10 books to help understand what's happening in Russia and Ukraine, including Marie Yovanovitch's latest

Why is this happening?

That’s what many Americans are asking right now, looking on in horror as Russia continues its attack on neighboring nation Ukraine. How did this conflict start? Why is this happening now? What is Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to achieve? How scared should we be for Ukrainians? For the world?

In times of great confusion and despair, books are always there to light the way and help us better understand. These 10 books – written by Ukrainians, Russians, journalists and academics – help clarify the deep-seated conflict between Russia and Ukraine, making sense of Putin’s authoritarianism, Ukraine’s fight for independence and the far-reaching geopolitical forces at play that threaten Western democracy.

"Lessons From the Edge," by Marie Yovanovitch.
"Lessons From the Edge," by Marie Yovanovitch.

"Lessons From the Edge," by Marie Yovanovitch (Mariner, 2022): The American diplomat and former ambassador to Ukraine, who was recalled from her post and became a key witness in the 2019 Trump impeachment hearings examining then-President Donald Trump's efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate then-Democratic rival Joe Biden, offers timely insights in this urgent memoir. A child of parents who survived Soviet and Nazi terror, Yovanovitch has a personal stake in the preservation of democracy.

"Ukraine’s Revolt, Russia’s Revenge," by Christopher M. Smith (Brookings Institution Press, 2022): A U.S. diplomat in Kyiv gives an eyewitness account of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution, which wrested power from corrupt pro-Kremlin Ukrainian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia's intervention and invasion. This firsthand account of contemporary history is key to understanding Russia's latest assault on its neighbor.

“The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” by Masha Gessen (Riverhead, 2017): Gessen, a Russian American journalist and outspoken critic of Putin, was awarded the National Book Award for this examination of the forces that have besieged and transformed Russia. Following the lives of four people born at what promised to be the dawn of democracy in the former Soviet Union, Gessen examines how in the space of a generation Russia surrendered to autocracy. “Writing with the verve and empathy of a novel and the depth and perspective of an intellectual history, Masha Gessen diagnoses Russian society with ‘recurrent totalitarianism,’ a chronic disease that was once in remission, but has lately resurged,” writes the National Book Foundation in its judges citation.

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“The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” by Masha Gessen (Riverhead, 2012): How did a low-level KGB operative from an impoverished background like Putin ascend to the Russian presidency to become a power-crazed authoritarian and one of the most powerful – and deadly – men in the world? Journalist Gessen has written an astute and chilling biography of the ruthless man’s rise to near-absolute power and how he all but singlehandedly destroyed the hope of a democratic post-Soviet Russia.

“Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days Of The Soviet Empire,” by David Remnick (Vintage, 1994): To better understand how the stage was set for Putin’s rise, you need first to understand the fall of the Soviet Union. The New Yorker Editor Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize for this riveting account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, taking readers through seven decades of communist rule to an empire’s fall.

“The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine,” by Serhii Plokhy.
“The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine,” by Serhii Plokhy.

“The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine,” by Serhii Plokhy (Basic Books, 2015): Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, offers this definitive history of his homeland, showing how the modern-day Ukrainian conflict is part of an ongoing struggle with Russia to preserve its sovereignty. Situated between Europe, Russia and the Middle East, Ukraine is uniquely positioned to be shaped and exploited by nations using it as a strategic gateway, Plokhy writes.

“Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War,” by Paul D'Anieri (Cambridge University Press, 2019): D'Anieri offers a clear exploration of all the dynamics that led to Ukrainian war in 2014: dynamics within Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia, and between Russia and the West. D'Anieri argues the roots of conflict run deep in a way that makes today's war feel almost inevitable.

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“The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,” by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, 2018): In this prescient work of contemporary history, Snyder explores Russia’s attempts to influence Western democracies. Snyder writes that Putin and his fascistic ideas found allies in nationalists and oligarchs inside and outside of Russia, and even found allies in the Western countries and institutions he seeks to dissolve. It’s a chilling argument that Putin’s Russia is a threat not just to Ukraine, but to democracy itself.

“In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine,” by Tim Judah (Tim Duggan Books, 2016): The Economist reporter gives a boots-on-the-ground dispatch from the Ukraine’s front lines. He speaks to everyone – historians, politicians, poets – interweaving the stories of ordinary people to create a portrait of a country torn apart in a seemingly never-ending fight for independence from Russia. It’s an essential read to understand what life is like for everyday Ukranians living in conflict.

“On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine,” by Sonya Bilocerkowycz (Mad Creek Books, 2019): The granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees growing up in Ukrainian diasporic communities, Bilocerkowycz inherited a legacy of political oppression. In these linked essays, the Ukrainian American writer unpacks that legacy and the evolution of her patriotism and national identity growing up in the U.S.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia invades Ukraine: 10 books to better understand what's happening