website, but we’ve also added a Booktopia link to help you find them.

Otherland by Maria Tumarkin

otherland maria tumarkin

Kicking off with a local legend, Maria Tumarkin’s Otherland is an autobiographical journey through Russia and Ukraine, Tumarkin’s homeland.

She journeys over six weeks with her Australian-born daughter through the country she fled with her parents in 1989 just before the collapse of the USSR. It’s an exploration of the political and cultural fallout of that turbulent time as well as the vast distances between generations of women and the concrete and imagined realities that they inhabit.

Tumarkin is also currently raising money to support Ukraine so this is a double win. A $50 donation to the Ukraine Crisis Appeal will get you a signed copy of either Otherland or her latest book, Axiomatic, also highly recommended. You can of course do the double and get both with a $100 or more donation.

Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov

grey bees andrey kurkov

Andrey Kurkov is widely hailed as Ukraine’s most famous contemporary author. Grey Bees is a dramatisation of the current conflict in Ukraine told through the adventures of a mild-mannered beekeeper.

Published in 2020, but set in 2017, it’s a fairly up-to-date snapshot of what life is/was like in Ukraine’s no-go grey zones between Ukrainian troops and the Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.

Full of bright characters impacted by tragedy on all sides, Grey Bees is a fictional travel log through a country slowly being torn apart by conflict.

The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy

the gates of europe serhii plokhy

For those looking to dive a little deeper into the history of Ukraine and the forces behind this current conflict, The Gates of Europe is a great place to start.

While there have been hundreds of books written on the history of Eastern Europe and Russia’s sphere of influence, few cut through and tell the story from the perspective of one country and its various invaders like Plokhy’s.

Starting with the Ancient Greeks, and working through the arrival of the Vikings in the tenth century, Plokhy charts the impact of invaders and conquerors of Ukraine right up to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Orphanage: A Novel by Serhiy Zhadan

the orphanage serhiy zhadan

Serhiy Zhadan is recognised as being one of Europe’s most promising up-and-coming novelists and one of the most important young writers in Ukraine.

His third book, The Orphanage, was chosen by The New York Times as one of the six books to read to understand the Ukrainian conflict in 2021. It evokes scenes reminiscent of The Road as Ukrainian language teacher Pasha travels through newly-occupied territory to find and rescue his nephew who runs an orphanage.

It’s a deeply personal account of the violence and horror of the war and will no doubt be remembered as one of the defining books on the conflict.

Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid

borderland anna reid

Another non-fiction take on the history of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict, this time from award-winning journalist Anna Reid. Reid was the Kiev correspondent for The Economist and The Daily Telegraph and weaves together stories and interviews from pro-democracy activists and pro-Russian separatists to explore the 2014 conflict.

That conflict, arguably an ongoing and protracted war that has been ongoing for eight years and culminated in the latest full-scale invasion, is crucial to understanding this one.

Reid’s account gives a thoroughly human perspective to the headlines and brutality of the present situation.

Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles

moonlight in odessa

For something a bit lighter, we recommend Moonlight in Odessa. It’s a fascinating and hilarious insight into the highly stigmatised and controversial world of mail-order brides told through the fictionalised account of Daria.

The 20-something is a native Odessan, on Ukraine’s southern coast, who decides she’s done with the advances of mafia gangsters and her boss and enters herself into the murky world of international marriage brokerage.

Finding a match with a Californian teacher, she questions whether the American dream is really worth giving up her homeland for and if it can really be all it’s cracked up to be.

Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules

summer kitchens olia hercules

Rounding it off with a bit of flavour we’ve got the latest cookbook from internationally renowned Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules.

Unlike her previous hit, Mamushka, which focused on big, earthy flavours and vibrant dishes from across the Black Sea and beyond, Summer Kitchens is a take on lighter dishes, perfect for the Aussie summer (or whatever’s left of this year’s excuse for it).

Expect veggie garden mainstays, like burnt butter eggplant and strawberry poppyseed cakes, as well as a whole range of options and ideas for pickling and fermentation. It’s sure to be a culinary delight that will bring the best of Ukraine to your dining room.

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