Books that can assist in comprehending the invasion of Ukraine, beyond the obscured nature of war.
Due to the advancement of Russian troops into Ukraine, launching attacks on Kharkiv, Kyiv, and other cities, and the implementation of severe western sanctions causing the rouble to plummet, it is difficult for us to divert our attention from the ongoing news. However, the underlying forces of history that have led to this crisis are intricate and varied, and are perceived differently in Moscow and Kyiv.
Serhii Plokhy’s book, “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine,” is an excellent resource for understanding the origins of the current crisis. It provides a comprehensive account of this significant yet often overlooked country, without the bias towards Moscow that many Russian speakers have been trying to overcome. The book is well-researched and thoughtful, but also engaging and enlivened by anecdotes.
To comprehend the reason why Putin’s assertions of denazifying Ukraine are deeply offensive to regular Ukrainians, and his insistence that they desire to be part of Russia, it is crucial to explore the country’s history in the first half of the 20th century. During this time, both Bolsheviks and Nazis ravaged its flat landscape, resulting in the loss of countless lives. Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, is a unique piece of literature that challenges one’s preconceived notions and prompts a re-evaluation of their understanding.
The western world is more familiar with the history of Russia than that of Ukraine, but what about the history of Vladimir Putin? He has kept many details about his career hidden. The key resource for comprehending the Russian president is Putin’s People: How the KGB Regained Control of Russia and Confronted the West by Catherine Belton. It starts with his involvement in the St Petersburg government and then delves into the insider story of how he established a nuclear-armed state run like a mafia, exerting power over his allies and opponents alike.
To comprehend the reason behind Putin’s enduring popularity, it is beneficial to have knowledge of Russia’s state before he assumed leadership. During a time of turmoil and suffering, a select few oligarchs gained control of the country’s most prized assets. A recommended read on this topic is “Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution” by Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist in Moscow who currently serves as Canada’s deputy prime minister.
In the 1990s, Putin’s Kremlin used a powerful tactic to weaken the already unstable and flawed democracy in Russia by controlling the media. This has been well-documented by Kyiv-born Peter Pomerantsev in his book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, which humorously and chillingly recounts his experience in the Russian media industry. Joshua Yaffa also did an excellent job of examining how everyday individuals maneuvered within Putin’s system in his book Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.
However, the western world cannot escape responsibility for their involvement in perpetuating the corrupt systems that have plagued Russia and Ukraine. This was a major catalyst for the 2014 revolution in Kyiv. To gain insight into how kleptocracy is facilitated from western cities, particularly London, I recommend reading “Kleptopia” by Tom Burgis. Both sides’ oligarchs utilize the services of western lawyers, accountants, and wealth managers to conceal their stolen money and indulge in lavish spending on real estate, luxury items, and art.
All of these books will help you understand where this crisis came from, but none of them will quite conjure up the profound shock that Ukrainians and Russians alike feel at the outbreak of war between their nations. There are many monuments to their shared culture, but my favourite is my collection of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories. Raised in Ukraine, discovered in Russia, adored in both, Gogol conjures up the absurdity of life under autocracy better than anyone.
Spending time in Kyiv is a truly enchanting experience. The city’s location atop a hill overlooking the Dnieper River is truly remarkable. The inhabitants of Kyiv possess a unique culture marked by their inherent bilingualism and quirky sense of humor. In fact, only in Kyiv would one see a corrupt ruler’s lavish possessions on display in an art museum as a form of conceptual art. While there may not be a book that fully captures the magic of this Ukrainian capital, Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, a delightfully eccentric novel about a penguin who attends mafia funerals, first introduced me to its charm and for that, I am grateful.