Understanding the Ukraine Crisis: A Comprehensive Reading List
Henrikas Bliudzius Recommends Svetlana Alexievich, Tim Judah, Joshua Yaffa, and More
I was born in Lithuania to a half-Russian family just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. You can’t escape politics when you live in Eastern Europe. Mine and my family’s fragmented history is inextricably linked to Russia’s looming presence and revanchist tendencies. I lived in both Lithuania and Russia before coming as a teenager to London where I studied history, specializing in Modern Eastern European History and the Cold War. I work as book buyer for the largest bookstore in the country, mostly specializing in nonfiction. In my role, I am responsible for curating the range of books to order and highlight. Sometimes I am asked to consult the overall book-buying for the company in my areas of interest.
Many articles have been written in the last few days about whether the Russians will stop when they reach the combat lines between the rebel-held territory and Ukraine. We now have our answer. It always seemed doubtful that 200,000 Russian troops had been mobilized and brought from as far away as the Pacific simply to apply pressure on Ukraine; of course, nobody can ever really know what is in the mind of Vladimir Putin. What I do know, however, is that people in London know little about Ukraine and its people.
Over the last 48 hours, customers, booksellers, and other managers as well as head-office personnel have asked me for ideas on key reading material that the company has to ensure is ready, available, and relevant to a sudden onrush of interest in Ukraine and Russia. I’ve circulated one of the guidance sheets to the company but also thought, “How about I share some of this with the public?” That would let me share my appreciation for the experts and authors studying these issues and potentially connect them with those asking for advice and tips on the subject. And so the idea was born and I compiled a Twitter thread of my top recommendations. I’ve based this article on that thread.
Hello All! As some of you might know I am the buyer for the largest bookstore in the country and a Russia/Eastern Europe watcher. Sitting on the convergence of these two interests of mine, I feel it would be a good idea to share a few books about the current situation in Ukraine and Russia.
Firstly, Ukraine. 🇺🇦 Probably the most commonly found book in British bookshops is The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy who is one of the most popular Ukraine scholars in the West, a professor of history at Harvard and director of Harvard Ukraine Institute. You’ll see his name crop up again and again.
Next up is The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation by Professor Andrew Wilson of the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. This is a great general history of the country. Bear in mind it’s from 2015 however so omits the most recent events.
Another bestseller here is Borderland by Anna Reid who was the Kyiv correspondent for The Economist 1993-1995. This is an updated version of the 1997 book. I’ve read it pre-update so cannot be sure of how up-to-date it is, but I loved it. Some of our shops even shelve this as “travel writing” which demonstrates how accessible and light it is.
Soviet Ukraine: One of the best books on Ukrainian history that I’ve read in the last few years is Red Famine by the brilliant Anne Applebaum. It tells of Soviet-enforced collectivization, famine and the suppression of memory. Now more than ever, it shows how the present is shaped by the past. Disclaimer, this book will make you cry.
Chernobyl: Of course, another infamous moment in history of Ukraine was the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant accident of 1986 which to this day is the most popular reason for customers asking about books on Ukraine. Below are the best selling books about Chernobyl:
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich—Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature
Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy—Winner of Baillie Gifford Prize and Pushkin Book Prize
Manual for Survival by Kate Brown
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
I’ve actually read three of those here and massively enjoyed the two prize winners but personally prefer Midnight in Chernobyl for its clarity. Highly recommend it.
Modern Ukraine/Maidan/Russian Occupation: I’ve really enjoyed Tim Judah’s book In Wartime. It’s a beautiful portrait of the human side of the conflict. Life behind frontlines and the barricades. Really helps in understanding what normal Ukrainians are living with. Other options could be Ukraine Diaries by Andrey Kurkov and the most recent Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War by Mychailo Wynnyckij.
Russia 🇷🇺 Obviously, if I were to list all the best books on Russian history, this thread would never end so only adding a few relevant to the current crisis. Starting with a general and short but no less impressive and very fresh history of Russia, A Short History of Russia, by the one and only Mark Galeotti. I normally profess a dislike for short histories and find them useless but must say this is very well done.
I’d say the most impressive and essential (also very recent) book on current Russia is Putin’s People by Catherine Belton. In it, you will learn about how the siloviki empire was built and consolidated and it’s a must-read manual of the current Russian state. Belton was a Financial Times Russia correspondent whilst researching this book and she’s got things so spot on that when one of the richest Russian Oligarchs took her to court for libel last year, she won the case.
Another recent chart-topper is This is NOT Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev. Brilliant insight into how alternate reality is built by the Kremlin and run from troll farms. I loved his previous book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, which offers riveting insight into Russia a few decades ago, the Russia I remember myself, having lived there up to 2002.
One more cracking read I enjoyed last year is Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa which deservedly took an Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2021. Joshua is a Moscow writer for The New Yorker and his columns give me life. It’s an interesting look at the intimate lives and compromises of ordinary Russians living in Putin’s regime.
Today’s crisis almost overshadowed the fact that another trial of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s biggest oppositioner has begun, after which he faces 15 more years behind bars. Navalny, by Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet and Ben Noble, is his first real biography and I loved having the authors of the book in store for an event!
Speaking of opposition. Heidi Blake wrote one of the most unputdownable thrillers about all the sudden deaths of Kremlin’s enemies in the west, From Russia With Blood. I loved this book. The author is an investigations editor at BuzzFeedNews, so no wonder this reads like true detective crime novel.
No list of books about modern Russia is complete without Bill Browder and his incredible true story Red Notice, another book that reads like fiction but is very much the painful truth.
Of course, there is no discussion of modern Russian politics without an input from Garry Kasparov. Kasparov is one of the greatest chess players of all time who represented Soviet Union for most of his chess career. In the early 2000s he had a brief political career before moving to the United States, where he has often appeared on American TV talking about Putin and Russian politics. His book Winter is Coming is prescient in many ways, and I could not tear myself away from it.
The Compatriots by Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov is a wonderful collation of the lives of those who worked for or fled Russia for abroad. I’ve also read their previous work The Red Web in the original (Битва за рунет). Irina and Andrei are impressive journalists and their knowledge of Russian Secret Services is unrivaled.
If you’ve read Putin’s People, and want to learn more about the man’s inner circle, look no further than All the Kremlin’s Men by Mikhail Zygar, a great introduction to a web of connections inside the court of Putin. For more on oligarchs and their rise, read The Vory by Mark Galeotti.
Speaking of prophecy: there is nothing more prophetic than the writing of Anna Politkovskaya. Her books and articles formed my first opinions on Russia. She was a journalist in Russia during the early Putin reign, and paid the ultimate price for speaking the truth.
From more recent releases I recommend How to Lose the Information War by Nina Jankowicz. This is a brilliant investigation into the nature of Russian disinformation campaigns in US during the Trump Administration but also looks into Ukraine and Georgia; if you enjoyed Peter Pomerantsev’s exploration of information warfare you’ll love this.
Being Lithuanian I naturally want to learn more and more about how Russia’s thinking and behavior will effect the Baltic States in the future. Aliide Naylor released an in-depth study on this last year, The Shadow in the East, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
No list of books about Russian politics is complete without the inclusion of Masha Gessen, a brilliant journalist, activist, author and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Their biographical study of the man himself, The Man Without a Face, was one of the first ever Western published books about Putin. They’ve since released the fantastic The Future is History about the rise of historical revisionism in Russia and, most recently, Surviving Autocracy, about fighting the global rise of authoritarianism—a book I had the pleasure of reading last year.
I make a habit of reading every single Luke Harding release. The first, Mafia State, is in my mind to this day. Very Expensive Poison is also super good! The investigative nature of these will keep you up through the night until you turn the last page.
The Long Hangoverby Shaun Walker is about the clever exploitation of memory and glories past by the current regime in its quest for popularity and public support. I loved the investigation and am hoping for more from the author—the style is unique!
And finally, the foundational text for my understanding of modern Russia and Putinism is Timothy Snyder’s The Road To Unfreedom. I’ve got no space here for a synopsis, simply read the book. All I can say is that no westerner understands the region as well as TS, who I consider to be one of the greatest living historians. One of his previous books, Bloodlands, is a historical view of Eastern Europe as you’ve never seen it before, and is one of my all-time favorites. Not for the faint of heart.
I’d also include Putin v People by Prof. Sam Greene. I’ve enjoyed the in-depth and bottom-up study of Putin and his support base as much as I enjoyed attending Prof. Greene’s lectures at King’s Russia Institute a few years back when studying for my Masters in Modern History.
There are hundreds of books on this that I was unable to add to the thread (since when is there a cap on the amount of tweets?) so please do not take omissions to heart. The goal was to introduce the very basics to peeps new to this.
Be nice to authors and block the trolls.