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Eleven books to understand Ukraine’s ongoing struggle: a shortlist by Ukrainian politicians

Image: a book remake of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous “food face” paintings
Eleven books to understand Ukraine’s ongoing struggle: a shortlist by Ukrainian politicians
Edited by: Sonia Maryn
The contemporary Russo-Ukrainian war is a hybrid war — not only fought on the territories of Donbas but through the all-pervasive informational realm. Perhaps not apparent, but the victory is not possible without the basis of a sound understanding of the Ukrainian people and their history — their strengths, weaknesses and traumas — especially those experienced in recent history during the Soviet era. Just as important are the hard political lessons of the past. Casting light on these topics are many seminal works. Not all of them are Ukrainian or even contemporary. But all of them are relevant to the nation’s ongoing struggle. This article touches upon some that Ukrainian politicians and influencers have read and recommended over the course of 2020.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, former MP Andriy Illienko (2012 -2019), and political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov shared their thoughts on some of the essential books to read in terms of the current political context. Their contributions reside within the wider framework of a literature project conducted by Chytomo, an online site about the culture of reading and the art of book publishing.

Vitaliy Portnikov, Ukrainian political analyst. Image: Tvoie misto.

“I read books because for me it is a certain elixir for development. I know for sure that I cannot live all the number of life situations that literature describes. And I believe that human development is just the number of life situations one has lived,” says Portnikov.

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

In this famous book by the Albanian author Ismail Kadare, a sinister totalitarian ministry called the Palace of Dreams recruits Mark-Alem to sort, classify, and interpret the dreams of people in the empire, seeking the “master dreams” that give clues to the empire’s destiny.

“The book reveals the authoritarianism embedded in what the protagonist imagines to be his utopian view. It demonstrates how such a system rules not just the state, but the psyche and actions of every person — not just during their constrained daily life, but even while unfettered in sleep,”  explains Portnikov.

Kobzar by Taras Shevchenko

This 19th-century epic collection of poetry by the Ukrainian poet laureate Taras Shevchenko is timeless for the Ukrainian people and still relevant to this day. Although familiar to all, it will never be banal to recommend. For Ukrainians, the Kobzar is the ever-lasting mirror of national self-identification, while for foreigners the best descriptor of what can only be described as the Ukrainian soul.

“I am not an ethnic Ukrainian and I have a different attitude to this book than ethnic Ukrainians. When I read Kobzar as a child, it helped me understand the Ukrainian people in a way I would never have understood when communicating with Ukrainians. It seems to me that Ukrainians have no idea how accurately Shevchenko understood the Ukrainian national character, both from a positive and a negative point of view. Probably from a negative even more, that’s why he had so much indignation, bitterness, outbursts of emotion … Because he wanted to raise his people to his level and understood that he might not have enough strength and time for that,” says Portnikov.

The Stone Cross by Vasyl Stefanyk

The Stone Cross is a series of short stories by Vasyl Stefanyk, a Ukrainian modernist author who captured the spirit of existentialism in his novellas before the rational philosophy of existentialism emerged. Stefanyk was deeply concerned with the destiny of Ukrainian emigrants and often wrote about them. The title story, “The Stone Cross,” in particular, is a touching description of immigrants’ departure from Stefanyk’s native village.

“I also really like Vasyl Stefanyk’s short stories. This is real European literature for me. This is an obvious example of what literature can be in different circumstances, in different regions, how Ukrainians in Austria-Hungary differed from Ukrainians in the Russian Empire. This can be seen when you read Stefanyk,” comments Portnikov.

The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

This 70-year-old science fiction series by American writer Isaac Asimov is a classic. According to Vitaliy Portnikov, the series is the best combined handbook of political science, and he always recommends it to his students:

“Political commentary is an imitation activity, when people call themselves political scientists, trying to find some laws of political life. It is, to some extent, the same imitation activity as literary studies or theater studies. Because you describe what other people do. You do not play in the theater, but try to understand how the actor played, you do not write a book, but criticize literature…

The novels by Asimov demonstrate what history is. This is, of course, a science fiction approach, but it is very informative in terms of criteria … tools for analyzing reality.”

Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs.Source: RBC-Ukraine

“Book fairs and festivals are among my favorite cultural events. I am very happy that their number and scale is growing rapidly from year-to-year — as well as the number of publishers, Ukrainian books and their readers,” explains Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs and recommends several of the books he has read.

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

In his own words: What Boris Johnson's writing says about him
Presentation of the book. Image: The Irish Times

“One of the most charismatic modern politicians, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson tells the story of his predecessor, the legendary British wartime leader Winston Churchill. It is too interesting to pass by.

It is common to look at the monumental figure of Churchill bottom up. Johnson’s view is not marred by his sincere admission that he is a fan of Churchill. At a time when Ukraine and the United Kingdom have signed a historic agreement and officially become strategic partners, the book provides readers with a comprehensive answer to the question of why Johnson is personally committed to Ukraine and has no illusions about Russian aggression. Fortunately for us, like his idol, the current British leader knows how to talk to aggressors,” says Kuleba.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Купить книгу "The Art of War"

“Desktop. And not only for the foreign minister of a country at war, but also for any leader. In general, we in Europe have something to learn from the Confucians. How to turn weakness into strength, to control the enemy and force him to make mistakes, to win without even entering the battle. For almost two-and-a half thousand years, The Art of War has not lost its relevance. And in the digital age and the age of hybrid threats, this ancient treatise has simply become a must read,” comments Kuleba.

Amadoka by Sofiya Andrukhovych

Софія Андрухович з презентацією нового роману "Амадока": Спілкування - це те, що робить нас людьми | Новини | Українське радіо
Amadoka, the book by Sofiya Andrukovych
This book by Ukrainian author Sofiya Adrukhovych was written and published in 2020 and is currently only available in Ukrainian. Not yet translated into English, it should be so soon considering the enthusiastic welcome and numerous accolades the work has received from Ukrainian literary critics and the public. The book begins with the story of a soldier returning from war with partial loss of memory, and evolves into a deep self-investigation of individual and collective memory.

Kuleba names this book the main literary event of the year, and possibly the decade:

“What and how do we remember and what do we forget? What do we want to remember and forget? How does history become a legend and legend a myth? Sofia Andrukhovych reveals to the reader an interlace of stories about human destinies, which form a mosaic of collective Ukrainian memory. A very timely book for modern Ukraine. After all, the future belongs to those who are not afraid to look back and look in the mirror.”

The Black Council by Panteleimon Kulish

The abridged English translation of the novel about the 1663 Black Council, an event where Kozaks lost their statehood to Muscowy, is also available online.
The 1951 picture by Soviet Ukrainian artists Mykhailo Khmelko, depicting Kozaks celebrating military union with Muscowy in the 17th century, not knowing yet about the coming gradual enslavement by the Russian empire.

“I think that in order to become not fragile, Ukrainians need to read first of all Kulish. Our strength and weakness, nobility and meanness, the desire for freedom and the search for a warm yoke. All our will and glory, all the chronic destructive strife. Eternal eros and thanatos of the Ukrainian people. All this was condensed by the national genius Panteleimon Kulish in The Black Council in the middle of the 19th century.

The Black Council should be read to understand where the Hetmanate and the Ukrainian People’s Republic have disappeared. Not to repeat mistakes. Find a common language with each other. Find strength in dialogue explains Dmytro Kuleba.

Andriy Illienko, former MP (2012-2019).

“Classics are wonderful. If the text was written several centuries (or even millennia) ago and today people still read it, then it is really valuable. You should not be afraid of paved roads, they are paved not by accident,” comments Illieanko about his book preferences.

Meditations by Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius

Source: Daily Stoic

“This is the best thing I have ever read on the subject of self-motivation, psychology, ways to achieve inner harmony, the meaning of life, and much more. All later good literature on this subject is a rewriting of the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius. Sometimes just word for word. The sixteenth Emperor of Rome (161-180 CE) had long since lost all illusions. But this did not lead him to nihilism, but to humaneness,” says Illienko.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

“There are many books that try to answer the question of the causes of the rise and fall of nations. This one is without charlatan recipes for instant success. The bike has long been invented, you just have to want to ride it. And the real question is why there is often no desire to do so — this is what the book is about,” comments Andriy Illienko.

The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century by François Furet

The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century: Furet, François, Furet, Deborah: 9780226273419: Books“This is a book about the manipulativeness of communist ideology, although in reality, it is a political treatise on political utopias as such, their origins and dangers,” according to Illienko.

This book can explain how the contemporary Putin regime is fueled by post-Soviet nostalgia. It is amazing how the communist idea has had such an extraordinary effect on people’s minds for almost the entire twentieth century, despite the tragic experience with which it tarnished its flag, first in the USSR and then in European countries and beyond. The contrast between the course of the Bolshevik revolution at various stages and the illusions which surrounded it is the main topic of Furet’s book. The author had to trace the ideology step-by-step, starting with the events of October 1917 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Communism could disappear only when it finally exhausted the hopes of its supporters, writes the author. But has it already?

Read more:

Edited by: Sonia Maryn
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