The best Ukraine books of 2023, from histories to pictures of carnage

A family collect scrap metal outside their building in Bakhmut this February
A family collect scrap metal outside their building in Bakhmut this February - Anadolu
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Spurred on by the urgency which comes with war, Ukrainian writers and foreign experts on Ukraine have published huge amounts this year. In his outstanding book The Russo-Ukrainian War (Penguin, £10.99) Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy summarily dispels any arguments that the invasion is simply a response to Nato’s eastward expansion. Russia, he shows, has made numerous attempts to subjugate the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Plokhy combines an expansive knowledge of Ukrainian history and behind-the-scenes goings-on with gruesome first-hand accounts of war. “You might know the smell of rotten meat,” he says of the bodies being burned in crematoriums across the country, “but this was deeper.”

The war began, Plokhy makes clear, in the Donbas in 2014, and two further books maintain that focus on its origins. The War Came to Us (Bloomsbury, £20) a memoir by Christopher Miller, Ukraine correspondent for the Financial Times, begins with his arrival in 2010 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bakhmut, a city now famous for its destruction. It contains conversations with prisoners of war in 2014, descriptions of being invited to dinner at checkpoints in occupied Donbas, and accounts of the alternate reality built up by Russian propaganda in Ukraine’s east.

Read alongside Andy Brassell’s excellent We Play On (Robinson, £22), which looks at Ukraine’s recent history through the lens of Shakhtar Donetsk, its best football team, nicknamed “the Barcelona of the east”, who were forced to relocate from their home in Donetsk in 2014 and have become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the years since.

For those wanting to cast the net back further than 2014, or to understand a fuller picture of Ukraine beyond its embattled east, there is Megan Buskey’s Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet (Ibidem, £22). A family history set almost a thousand miles west of Bakhmut and Donetsk, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, this is a personal account of Buskey’s western Ukrainian ancestry, and the tragic history of the region in the twentieth century.

A mural opposite the Russian Embassy in Riga, pictured in February
A mural opposite the Russian Embassy in Riga, pictured in February - Bloomberg

With the second year of the full-scale invasion came much reminiscing on the first. Serhiy Zhadan, the Ukrainian novelist, poet, rock star, and volunteer, published The Sky Above Kharkiv (Yale, £14.99), a collection of his Facebook posts during the spring of 2022 when his city, Kharkiv, was on the frontline, surrounded on two sides by Russian troops and facing near-constant shelling. The book is not, like Zhadan’s novels and poetry, a literary achievement, but taken for what it is – social-media posts sewn together – it offers an important window into those first days of war, and highlights the extent to which local volunteer movements stepped in when the state was unable to cope. Above all, it’s a love letter to the city, and to the people who fought for it.

Ukraine 22 (Penguin, £12.99) and A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War (Egret, £24.99), edited by Mark Andryczyk and John Freedman respectively, are anthologies of responses to the war by Ukraine’s best-known writers. Angry, defiant and often heart-wrenching, the authors included in the collections invite you to share in their attempts to comprehend what befell them in the six months following February 24 2022.

The books of the year were by Serhii Plokhy, Christopher Miller and Andy Brassell
The books of the year were by Serhii Plokhy, Christopher Miller and Andy Brassell

But maybe the most compelling book on Ukraine published in English this year is A Small, ­Stubborn Town (Ithaka, £12.99), by British foreign correspondent Andrew Harding. Focusing on the town of Voznesensk in the Mykolaiv region – which Russia tried and failed to take – A Small Stubborn Town reads like a novel, both in light of its beautifully wrought prose, and the extraordinary story of the remarkable civilian defence mounted by the town’s eclectic residents.

Finally, when thinking about 2023’s books about Ukraine, it would be remiss not to mention Victoria Amelina, the Ukrainian novelist, poet and war-crimes investigator who was killed by a Russian rocket attack on a pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk this summer. While her book-length account of female resistance during the war – War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War – will now never be completed, a short excerpt published online by the London Ukrainian Review, titled ‘The Shell Hole in the Fairy Tale’ is a hugely moving read. There are hopes that the unfinished remainder of War and Justice Diary will be published posthumously.


Ada Wordsworth is co-director of KHARPP, a charity providing aid in Ukraine. To order any of these books, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.