Nine Books to Read to Understand the War in Ukraine
These books—memoir, fiction, and nonfiction—offer a glimpse into a century of historical context in Eastern Europe.
Kyiv is burning. I am struggling to explain this to my young children; they know that I wrote a book about the 2013–14 Ukrainian revolution on the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square. They were too small then to understand that their parents’ friends and colleagues were being shot at by snipers. They do know, though, that I dedicated the book to them, “in hope of a better world to come.” And they have had their own experience of post-Maidan Ukraine, playing soccer and dancing at weddings and eating sour-cherry dumplings called varenyky at outdoor cafés.
I am a historian, and so in some sense I always see translucent images from the past juxtaposed on surfaces of the present. Many images are very dark. The Holodomor, the great famine of 1932–33, brought about the deaths of millions of peasants in Soviet Ukraine by starvation. Stalin’s officials confiscated grain from the countryside to pay for the industry that would allow the Soviet Union to “catch up and overtake” the West, a favorite phrase of his. In 1986, still during Soviet rule, the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl dispersed massive radiation, causing thousands of cancer cases.
In part, this abyss of the past made the Ukrainian revolution so breathtaking. What began as a protest against then–Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union became a revolt against a regime’s violence toward its citizens. The Maidan became a whole parallel world, with kitchens, libraries, film screenings, medical clinics, self-defense units. It ended with a sniper massacre of the protestors; Yanukovych fled Kyiv after the cease-fire, finding refuge in Russia. At once Russian President Vladimir Putin instigated separatist rebellions in eastern Ukraine. Post-truth took over: Russia disseminated the story that the Maidan was a CIA-inspired fascist conspiracy and that Ukrainian neo-Nazis threatened the lives of those whose dominant language was Russian in this bilingual country. For the past eight years, a war between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists has simmered in the Donbas, an eastern-Ukrainian mining region. Now Putin claims that Nazis control the government in Kyiv and that Russians need to save their Russian-speaking Ukrainian brothers—by bombing their cities. This is ironic in many ways: The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, and a native Russian speaker. He won a democratic election with some 73 percent of the vote.
In history, any starting point bears the vulnerability of arbitrariness. That said, what follows are nine books from the past century in different genres, by authors from different countries, that can help us grasp the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov
In August 1914, Kyiv was a city in the tsarist empire. By the end of 1922, it was a city in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During those intervening eight years, it was occupied by five different armies. Bulgakov’s 1925 epic novel is set there, in the home of the two Turbin brothers and their sister, Elena, and the heart of the action occurs during a single day in December 1918. The world war has bled into revolution and civil war. Kyiv is overflowing with refugees; some change sides more than once. Money is hidden; men are beheaded. The German army has occupied Ukraine since March, setting up a puppet government. The Turbins belong to a milieu sympathetic to monarchy—Elena’s husband is a Baltic German and an anti-Bolshevik officer. When the German army suddenly flees Kyiv, he goes with them, abandoning her. The Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura’s troops appear, surround Kyiv, take it, and are gone again. There are fears that the Bolsheviks are soon to return. Bulgakov’s novel not only leads us into a majestic, more-than-1,000-year-old metropolis, but also gives us an understanding of how, in a single day, the world can change as radically as if decades had passed. “When I think about all these things that have been happening,” a neighbor says, “I can’t help coming to the conclusion that our lives are extremely insecure.”
A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, by Miron Białoszewski
On August 1, 1944, the Polish underground Home Army rose up against German occupiers. The Polish poet Białoszewski, 22 years old at the time, brings us into the burning city. His memoir, written about a quarter century later, rejects both cynicism and romanticism in favor of the language of the everyday: “Tuesday, August 1, 1944 was overcast, wet, not too warm.” He and two friends were in an apartment close to the city center; they were talking, then they heard shooting, first of guns, then of cannons. “The uprising,” they said. What follows is one of the most brilliant accounts ever written of the experience of being under siege. Short periods of time felt long. Places formerly quite close grew terribly far apart. Shells and bullets ceased to cause panic. This was not a show of bravery but rather “a matter of becoming used to them,” he writes. There is also an uncanny analogy to the present: Though the Western Allies were unequivocally on the Poles’ side, ultimately Warsaw fought alone—as Kyiv does now.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt
After Nazi Germany’s defeat, the world would ask again and again: Where had Stalinism and Nazism come from? Why had liberalism proved so fragile? For Arendt, who took on these questions immediately following the war, the essence of totalitarianism is the destruction of human subjectivity. Physical death, she argues, is not the only way that the self can be annihilated. She looks to the refugee crisis that followed the First World War, when people without passports were treated as subhuman: Rights meant to be universal proved unenforceable in the absence of governments to guarantee them. Later, the total conformity demanded by totalitarian movements destroyed the self in other ways. This is a book that bears rereading at a moment when millions are being forced to become refugees. It is also a book that can help us understand what happens to those who live under totalitarian dictatorships, even when they are not directly targeted as victims. “We may say,” Arendt writes, “that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.”
Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968, by Heda Margolius Kovály
A Czech Jew born in 1919, Margolius Kovály survived the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz before escaping from a death march and making her way back to Prague. In her memoir, she recalls how her friends were too afraid to shelter her. After the Red Army liberated Prague from German occupation, she and her husband, Rudolf Margolius, also a survivor of the Nazi camps, joined the Communist Party. A few years later, he became one of 14 high-ranking Communists the Stalinist regime named “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist bourgeois nationalist traitors and enemies of the Czechoslovak people.” A show trial was held, with performative false confessions extracted by torture. Eleven of the 14, including Rudolf, were sentenced to death and hanged. No other book in so few pages gives us such a piercing feel for how Nazism and Stalinism are not discrete phenomena for academic comparison but rather experiences that deeply interpenetrated each other. Present-day Ukraine, which also lived through alternating Nazi and Stalinist occupations, is incomprehensible without understanding their mutual permeations.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
The Bolsheviks aspired to create not only a new political system but also a new kind of human being. In this oral history, Alexievich brings forth a polyphony of voices from one of the most radical social-engineering experiments ever carried out. “Papa belonged to the Idea, he wasn’t really a human,” one young man says. Another tells Alexievich how, years after his wife had been purged in the 1930s for counterrevolutionary activity and he had been imprisoned for his association with an enemy of the people, he received the news of his rehabilitation: “‘Unfortunately, we will not be able to return your wife to you. She’s died. But you can have your honor back …’ And they handed me back my Party membership card. And I was happy!” For citizens of the dissolved Soviet Union, the 1990s were a decade when all that was sacred became profane. Money appeared suddenly and in obscene amounts, ostentatious excess juxtaposed with desperate poverty. For those who had lived in an empire where time had long stilled, awakening in a world of gangsters, street murders, and the pornographic sale of consecrated war medals was terrifying. “The thing is,” one of Alexievich’s conversation partners says, “you can’t buy democracy with oil and gas; you can’t import it like bananas or Swiss chocolate … You need free people, and we didn’t have them.”
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev
The Kyiv-born British journalist and television producer Pomerantsev came to Moscow in 2001 and found the country, in his words, “transfixed in adoration of abusive leaders.” In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explains ideology as a reconstruction of reality that, while false, had its own consistent logic, and thus pleasantly eliminated contingency. This was not what was happening in Putin’s Russia. Instead, Pomerantsev describes, this “world designed by the political technologists” no longer demanded or desired a coherent narrative of any kind. The problem was not that truth was being brutally censored but rather that no one cared about it at all. Life was a reality show, with the starring role played by Putin—created, Pomerantsev writes, “from a no one, a gray fuzz via the power of television, so that he morphs as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman.” The book is chatty, gossipy, and fun to read, but also deadly serious: It is an early, vivid glimpse into what totalitarianism could mean in a postmodern age.
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
Gessen, a decade older than Pomerantsev, grew up in Moscow during the Soviet period. Written after the Ukrainian revolution, The Future Is History is a contemplation of “freedom that was not embraced and democracy that was not desired,” the author writes. Why was there not a Maidan in Russia? That question haunts Gessen, who is not prone to sentimentality, yet this book, whose plot unfolds through the lives of varied protagonists, is a story of heartbreak. The author understands the wild freedom of the 1990s in the absence of any safety net as a collective trauma, and the cult of “stability” as a response to volatility. Underneath it all is the failure to come to terms with the past. This is not simply a question of bad faith; it is something psychologically far more complex. For in distinction to Nazi terror, Soviet terror was self-inflicted. There is no easy way to separate the categories of victim and perpetrator, or to determine who should be apologizing to whom. This is crucial context for the failure to overthrow Putin’s dictatorship.
The Light That Failed: A Reckoning, by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes
Putin’s Russia is part of the larger story of the end of liberal triumphalism. After 1989, on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, there was a widespread belief that once “the evil empire” was no more, liberal democracy would magically materialize on its ashes. In fact, something about the claim that there was no alternative to liberalism was weirdly parallel to the Soviet claim that there was no alternative to communism. Further, this assumption brought with it condescension. One response to this imperiousness was camouflage, which was the Kremlin’s first choice. Russian elites, Krastev and Holmes write, “found faking democracy perfectly natural since they had been faking communism for at least two decades before 1991.” Another response to feeling like “second-rate replicas of advanced liberal democracies” was populist resentment. That provided the backdrop for the turn toward the surrealist world of post-truth that Pomerantsev describes. The Kremlin not only rigged elections but did so in a manner that was obvious. In other words, the performance was not even intended to deceive. This is one way in which Putin’s neo-totalitarianism is distinguished from that of his 20th-century predecessors: Everything is in plain view.
In Isolation: Dispatches From Occupied Donbas, by Stanislav Aseyev
In the Donbas, after the Soviet collapse, many felt that not only industrial production, but also time itself had stopped. Yet ironically, that region has become a laboratory for post-truth. In Isolation, written from January 2015 to May 2017, is a collection of reports about life under occupation. Aseyev was 24 and had completed university studies when the war began. When other young intellectuals fled, he stayed in Makiyivka, a city fewer than 10 miles from Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Aseyev is not a neutral observer; he understands the breakaway government as “your basic criminal underworld that has grown to the scale of a state.” These essays, though, are not polemical—they are observations about the everyday life of ordinary people, with scattered scenes of executions and a reference to Gabriel García Márquez. Aseyev is a discerning analyst of human behavior; as a writer, he is precociously mature in balancing warmth and ironic distance. “We are still shooting each other,” he wrote in July 2015. “Being in the very center of the Donbas and having neither a strong opinion about my present, nor a firm hope in my future, I just want to say that forgiveness is no less radical than war itself.” Although he wrote under a pseudonym, his identity was discovered; in June 2017, the separatists captured him. He was held and repeatedly tortured for 962 days before being released in a prisoner exchange in December 2019. This book will appear in English in April, a bridge to help us understand what Neville Chamberlain infamously described as a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”
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