The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the nation to the forefront of the latest global news cycle.
If people’s minds don’t go to borscht and perogies when they think of Ukraine, now they’ll go to bombs and war. But Ukraine – the biggest country in Europe, roughly the size of Alberta – has much to offer the world, including an astounding array of literature, past and present, with many books that give a fuller picture of its complex history.
This is a nation that has over centuries produced famous poets, writers, novelists and musicians. Since the end of the Soviet Era, the Ukrainian literary scene has been thriving, with powerful works from a new generation of writers.
In Canada, the millions-strong Ukrainian diaspora – William Kurelek, Ed Burtynsky, Chrystia Freeland and John Sopinka are just a few – have played a pivotal role; indeed Ukrainian-Canadian historian Orest Subtelny’s book served as an official history of Ukraine, when the country gained independence. Here are a list of books to help those seeking to understand the country behind the headlines.
Ukraine: A History, Orest Subtelny (University of Toronto Press) Published in 1988, this book by the Harvard-educated Ukrainian-Canadian professor quickly emerged as the definitive text on the history of Ukraine, at a time when the country was emerging from Soviet rule. Previous history books, those allowed by Moscow, told Ukraine’s story through a Soviet lens. But Subtelny’s 700-plus page tome traces the details of the Ukrainian nation from the medieval times of Kyiv Rus’ to the period of independence in the 20th century. The fourth edition, published in 2009, includes an overview of modern-day challenges following Ukraine’s renewed independence of 1991 and offers readers a window into the political developments, economic transformation and cultural changes up to the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Revolutionary Ukraine, 1917-2017: History’s Flashpoints and Today’s Memory Wars, Myroslav Shkandrij (Routledge) Ukraine’s turbulent past is explored through its revolutionary struggles beginning with the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, which provided an opportunity for the declaration of an autonomous state called the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The victory is short-lived, as in 1921 the majority of this first Ukrainian state is absorbed into the Soviet Union. The generation that led the Ukrainian movement is destroyed by terror, fabrication of nationalist conspiracies resulting in imprisonment and the forced starvation of the Holodomor (1932-33). However, the War for Carpatho-Ukraine in 1938-39 and the Second World War mobilized a new wave of nationalist revolutions and lead to the Ukrainian underground movement once again calling for independence. The final section addresses the period of postindependence focusing on the 2013-14 Euromaidan protest and the declaration that “Ukraine is not Russia.”
The Affirmative Action Empire, Terry Martin (Cornell University Press) A meticulously referenced work detailing the Soviet Union’s evolving nationality policy uses a rich collection of Soviet archival documents. Martin skillfully illustrates how leaders of the Soviet Union initially sought to curate a carefully controlled national consciousness for its ethnic minorities, only to later perceive these nationalist sentiments as a threat to Soviet unity. The result was a forceful quelling of the rising tide of nationalism, and the re-establishment of Russian superiority within the multi-ethnic empire.
CURRENT LITERATURE BY UKRAINIAN AUTHORS
Felix Austria, Sofia Andrukhovych (Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva) This author’s second novel won the prestigious BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year award and is set around the 1900s in the Hapsburg’s Empire’s city of Stanislaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk). It explores the intertwined destinies of two women – Stefania the servant and Adèle the mistress – and what happens to them during the upheavals that shatter their lives.
The Tango of Death, Yuri Vynnychuk (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing) In Ukraine, literary critics compare Vynnychuk to Italy’s Umberto Eco. The author, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-war Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, weaves intrigue, tragedy and humour in this adventurous and moving story of a Ukrainian, a Pole, a German and a Jew, whose friendship and courage endure the challenges of cataclysmic events.
Perverzion, Yuri Andrukhovych (Northwestern University Press) This novel is written by the co-founder of a famous Ukrainian literary group called the “Bu-Ba-Bu” which stands for “burlesque, side-show, buffoonery.” The group aims to perform carnival-like interpretations of events in Ukraine. Perverzion is full of absurdity, eroticism and hyperbole which present Ukrainian literature as part of Western trends of postmodernism. More simply: It’s an ironic story about the disappearance of Stanislav Perfetsky, the eccentric poet and hero of the Ukrainian underground, and recounts his possible final days.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, Oksana Zabuzhko (Amazon Crossing) Ukraine’s most articulate and complex female voice during the initial post-Soviet decade brought the country its first international bestseller with Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex. Her third novel is a dramatic multigenerational saga sprawling over six decades (and 727 pages) that looks at the effects of seismic political and cultural shifts for Ukrainian women.
Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages, Maria Matios (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing) Published in 2003 by the award-winning Ukrainian author and politician, the novel is an engaging drama that tells the story of Darusya, a woman who doesn’t speak and lives in the countryside, her family and the locals in her isolated village in the Carpathian Mountains on the Ukrainian-Romanian border. The origins for Darusya’s affliction are revealed through this compelling tale, which won the Taras Shevchenko National Prize, one of the most prestigious in Ukraine.
Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine, Olia Hercules (Weldon Owen) The newest cookbook from an award-winning Ukrainian chef and author explores the diversity and range of the country’s cuisine. Born in the southern Ukrainian town of Kakhovka, an hour-away from Turkey by air, Olia Hercules grew up eating fresh cherries, strawberries and watermelons. Hercules uses the region’s summer kitchens – the small structures outside the main house used for cooking and preserving – to share the stories, and recipes, of a unique culture. Beyond borscht indeed.
Ukrainian Cuisine in 70 dishes, Ievgen Klopotenko (Knigolove) He’s been called the Jamie Oliver of Ukraine, so it’s no surprise that this chef’s book is a must-read for anyone with an eye on a resurgent Ukrainian food culture. Klopotenko has set about reviving and modernizing Ukraine’s culinary traditions, which he feels the Soviet Union did its best to obliterate. Look for remarkable recipes such as dumplings with sour cherries and ground meat, kvass-cooked pork ribs, savory millet porridge with sour pickled tomato and a cold apricot soup.
BOOKS YOU WOULD BUY AT THE AIRPORT
Red Famine and Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum (Anchor) Her 2004 book, Gulag: A History, won her a Pulitzer prize, and Red Famine is equally rich in historical research as it takes on one of the seminal events in Ukraine’s history – the Holodomor. The book captures the deliberate policy measures of forceful agricultural collectivization and Sovietization of Ukraine, which led to the most lethal famine in Europe’s history. The death by starvation of millions still reverberates today.
Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder (Basic Books) This compellingly told and well-researched work of history looks at the plight of the peoples of Eastern Europe (Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) who are caught between Stalin’s regime and Hitler’s Reich. Deeply humane, this is a must-read if you want to know more about not just the perpetrators of these atrocities but also their victims.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, Bill Browder (Simon & Schuster) In this chilling, true story, which reads like a political thriller, Browder exposes the corruption and brutality of Putin’s Russia. It details how his unlikely journey from financier to human-rights activist led him to fight, against all odds, for justice against the Russian regime. After his lawyer was tortured to death in Russian prison, Browder became even more intent on revealing the mafia-like state of Putin’s Russia, eventually leading to the establishment of the Magnitsky Act both in Canada and the United States. Red Notice serves as a stark reminder of the lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to safeguard its kleptocratic regime.
Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, David Remnick (Vintage) Widely acknowledged as a staple in the literature on the collapse of the Soviet empire, this work intertwines historical record with the author’s own experience from 1988 to the end of 1991. As a journalist, Remnick tells the stories of the people he encounters – from government apparatchiks to those barely able to afford the bread on their table – and their varying experiences during the turbulent era of Soviet rule. Lenin’s Tomb presents a unique comparison and contrast of the many storylines taking place during the last years of the Soviet Union, ultimately giving the reader an intimate understanding of the scale of corruption, ineptitude and the everyday failings of the system that eventually led to its demise.
The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia, David Hoffman (PublicAffairs) The Pulitzer-Prize winner and former Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post has written several books on Russian politics; this one centres on the power brokers behind Putin: the oligarchs. He focuses on the six billionaires – Alexander Smolensky, Yuri Luzhkov, Anatoly Chubais, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Vladimir Gusinsky – who rose up after the fall of communism to become captains of the Russian economy.
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Masha Gessen (Riverhead Books) The National Book award-winner and staff writer at The New Yorker meticulously pieces together how a low-level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress made by his country. If you’re going to read one biography about Putin, this is it.
McMafia, Misha Glenny (House of Anansi Press) The veteran British journalist hopscotches across five continents to look at the rise of organized crime after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. This powerful and groundbreaking work traces the shadow economy that has come to shape and inform the post-Cold War era.
Nadia Gereliouk is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto.
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