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The Must-Read Books About Russia and Ukraine in 2022

As Russia wages war, Blinkist offers a guide to the best nonfiction works that illuminate the tensions and debunk the myths behind the conflict.
by Rob Gillham | May 4 2022

How did it all come to this? At the start of 2022, Russian military forces launched a full-scale invasion of their neighbor Ukraine. A drastic escalation in a conflict that has been simmering since 2014.

books about Russia and Ukraine

In a conflict riddled with misleading narratives, conspiracy theories, and disinformation, there has never been a better time to get to the origin of the causes and consequences of the conflict by reading great nonfiction works. 

To help you cut through the fog of war, we’ve compiled a list of the must-read books about Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West by Andrew Wilson

If you are looking for an expert analysis of modern Ukraine, look no further than Dr. Andrew Wilson. The first of three books on Ukraine and Russian modern history from Dr. Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis, addresses the peaceful protests and violent conflicts that have rocked Ukraine in recent years. This book looks at the events surrounding the Maidan uprising, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing conflict in the Donbas. Notably, the crisis is put into context not just for the future of Ukraine but also for how it affects Russia, the European Union, and the world.


The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation by Andrew Wilson

The second title by Andrew Wilson on this list is The Ukrainians. A title that has been called the most accurate, informed, and insightful account of Ukraine and its people available today. Wilson focuses on the complex relations between Ukraine and Russia and explains the different versions of the past propagated by Ukrainians and Russians. He also examines the continuing debates over identity, culture, and religion that have raged in Ukraine since its independence in 1991. 


Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World by Andrew Wilson

The third title by Andrew Wilson offers a bleak look into the world of post-Soviet politics. His book uncovers the Machiavellian techniques of the virtual political system to legitimize post-Soviet regimes. Methods that range from entirely fake political parties to invented political rivals and virtual opponents. In his work, Andrew Wilson argues that not only economic problems have made it so difficult to foster meaningful democracy in the former Soviet world. Instead, it is the unique post-Soviet culture of political technology, a system first used in the Soviet Union, that has created the main obstacle to democracy in the region.


The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen’s stunning biography of Russian President Vladimir Putin, The Man Without A Face, shines a clear light on one of contemporary history’s more shadowy political figures. The book charts Putin’s almost accidental rise to Russia’s highest office, starting from his benign beginnings in the state secret police. Unfortunately, his vindictive personality, overwhelming greed, and disdain for democratic norms continue to transform Russia today.

“Putin realized that he now bore responsibility for the entire crumbling edifice of a former superpower. He was no longer entitled to seethe at the people who had destroyed Soviet military might and imperial pride: by dint of becoming president, to a great number of his compatriots he had now become one of those people.”
― Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen

If you want to answer the question, “how did it all come to this?” Then perhaps The Future Is History is the place to start. Gessen’s seminal work tackles the complex issue of Russia’s turbulent relationship with democracy. By looking at the lives of a select few ordinary Russians, Masha Gessen takes us from the collapse of the Soviet Union to deep within the dark days of the Putin era in an attempt to show us how and why Russia’s modern brand of totalitarianism came about.


Putin’s Russia: The Definitive Account of Putin’s Rise To Power by Anna Politkovskaya

Hailed as one of Russia’s greatest journalists, Anna Politkovskaya made her name reporting on the devastating war in Chechnya. Her seminal work Putin’s Russia, depicts a far-reaching state of decay. Politkovskaya describes an army in which soldiers die from malnutrition, parents must pay bribes to recover their dead sons’ bodies, and conscripts are even hired out as slaves. In addition, she exposes rampant corruption in business, government, and the judiciary, where everything from store permits to bus routes to court appointments is for sale. The fearless Politkovskaya also gives a scathing condemnation of Russia’s war in Chechnya, where kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture were common occurrences.

Sounding an urgent alarm against the violence and destruction that would sweep Ukraine, Putin’s Russia is a gripping portrayal of a country in crisis and the final testament of a great and intrepid reporter that would ultimately cost Anna Politkovskaya her life. 


Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West by Catherine Belton

Putin’s People is a shocking account of the corruption and political schemes that swirl around Russia’s infamous president, Vladimir Putin, and his close inner circle. The KGB is well-known as the former Soviet Union’s secret police force, but that was far from its only role in the Soviet government and economy. This is the story of how the KGB lost its power, gained it back, and has been exploiting it ever since.


The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The first of two books by Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, chronicles the extraordinary political age we live in. Russian expansionism, led by Vladimir Putin, threatens to infringe on people’s freedoms in Europe and America enjoy. After having successfully influenced the Brexit referendum in its favor, the Kremlin set its gaze on the United States and, in doing so, played a central role in ushering in the Donald Trump presidency.

“Authoritarianism begins when we can no longer tell the difference between the true and the appealing. At the same time, the cynic who decides that there is no truth at all is the citizen who welcomes the tyrant.”
― Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

Suppose you want to understand how Putin’s claims to be denazifying Ukraine and his insistence that they actually want to be Russian are out of sync with reality. In that case, it’s essential to read about the country’s experience in the first half of the 20th century, when Bolsheviks and Nazis alike rampaged over Ukraine’s flat terrain, killing and starving millions upon millions of people and leaving a permanent scar on the minds of modern-day Ukraine.

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder tells this story. It is a rare history book that tells a tale that everyone should know, but few actually are aware of. It details how the people of Ukraine were caught in the crossfire between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. The victims of the so-called bloodlands, or territories that became part of the Soviet Union after the war, were pushed and pulled by two ruthless powers and treated like dispensable pieces in a chess game for years afterward.


Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomarentsev 

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is one of the most entertaining and shocking accounts of modern Russia you can read today. British television producer Peter Pomerantsev plunges into the dynamic and frightening world of Russian TV, where he gains access to every nook and cranny of the country. He is brought to smoky rooms for meetings with propaganda gurus running the nerve center of the Russian media machine. He visits Siberian mafia-towns and the salons of the international super-rich in London and the US. As the Putin regime becomes more aggressive, Pomerantsev is drawn further into the system.

A system in which Russian professional killers talk philosophize about their work like artists and theater directors are turned into Kremlin puppet-masters. A world where supermodels are drawn into suicidal death cults and biker gangs portray themselves as holy warriors, a world where truly nothing is true and everything is possible.


Russia without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War by Tony Wood

It is impossible to think of Russia today without thinking of Vladimir Putin. More than any other prominent national leader, he personifies his country in the eyes of the outside world and dominates Western media coverage of it to an extraordinary extent. He is likewise the center of attention for detractors and supporters alike in Russia. But as Tony Wood argues, this overwhelming focus on the president and his personality means that we understand Russia less than we ever did before. Too much attention is paid to the man and not enough to the country outside the Kremlin’s walls.


The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy

The Gates of Europe is a great place to start reading up on the historical background to the war that has now gripped the headlines. It tells the story of Ukraine, from the perspective of those who live there and without a pro-Russian bias. From the early beginnings of the Kyivan Rus to the devastation of the Holodomor, learn more about the nation that struggled to be born.

“The 1990s brought terrible hardship to Ukraine. By the end of the decade, close to half of Ukrainians claimed that they had barely enough money to buy food, while those who were leading relatively comfortable lives amounted to barely 2 or 3 percent of the population. This translated into higher mortality rates and lower birth rates. The former overtook the latter for the first time in 1991. Ten years later, when the government of independent Ukraine conducted its first census, it found 48.4 million Ukrainians in the country, 3 million fewer than the 51.4 million counted in the last Soviet census of 1989.” ― Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.


Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

In this magnificent requiem to a civilization in ruins, the Nobel prize-winning author of Voices from Chernobyl brings together the voices of dozens of witnesses to the collapse of the USSR in a formidable attempt to chart the disappearance of a culture and to surmise what new kind of man may emerge from the rubble.

The author presents an oral history of Russia’s transition from Stalinism to capitalism in which she lets people who were there tell their stories. In Secondhand Time, her witnesses tell us what it means to be Russian, then and now. All of them lived through this transitional period, but some did not survive.


All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin by Mikhail Zygar

Charting the transformation of Vladimir Putin from a passionate fan of the West and a liberal reformer into a vilified and introverted outcast, All the Kremlin’s Men is a historical detective story packed full of intrigue and conspiracy. This is the story of the political battles that have taken place in the court of Vladimir Putin since his rise to power, and a chronicle of friendship and hatred between the Russian leader and his foreign partners and opponents.

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