Books You Should Read To Understand Russia's Conflict With Ukraine
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Books You Should Read To Understand Russia's Conflict With Ukraine

Charis Gambon February 28, 2022

With the current political situation between Russia and Ukraine, here are some books you can read to understand the historical background between the two countries. Reading these books will help to provide you with some insight on the current war and answer any questions you may have.

An Orange Revolution, Askold Krushelnycky

Journalist Askold Krushelnycky seeks to explains the terrible divisions in his tormented homeland of Ukraine in this book. He recounts the years leading up to the 2004 Orange Revolution, which removed the pro-Russian elite from power. The author used a number of first-hand observations and interviews with major players and anonymous demonstrators as material for his book, showing how people at the time felt. The multiple parties and perspectives involved are included within the narrative of the book. Readers can discover the view from Putin’s Kremlin; from inside presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s camp; from Independence Square with Pora, the youth-centered opposition organization instrumental in organizing the first protests and from a variety of figures and characters who participated in Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution.”

Krushelnycky also discusses the comprehensive history of Ukraine from World War I onwards. He explains his family’s personal history within the book and the fact that they were forced to flee to the United Kingdom after World War two. Krushelnycky  has a father who fought for the Ukrainian SS and an aunt who became a heroine of the Red Army. His family background means that An Orange Revolution is a highly personal, partisan account.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, Serhii Plokhy

Plokhy examines the history of Ukraine’s search for the country’s national identity through the lives of the major figures within his book. People explored include Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, the Cossack ruler Ivan Mazepa, Nikita Khrushchev and his protégé turned political nemesis Leonid Brezhnev. All the figures discussed within the book called Ukraine their home. Figures from the Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014, who embody the current struggle over Ukraine’s future are also explored.

Plokhy argues that the modern situation in Ukraine is a tragic case of history repeating itself. Additionally, arguing  that Ukraine once again finds itself at the centre of the battle of global proportions, particularly with Russia. When reading this book do think about the fact that when the author says ‘’current’’ he is talking about events before 2015 as that is when the book was written. The Gates of Europe provides a unique and in depth insight into the origins of the potentially most dangerous international crisis since the Cold War.

Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland, Karl Schlögel

Schlögel opens his book by suggesting that history does not take breaks and rarely concludes with a happy ending. Here he is referring to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron curtain in 1989, but the principle can be applied to almost any historical event.  The author suggest that Ukraine is a country that has been caught up in a ‘’political tug of war’’, suggesting that this political struggle has historically been between Russia in the east and the European Union in the west.

Schlögel argues that Ukraine has been a political pawn for other countries for a long time and that, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the political situation has become one of life and death. He provides detailed, unique, and truly historical insights into an array of Ukraine’s major cities: Lviv, Odessa, Czernowitz, Kiev, Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, and Yalta. Cities whose often troubled and war-torn histories have made them who they are today.

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Neighbourhood Perceptions of the Ukraine, edited by Gerhard Besier and Katarzyna Stoklosa

The book offers an analysis on the conflicts and issues connected with the historical shifting of the border regions of Russia and Ukraine. Various contributions to the book aim to demonstrate that ’material’ and ’psychological’ borders are never completely stable ideas and how they have been changed and altered historically.  The book is written in the form of a collection of essays by a variety of historians, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists from across Europe.  Russia and Ukraine  are a particular focus of this collection, but Russia’s relationship with other countries such as Finland is also explored within the essays. This provides a broader context on Russia’s aims and objectives.

Ukraine Crisis: What it means for the West, Andrew Wilson

Wilson aims to provide a vivid and in depth study of Russian expansionism and civil insurrection. With the aim of answering the questions: Has the turmoil reached its peak? And how much further will Putin go?  He was present in Kiev when the protests on the Maidan reached their high-point in mid to late February 2014 and, as a result, has been able to provide a unique perspective on the heated political situation Ukraine faced at the time. 

Wilson attempts to explore beyond the events that occurred in Kiev by linking the annexation of Crimea to the events occurring in the capital.  He also explores the themes how new forms of politics and warfare have been developed by Russia and deployed in the Ukraine crisis and elsewhere and the ‘political technology’ and ‘hybrid warfare’ models.  While this is a book about Ukraine,  there is another important message within about Russia and the country’s confrontation with the west.

Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder

Snyder wrote this book as a revisionist history, which explores the overlap between Nazi and Soviet atrocities in the “bloodlands” of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus between 1930 and 1945. He aimed to demonstrate that atrocities were committed within those regions and aims to shine a light on the 14 million people who were shot, gassed or starved. He aims to correct  the simplistic western-focused approach that history has often exhibited, which involves neat starting and finishing dates to the Second World War.  

Snyder uses aspects of individual victims, perpetrators and witnesses to explain the horrific history Ukraine faced. These include Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who wrote about Soviet Ukraine and Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Vsevolod Balytskyi, Stalin’s security chief for Ukraine, who is attributed with the invention of the “Polish Military Organization”, and Vasily Blokhin, one of Stalin’s most reliable executioners. Additionally, he uses material in several European languages, including memoirs and scholarly literature, to recount the historic events of mass murder committed by Stalin and then by Hitler.

Red Famine Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum

Applebaum offers a new comprehensive account of the Holodomor; a devastating famine that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians through starvation in the early 1930s. She drew on material from the time, in the form of archival documents, written and oral testimonies and historical scholarship when creating her book. She ultimately sought out to address the question: Did Stalin deliberately let Ukraine starve?  

While the famine is an important aspect of her book, Applebaum also placed emphasis on something that has significant relevance for today: Russia’s prolonged fear of losing a territory it had long treated as a lucrative colony in the form of Ukraine.  She also explores a history where Ukrainian people have been unable to create their own newspapers, run their own theatres or teach in their own language at schools.

Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism, Alexander J. Motyl

Motyl provides a vital introduction to the history, politics and economy of Ukraine within his book.  He explores how former Communist elites hijacked nationalism which ultimately led the country into independence in 1991. Within his writing he is more pessimistic about Russia than about Ukraine and supports the latter moving slowly into financial independent stability. He praises Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk but says other politicians hamper future reforms which will set the stage for possible authoritarian rule in the future.

Motyl recommends that Western nations should express support for Ukraine’s search for national security away from Russia. He suggests that other countries and states should offer economic aid even before reforms are implemented and do more to train elites from Ukraine and other post-Soviet states to ensure Ukrainian safety.

Read next: How to help Ukraine if you are in other countries

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Hi my name is Charis, I am a MA History of Warfare student at University of Birmingham. I have always enjoyed writing and I enjoy researching and writing about history, life, television, film and culture. I also enjoy new opportunities.