Historian Marci Shore's Recommended Books for Understanding UkraineHistorians in the News
tags: books, Ukraine, Eastern European History
Marci Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale. She is the author of The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution.
Kyiv is burning. I am struggling to explain this to my young children; they know that I wrote a book about the 2013–14 Ukrainian revolution on the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square. They were too small then to understand that their parents’ friends and colleagues were being shot at by snipers. They do know, though, that I dedicated the book to them, “in hope of a better world to come.” And they have had their own experience of post-Maidan Ukraine, playing soccer and dancing at weddings and eating sour-cherry dumplings called varenyky at outdoor cafés.
I am a historian, and so in some sense I always see translucent images from the past juxtaposed on surfaces of the present. Many images are very dark. The Holodomor, the great famine of 1932–33, brought about the deaths of millions of peasants in Soviet Ukraine by starvation. Stalin’s officials confiscated grain from the countryside to pay for the industry that would allow the Soviet Union to “catch up and overtake” the West, a favorite phrase of his. In 1986, still during Soviet rule, the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl dispersed massive radiation, causing thousands of cancer cases.
n part, this abyss of the past made the Ukrainian revolution so breathtaking. What began as a protest against then–Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union became a revolt against a regime’s violence toward its citizens. The Maidan became a whole parallel world, with kitchens, libraries, film screenings, medical clinics, self-defense units. It ended with a sniper massacre of the protestors; Yanukovych fled Kyiv after the cease-fire, finding refuge in Russia. At once Russian President Vladimir Putin instigated separatist rebellions in eastern Ukraine. Post-truth took over: Russia disseminated the story that the Maidan was a CIA-inspired fascist conspiracy and that Ukrainian neo-Nazis threatened the lives of those whose dominant language was Russian in this bilingual country. For the past eight years, a war between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists has simmered in the Donbas, an eastern-Ukrainian mining region. Now Putin claims that Nazis control the government in Kyiv and that Russians need to save their Russian-speaking Ukrainian brothers—by bombing their cities. This is ironic in many ways: The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, and a native Russian speaker. He won a democratic election with some 73 percent of the vote.
In history, any starting point bears the vulnerability of arbitrariness. That said, what follows are nine books from the past century in different genres, by authors from different countries, that can help us grasp the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov
In August 1914, Kyiv was a city in the tsarist empire. By the end of 1922, it was a city in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During those intervening eight years, it was occupied by five different armies. Bulgakov’s 1925 epic novel is set there, in the home of the two Turbin brothers and their sister, Elena, and the heart of the action occurs during a single day in December 1918. The world war has bled into revolution and civil war. Kyiv is overflowing with refugees; some change sides more than once. Money is hidden; men are beheaded. The German army has occupied Ukraine since March, setting up a puppet government. The Turbins belong to a milieu sympathetic to monarchy—Elena’s husband is a Baltic German and an anti-Bolshevik officer. When the German army suddenly flees Kyiv, he goes with them, abandoning her. The Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura’s troops appear, surround Kyiv, take it, and are gone again. There are fears that the Bolsheviks are soon to return. Bulgakov’s novel not only leads us into a majestic, more-than-1,000-year-old metropolis, but also gives us an understanding of how, in a single day, the world can change as radically as if decades had passed. “When I think about all these things that have been happening,” a neighbor says, “I can’t help coming to the conclusion that our lives are extremely insecure.”