In Focus

War in Ukraine: the best books about the conflict’s background 

The essential reading list to understand the history behind the war  

War in Ukraine: best books about the conflict’s background 

“The first book on anyone’s reading list should be Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” said Edward Lucas in The Times. An exploration of Nazi and Soviet atrocities in the “bloodlands” of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus during the 1930s and 1940s, it’s the “best rebuttal to Putin’s Soviet-centred, cod-imperialist approach to the past”, displayed in his speeches and the “rambling essay” he published last year. Complementing it is Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War in Ukraine, an account of Stalin’s mass-starvation programme in Ukraine. “Only by understanding Ukraine’s historical trauma at Russian hands can Western readers begin to appreciate the depth of the country’s desire for peace and sovereignty.” For a fuller account of Ukraine’s history, Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine is “masterly”. It explains why the “flawed” belief that Ukraine isn’t a real nation is so important to Russian nationalists.

Even so, it’s important to remember that Russia and Ukraine do “share much of their history”, said Orlando Figes in The Observer. Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard’s The Emergence of Rus 750-1200 is a scholarly guide to their common origins, in the “loose medieval state founded by the Vikings on the river routes between the Baltic and the Black Sea”. A number of fiction writers have also explored the two countries’ “shared culture”, said Oliver Bullough in The Guardian. To my mind, none have done so more successfully than Nikolai Gogol, especially in his short stories. “Raised in Ukraine, discovered in Russia, adored in both, Gogol conjures up the absurdity of life under autocracy better than anyone.” To understand Russia’s current autocracy, though, the “essential book” is Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People. It tells the inside story of how Putin “built a nuclear-armed mafia state”. 

As the current conflict is reminding us, urban warfare can be “uniquely brutalising”, said Saul David in The Times. The siege tactics used by the Russians have even led to suggestions that Ukraine could witness a “new Stalingrad”. To understand those words, “read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, the classic account of Hitler’s failed attempt to capture the city on the Volga in the Second World War, which resulted in two million deaths”. Another conflict with echoes today is Russia’s second war against Chechnya, fought from 1999 to 2009. “Two excellent eye-witness accounts” of the “ruthless tactics” used by Putin, which reduced Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, to rubble, are Thomas Goltz’s Chechnya Diary and A Dirty War by the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006.

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