7 Books by Ukrainian Writers Everyone Should Read

Below you can find a list of books by the contemporary Ukrainian authors exploring the war in eastern Ukraine which started in 2014 as well as the annexation of Crimea. All these books are available in English and constitute an important contribution to the public discourse when it comes to better understanding of Ukraine, its people and nuanced past of the last decades.

LUCKY BREAKS BY YEVGENIA BELORUSETS

This series of short stories, originally written in Russian and published in 2018 and first translated into English in 2022, explores the lives of Ukrainian women, displaced, forced to seek refuge in other parts of Ukraine as a result of the war in Eastern Ukraine which started in 2014. Some stories take place in Kyiv, some in a warzone, and others in the territories occupied by the Russia-backed separatists. All these snapshots of a singular life presented in those stories focus on how traumatic historical events transform one’s everyday life, how military and political turmoil upends the lives of the ‘ordinary’ women who endured so many senseless losses. We get a glimpse into what’s now and what’s been. The book centres on women – women from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all ages, women whose age is difficult to decipher because “they are young but tired (…), they can be mistaken for someone twenty years older”. Many of the protagonists are painfully lonely in their despair to rebuild their lives in Kyiv and other parts of western Ukraine, longing for relationships, love but often sticking to their wartime habits. Their daily existence amounts to the mere survival in the ruins of war, being displaced and out of place, without social network, with no social status, with no ability to articulate profound trauma that penetrates every aspect of their lives. This is a powerful book of an extraordinary impact on the reader. I highly recommend everyone this book. Not only this book is an essential read for the current times, but also the writing is so unique, with unmatched sensitivity, not comparable to anything I have read in the anglophone market. FULL REVIEW

THE ORPHANAGE BY SERHIY ZHADAN

The Orphanage is a novel about the apocalypse’, occupation, helplessness and living in a constant fear when the reality surrounding us changes unexpectedly. It is worth noting that the names of Donbas, Donetsk, Russia, or Ukraine are not mentioned in the book even once. However, we can assume that Internat is a portrayal of life in the war – torn Donetsk circa 2015. Zhadan’s book is set in some dark, grim, covered in dirty snow and mud war-torn unnamed city [Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine] from which the main protagonist, Pasha, a 35-year-old teacher of the Ukrainian language, sets off from the outskirts to the centre of the city to pick up his nephew from the Internat [Boarding School / Orphanage] and bring him back to their family home. As we follow Pasha through his three-day long journey, we understand that there are some of us and some of them, fighting in every street. There is chaos, fear, hunger, confusion.Extreme cold and snow covers the entire city and makes navigating its streets even more difficult. Pasha realises that it is better not to get used to people one might encounter by chance as everyone is in danger of dying any moment. In these circumstances human nature manifests itself in a more evident manner, human emotions are more tangible, not only are they felt but also seen. This is one of my favourite books of all time. I highly recommend it. FULL REVIEW

GREY BEES BY ANDREY KURKOV

If you want to learn more about Ukraine, as well as to better understand the cultural and ethnic diversity of this land, including Crimean Tatars, I would highly recommend you get a copy of this novel. It is not a book about the war as per se; it is a book about those souls affected the madness of the war and misinterpretation of the history as a foundation for human rights violations. Grey Bees is a set in the period after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. The novel explores the life of ‘an ordinary’ person caught amid the terror of war, the consequences of the military activities, and political repressions on the individual life, small communities, families, and ethnic minorities. Grey Bees allow the readers to observe the reality from the point of view of everyman, Sergey Sergeyich. We as readers witness trough his eyes the absurdity of war, propaganda, and senseless loss in all the spheres of life. This book has become very dear to me. Grey Bees is an ode to the lost simplicity of life and to all the solitary emphatic souls caught amid the horrors of the senseless suffering inflicted by people on their fellow human beings. FULL REVIEW

LIFE WENT ON ANYWAY BY OLEG SENTSOV

Life Went On Anyway by a Ukrainian dissident artist, writer, filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov is a collection of autobiographical stories which portray Sentsov’s childhood and growing up in the Crimea during the last years of Soviet Union and in a very difficult post-Soviet era of the 1990s. Sentsov’s stories are written with a veil of nostalgia, warmth and empathy for people who were a part of his world. They present bleak reality of the Soviet era and its aftermath in the Crimea but at the same with humour and a realm of possibility that moments of beauty can occur even during the hardships. Sentsov is a diligent and sensitive observer of human relationships, emotions and family dynamics. His stories touch the soul of those who read them. FULL REVIEW

DEATH AND THE PENGUIN BY ANDREY KURKOV

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov is an original book which is worth reading to get a glimpse into post-Soviet period in Ukraine as well as in Eastern Europe. This book will definitely resonate with many people who have experienced life in post-Soviet era in East Europe. For others, this will provide a cultural and social introduction into Ukrainian society of those times. Death and the Penguin constitutes a satirical critique of post-Soviet corruption in Ukraine of the 1990s. It shows a bleak everyday existence filled with confusion and loneliness of the individual caught in the midst of a big political and historical transition. There are many references to Ukrainian habits and culture which to those unfamiliar with the region should be of an interest.

WHAT WE LIVE FOR, WHAT WE DIE FOR BY SERHIY ZHADAN

Zhadan’s collection of poems written between 2001 and 2015 reminds us that Ukraine is an extremely diverse and multifaceted country with its unique history, culture, and identity. His poems express the richly nuanced and complex Ukrainian experience in post-Soviet times after 1991 – these poems bear witness to the turmoil in the world he inhabits. Snapshots of Ukrainian life presented in Zhadan’s writing are an expression of humanness and a certain universality when it comes to the meaning of ‘homeland’ and loss of home. Zhadan’s writing masterfully reflects the fabric of Ukrainian society as well as everyday existence, difficulties, disillusionment and problems of ordinary Ukrainian people mainly from working-class background including soldiers, students, middle-aged business owners, farmers, immigrants, minorities. Zhadan’s empathy for his fellow countrymen is profound – and he shows a deep understanding towards people’s attitudes which are very different to his own, without compromising his own moral compass. The history and its impact on the lives of the ordinary people, the repetition of past mistakes is also addressed in a number of poems appearing in this collection. Zhadan’s poems can be treated as one of many vehicles to understand the current events and war in Ukraine. FULL REVIEW

DAUGHTER BY TAMARA DUDA

Daughter [Dotsya] by Ukrainian writer, Tamara Duda [Tamara Horicha Zernia] has been included by the Ukrainian Book Institute in the list of thirty most important books published after 1991. Tamara Duda was awarded the 2022 Shevchenko National Prize, the highest literary award in Ukraine. It is worth mentioning that Duda was working as a volunteer during the war in Donbas between 2014 and 2016. We learn from the introduction that the characters we meet on the pages of Daughter are based on people the author met, listened to, and spoke to in real life during those years. The story of this novel takes place in Donbas and starts shortly before the outbreak of the 2014 war. As readers we witness the beginning of the war, we stand alongside the title ‘daughter’, a young woman who instead planning her future must now choose the side in this war in order to survive. This novel managed to describe the moment or a sequence of moments when the life stopped being peaceful and the war has started. Daughter is a thought provoking tale portraying the shock and misery that people experience when they are thrown into the savagery of war. Duda presents the image of war marred with many moral dilemmas. The inhabitants of cities, villages in Eastern Ukraine must decide, if they want to fight and if so, on which side and for what? If they die, will their death have any meaning for those left behind? Every citizen has to make a decision how to behave, how to act during the time of continuous terror. This is an excellent book, a great read along a masterpiece written by Serhiy ZhadanThe Orphanage. I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy in English. I know it is quite difficult to come across this particular book in English but definitely Tamara Duda’s novel is worth reading, especially in the current times. FULL REVIEW

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