Top modern Ukrainian books for those who want to discover the literature of a brave nation

Nowadays everyone talks about Ukraine. Ukraine is trending. Not only do millions of conscious citizens talk about, support, and worry about Ukraine. My country is going through difficult times, still fighting for its freedom. For all those who are interested in Ukraine and want to learn more about its history and culture, here is a selection of books that have been translated into English that are worth reading.

Serhiy Zhadan — The Orphanage (2021)

A devastating story of the struggles of civilians caught up in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home. Written with a raw intensity, this is a deeply personal account of the violence that will be remembered as the definitive novel of the war in Ukraine.

Olesya Yaremchuk — Our others: Stories of Ukrainian Diversity (2021)

This is an exploration of both the histories and personal stories of fourteen ethnic minority groups living within the boundaries of present-day Ukraine: Czechs and Slovaks, Meskhetian Turks, Swedes, Romanians, Hungarians, Roma, Jews, ‘Liptaks’, Gagauzes, Germans, Vlachs, Poles, Crimean Tatars, and Armenians. The book offers a tender study of the little islands of cultural diversity in Ukraine that have survived the Soviet steamroller of planned linguistic, cultural, and religious unification and that deserve acknowledgment in Ukraine’s broader cultural identity.

Andrey Kurkov — Grey Bees (2020)

49-year-old safety inspector-turned-beekeeper Sergey Sergeich wants little more than to help his bees collect their pollen in peace. His simple mission on behalf of his bees leads him through some of the hottest spots of the ongoing conflict, putting him in contact with combatants and civilians on both sides of the battle lines: loyalists, separatists, Russian occupiers, and Crimean Tatars. With little food and no electricity, under constant threat of bombardment, Sergeyich’s one remaining pleasure is his bees. As spring approaches, he knows he must take them far from the Grey Zone so they can collect their pollen in peace. Wherever he goes, Sergeyich’s childlike simplicity and strong moral compass disarm everyone he meets.

Artem Chekh — Absolute Zero (2020)

This is a first-person account of a soldier’s journey, based on Chekh’s diary that he wrote while and after his service in the war in Donbas. One of the most important messages the book conveys is that war means pain. Chekh is not showing any heroic combat, focusing instead on the quiet, mundane, and harsh life of a soldier.

Oksana Zabuzhko — Your ad could go there (2020)

In this breathtaking short story collection, Zabuzhko turns the concept of truth over in her hands like a beautifully crafted pair of gloves. From the triumph of the Orange Revolution, which marked the start of the twenty-first century, to domestic victories in matchmaking, sibling rivalry, and even tennis, the author manages to shock the reader by juxtaposing things as they are — inarguable, visible to the naked eye — with how things could be, weaving myth and fairy tale into pivotal moments just as we weave a satisfying narrative arc into our own personal mythologies.

Oleg Sentsov — Life went on anyway: Stories (2019)

These autobiographical stories display a mix of nostalgia and philosophical insight, written in a simple yet profound style looking back on a life’s path. Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison in August 2015 on spurious terrorism charges after he was kidnapped in his house and put through a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture. His final words at the trial, “Why bring up a new generation of slaves?” have become a rallying cry for his cause. He spent 145 days on hunger strike in 2018 to urge the Russian authorities to release all Ukrainians unfairly imprisoned in Russia, an act of profound courage.

Tanja Maljartschuk — A Biography of a Chance Miracle (2018)

The book explores the life of Lena, a young girl growing up in the somewhat vapid, bureaucracy-ridden, and nationalistic Western Ukrainian city of San Francisco. Lena is a misfit from early childhood due to her unwillingness to scorn everything Russian, and her fear of living a stupid and meaningless life. As her friends enter college, Lena sets forth on a mission to defend the abused and downtrodden of San Francisco armed with nothing more than an arsenal of humor, stubbornness, and no shortage of imagination. Her successes are minimal at best, but in the process of trying to save San Francisco’s collective humanity, she may end up saving her own. At first glance a crazy and combative girl, Lena just may be the salvation that the Ukrainians of San Francisco sorely need.

Yuri Andrukhovych — My final territory (2018)

My Final Territory is a collection of Andrukhovych’s philosophical, autobiographical, political, and literary essays, which demonstrate his enormous talent as an essayist to the English-speaking world.

Serhiy Zhadan — Mesopotamia (2014)

Serhiy Zhadan’s ode to Kharkiv, the traditionally Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine where he makes his home. Zhadan employs both prose and poetry to address the disillusionment, complications, and complexities that have marked Ukrainian life in the decades following the Soviet Union’s collapse. His novel provides an extraordinary depiction of the lives of working-class Ukrainians struggling against an implacable fate: the road forward seems blocked at every turn by demagogic forces and remnants of the Russian past. His stories expose the grit and burden of stalled lives, the universal desire for intimacy, and a wistful realization of the off-kilter and even perverse nature of love.

Andrey Kurkov — Ukraine Diaries (2014)

Kurkov’s diaries begin on the first day of the pro-European protests in November 2013 and describe the violent clashes in the Maidan, the impeachment of Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the separatist uprisings in the east of Ukraine. Going beyond the headlines, they give a vivid insight into what it’s like to live through — and try to make sense of — times of intense political unrest.

Serhiy Zhadan — Voroshilovgrad (2010)

A city-dwelling executive heads home to take over his brother’s gas station after his mysterious disappearance, but all he finds at home are mysteries and ghosts. The bleak industrial landscape of now-war-torn eastern Ukraine sets the stage for Voroshilovgrad, the Soviet-era name of the Ukrainian city of Luhansk, mixing magical realism and exhilarating road novel in poetic, powerful, and expressive prose.

Vasyl Shkliar — Raven’s way (2009)

In 1921, after four years of war, the Bolsheviks conquer Ukraine, but Raven and Veremii hide in the forests with other Cossacks and continue their struggle. When Veremii dies in battle, the communists secretly follow the burial party, but when they dig up the coffin they find a cryptic note instead of a corpse. Meanwhile Raven, thinks he is dead when a grenade blows him off his horse, so is surprised to wake up in the witch Yevdosia’s house…. Vasyl Shkliar has used authentic KGB reports to tell the story of Europe’s most remarkable resistance movement for the first time.

Oksana Zabuzhko — The Museum of Abandoned Secrets (2009)

Spanning sixty tumultuous years of Ukrainian history, this multigenerational saga weaves a dramatic and intricate web of love, sex, friendship, and death. At its center: three women linked by the abandoned secrets of the past — secrets that refuse to remain hidden. The novel is a modern multigenerational saga that covers the years 1940 to 2004, framed as investigations by a journalist, Daryna Hoshchynska, of historical events in western Ukraine including the Holodomor, the UIA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), and later political changes, ending just before the Orange Revolution.

Maria Matios — Sweet Darusya: A tale of two villages (2003)

It reveals a family saga that is much more dynamic than classical sagas and at the same time is much more touching and engaging. It is an emotional history of Ukraine with a very well-researched and vivid historical background that gives the reader the opportunity to understand not only the characters and their drama but the entire drama of the country in which they lived without ever leaving their village.

Yuri Andrukhovych — Twelve Circles (2003)

In the 1990s, Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen, an Austrian photographer with Galician roots, travels repeatedly through Ukraine. The chaos of the transitional post-Soviet era seems infinitely more appealing than the boring life of the West. Andrukhovych relates all this madness absorbingly, with much wit and ironic joust. Lurkers here will come to understand that the postmodern folk novel from Ukraine they are reading is in fact about the West.

Yuri Andrukhovych — Recreations (1992)

This novel tells of carnivalesque vitality and acute social criticism. It celebrates newly found freedom and reflects upon the contradictions of post-Soviet society. Four poets and an entourage of secondary characters converge on the fictional Chortopil for the Festival of the Resurrecting Spirit, an orgy of popular culture, civic dysfunction, national pride, and sex. The novel delights the reader with its extravagant and eccentric variety. For all its artful devices, it aims to be lucid, not dark, and readable, not forbidding.



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