Oleh Kotsyuba, born and raised in Ukraine, now works as publications director at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute. He was last in his homeland in the fall of 2021, when he brought his mother back to the US. “But my grandma is still there,” says Kotsyuba, who is worried about her and other family members. “My aunts and uncles are sitting in a basement, or have been sitting for a week now,” he says.
As Russia pushes deeper into Ukraine, many are trying to understand the situation far from where it’s unfolding. To help Americans get a better sense for what’s going on, Kotsyuba recommended four books.
“The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Serhy Yekelchyk
Serhy Yekelchyk, a Ukrainian historian teaching in Canada, wrote this title as an extended Q&A. Published in 2015, the book addresses the history of Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine as well as the geopolitical importance of what happens there.
“The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present” by Serhii Plokhy
Serhii Plokhy, head of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute and a professor of Ukrainian history, has written several books on the country and its history. One Kotsyuba recommends is 2021′s “The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present,” which he says “zooms in on the key turning points of Ukrainian and Russian history to show how we got here. It’s like a deep dive into some of the important moments from the Middle Ages to now.”
“In Isolation: Dispatches From Occupied Donbas” by Stanislav Aseyev
Stanislav Aseyev’s “In Isolation: Dispatches From Occupied Donbas,” will be published next month by the Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature. Aseyev, a journalist, was jailed by the Russians as a spy and endured torture in prison after the Russians occupied the region beginning in 2014. “He describes from the ground what actually happens when the Russians roll in,” said Kotsyuba. “The book is very illuminating about the nature of the Russian regime and what it brings to the people that it quote-unquote liberates.”
“Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament: A History” by Yuri Kostenko
Yuri Kostenko’s “Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament: A History,” published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, is an account of Ukraine’s acquiescence to the removal of the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world (after the US and Russia) in exchange for Russian assurances of peace, Kotsyuba said. “The way that nuclear disarmament was done, and how Ukraine didn’t build up its conventional defenses,” he added, “left it very vulnerable to Russian attack.”
Askold Melnyczuk, an American writer of Ukrainian descent, teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His Ukraine reading list tends toward the literary, but he recommends three nonfiction books he thinks can help anyone who wants to learn about the country and its long history.
“The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plokhy
Another title by Harvard’s Plokhy, “The Gates of Europe,” offers a sweeping history of Ukraine, which is “very readable” for general audiences, said Melnyczuk.
“Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder
Published in 2010, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” is about mass murders committed during World War II in territories controlled by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Melnyczuk praised this title for its dynamic writing.
“Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” by Anne Applebaum
“Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine”, published in 2017, focuses on the history of the Holodomor — a famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 that killed millions.
In the realms of fiction and poetry, Melnyczuk recommends the following titles:
“The Orphanage” by Serhiy Zhadan
“The Orphanage,” published in 2017, sketches life in the eastern part of Ukraine.
“What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems” by Serhiy Zhadan
This collection is an introduction to an original poetic voice from eastern Ukraine with deep roots in the unique cultural landscape of post-Soviet devastation.
“Selected Poems” by Oksana Zabuzhko
According to Melnyczuk, “to understand the situation, there’s nothing better than a five-page essay by Oksana Zabuzhko that’s included in her ‘Selected Poems.’ ... She’s probably the country’s best known writer.”
“Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex” by Oksana Zabuzhko
Zabuzhko’s earlier poetry books include “Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex,” some of which stems from her time as a visiting professor in Cambridge. Called “the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence,” this title became an international phenomenon when it shot to number one on the Ukrainian bestseller list when it was first published in 1996.
“The Museum of Abandoned Secrets” by Oksana Zabuzhko
Melnyczuk described Zabuzhko’s novel, “The Museum of Abandoned Secrets,” as one that “really goes into the history of the war and postwar periods, and coming to terms with long-hidden-twentieth century history.”
“What Is Told” by Askold Melnyczuk
Melnyczuk’s own novel “What Is Told,” first published in 1994, was the first commercially published novel written in English about Ukraine. “It was still a time when people did not want to acknowledge that there was such a place,” he said.
Brittany Bowker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.