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The Best Ukrainian Literature

recommended by Sasha Dovzhyk

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, many people around the world have become more familiar with the country's recent history, but many of us still don't know much about its literary traditions. Academic and activist Sasha Dovzhyk introduces five works of Ukrainian literature, from an early 20th-century dramatic poem to devastating first-person accounts of the war that started in 2014.

Interview by Chenxin Jiang

Before we get to the books you’re recommending, tell me a bit about Ukrainian literature. How did you pick these books?

I’ve chosen books that bear witness to the war taking place right now, as well as books that take us back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when Russia was systematically suppressing Ukrainian literature. There is an emblematic work of classic Ukrainian literature which shows us the richness of Ukrainian literary tradition. There are two novels which address the country’s tumultuous and revelatory path after regaining independence in 1991. And there are two books that shed light on the war started by Russia in 2014.

You’ve taught Ukrainian literature at University College London, but your interest is more than just academic. You’ve been collecting stories of what people in Ukraine are living through as well.

That’s right. Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I have been splitting my time between Ukraine and London. In Ukraine, I work as a fixer for foreign media, I collect testimonies from the survivors of Russia’s war crimes, and I am involved in various initiatives in the humanitarian sector.

One of the projects I am leading right now is with PEN Ukraine, which is an organization of writers and human rights activists. We are collecting the testimonies and writing the stories of people who have been taken away by the war and trying to preserve their memory, their legacy. It is a painful subject to write about, but it’s very important.

At a time when our culture is under attack, it is really crucial to preserve whatever we can, in whatever way we can. This work is ongoing. The Russians haven’t given me any chance to waste my life. There’s a lot of work ahead, and I’m happy to do it.

In my work in London, I’m preoccupied with Ukrainian literature. I’m very excited to talk about it.

Let’s start with the novel which you said is the one you’d be most likely to recommend to a friend who wants to read about Ukraine. It’s called Voroshilovgrad (2010) and it’s by Serhiy Zhadan.

Zhadan is my favorite writer and poet who represents Eastern Ukraine, a multi-faceted talent. He’s a public intellectual, an activist, an essayist, and a novelist.

Voroshilovgrad is a 2010 novel about Eastern Ukraine in the twentieth century. Zhadan’s prose is poetic, and his poetry is prosaic. You can bask in the language, but the novel also anticipates the big war to come.

It was written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it talks about the homecoming of the main hero. He himself is a loser who cannot fight. He comes back to his hometown, where he has to learn how to defend his values and how to stand up for what is important to him.

“So much sacrifice and so much human suffering cannot be in vain”

The entire story is grounded in allusions to the historical violence that was unfolding in the lands of Eastern Ukraine. The book was written in 2010, a seemingly ahistorical time in 2010 when Ukraine was not going through any cataclysmic historical events. But poets are barometers of culture, and they can anticipate big historical events long before they actually take place.

Voroshilovgrad is an ideal entry point into Zhadan’s work. From there, you can delve into his writing and enjoy his poetry and later works. He’s also the author of The Orphanage, which is considered the most important Ukrainian war novel dedicated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine so far. He’s a fantastic voice of independent Ukraine. His writing is humorous as well as poetic.

You’ve mentioned that Zhadan’s poetry is prosaic, and his prose is poetic. But the novel you’ve described is a picaresque adventure with a hapless protagonist—not the kind of book one might necessarily associate with a very poetic writing style. Could you say a little bit more about the interplay between the plot and his writing style?

In this novel, a lot of things happen. The characters are out of place, and they learn to accept their destinies and their responsibilities. All of this is framed by beautiful landscape writing and dreamlike descriptions of the main character’s memories. He is constantly trying to come to terms with a post-totalitarian world of erasure, silence, falsehood, and violent moments from which he looks away.

The writing style itself is distinctive, and the plot will keep you entertained. The novel also contains humor and a lot of obscene language, which ultimately adds to the local color.

I’m a literary translator and I’ve noticed that the level of obscene language that’s acceptable in literature from different places varies greatly. 

I agree. The polite English reader may be surprised, but the novel is translated masterfully. It doesn’t come across as too rude or shocking. In Ukrainian, it reads quite naturally because he writes about working-class characters in their natural linguistic environment. This is how these heroes speak and joke, and you embrace it as a reader.

Tell me about your next recommendation, which dates from 1908 and is by your favorite Ukrainian writer, Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913). 

Ukrainka is a feminist and anticolonial Ukrainian writer who is at the very top of the national canon. We are more used to finding great men at the top of national canons, but in Ukraine we have a woman who subverted all the canons of patriarchal literature.

She was born in Ukraine in 1871 and chose the pen name Ukrainka, for ‘Ukrainian woman,’ at the age of thirteen. From this very early age, through her pen name and through her writing, she connected her destiny and her literary fate to the fate of the Ukrainian nation.

At the time when she was writing in the Ukrainian language, Ukraine was under Russian rule, so the very writing in the Ukrainian language was risky. But what she did with this banned language was remarkable. She didn’t accept the terms on which the Russian empire permitted Ukrainian literature to exist—strictly for writing about peasants, farmers, simple folk. Instead, she turned to the big plots of European literature. The theme of Troy; the theme of Don Juan, the seducer of women; the Bible. She retold all these myths of Western culture from a woman’s point of view.

The book I would like to recommend is Cassandra, which is about the Trojan War. The protagonist is the tragic Trojan prophetess who is cursed to always know the truth and never be believed. Through her eyes we see this tragedy unfold. It’s one of Ukrainka’s many significant poetic dramas. I chose this one because it has recently been brilliantly translated by Nina Murray, and it is about to be published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. It will be published in February 2024 and you already can preorder it.

A huge task lies ahead of all the translators from the Ukrainian language—to translate all the works of Lesya Ukrainka. She is a forgotten feminist icon of European culture who needs to be rediscovered and read.

By drawing on these great European myths, Ukrainka was essentially writing Ukrainian literature into European literature, writing it into a cosmopolitan Europe. And then writing women into the literature of Ukraine as well.

Precisely. It’s a double subversion. She refuses the parameters dictated to her by the empire for her own culture. Instead, she dares to be in conversation with authors like Byron in her rewriting of the myth of Don Juan, the legendary libertine, in Ukrainian. In her retelling of Don Juan, the attention is centered not on him but on the female protagonist, Doña Ana, a femme fatale who is seeking power. Her complicated personality completely changes the rules of the game.

You said that she is a canonical writer but hasn’t received the recognition she deserves. If you were a child growing up in Ukraine, would you have heard of her, or would you know her writings? 

Yes, definitely. In Ukraine from an early age you start learning her poems, and then you learn to read her poetic dramas. Then, if you are lucky, you enter into reading her prose, and maybe her correspondence, which is fascinating. It is outside Ukraine that she is not known.

She suffered from tuberculosis of the bones. At the turn of the century, if you had such a health condition, you would travel in search of a good climate and good medical treatment. She traveled all over—not only in Western Europe, but also in Egypt and in Georgia. Given the scope of her work, she only failed to be translated into other languages because of Soviet restrictions on Ukrainian culture.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine did not have many resources to invest in the international representation of its literature. What is now being translated is mostly contemporary Ukrainian writing. This astonishing classical figure signifies that Ukrainian literature did not start in the 1990s; it was fascinating and exciting back in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, and groundbreaking in many ways, because not many authors in global literature were able to do it at that time. Queerness, anticolonialism, feminism—there are so many facets to Lesya Ukrainka that we need to explore now.

Your next recommendation is a work of nonfiction: The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister (2021), by Olesya Khromeychuk. Can you tell us more about this book?

This is the newest of all the books I’m recommending and the least like the others. Written in English and published in 2021, it tells a personal story of the loss of a brother at the front line of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The author’s brother was killed in 2017. He volunteered to serve in the army to defend his country. It was a point at which the rest of the world had more or less forgotten about the war unfolding in Ukraine.

The author, Olesya Khromeychuk, tells the story of her loss in this lucid, compassionate manner. I imagine—I cannot say this for sure, because grief is a strange and personal thing—that it can allow many people to come to terms with the losses they are experiencing today.

It is important to recognize the sheer longevity of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The book was republished in 2022, and a few chapters were added to reflect upon the full-scale invasion. Khromeychuk’s book brings the entire, almost decade-long history of the war into the present moment.

A work of creative nonfiction, it includes imaginative, fairytale-like stories and dream-like moments, evoking the writer’s emotions, memories, and feelings about her brother.

I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the writer. How did she come to write this book?

In this respect, I’m privileged because I know Olesya well. She is a theater maker, lecturer, and historian. She has always had this creative strength in her personality, which she put into practice in theater. When her brother was killed, she told her story first in the form of a theater play documenting the war and her loss. It was very well received. She writes about the experience of making this play in her book, and the play can be viewed on YouTube.

After the play, she realized that her story could be told in a different form, so she decided to transform it into a book. It grew into a very important monument to her brother, and also to many Ukrainian families, in Ukraine and all over the world.

It’s a difficult read, but it does not leave you desperate. The book says: you can always transform your grief into fuel to drive you towards making a change in this world. Olesya herself is a beautiful example of that. She’s a wonderfully active advocate for Ukraine and for justice today.

The next book you’re recommending is The Moscoviad (1993) by Yurii Andrukhovych. This is another Ukrainian author whose work spans a number of genres, including poetry, novels, and essays.

Andrukhovych came to fame in the 1980s as a postmodern Ukrainian writer who crosses genres. I’m particularly excited about his novel The Moscoviad, which offers a view of Moscow by a non-Russian—a colonized subject. It’s a decentered perspective on the heart of the empire, which I think we don’t get too often. When we speak about Moscow and Russian culture, it’s usually viewed through a Russian lens, or perhaps through the lens of an outsider who is fascinated by this image of great Russian culture. This view of a colonized Ukrainian subject, who is inside the capital of the empire as it is falling apart, is quite interesting.

Set in 1991 and published in 1993, The Moscoviad allows us to witness the empire—the Soviet Union—disintegrating before our very eyes. This disintegration takes place at the level of the plot, as the character is haunted by KGB officers and he’s trying to escape from them. But it also takes place at the level of form, given the novel’s fragmented structure. And it takes place at the level of language, as the author weaves in insertions from other European languages, including German phrases and Russian obscenities. It’s a postmodern, postcolonial, very adventurous novel. It’s also darkly funny.

I’m curious about the interlingual aspect of the novel. 

Yes. Ukraine, for a long time, was divided between various empires, so it had this diverse culture in which, on the territory of Ukraine, German, Polish, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar languages were spoken and they intermingled and influenced each other.

When we speak about Ukrainian literature, we should also keep all these influences in mind and broaden our understanding of what the national literature is. Ukrainian literature doesn’t have to be written in the Ukrainian language. It shows us this mixture of languages and linguistic influences, which I find very interesting.

Please tell me about the last Ukrainian book you’re recommending, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street (2020) by Stanislav Aseyev. This is another work of nonfiction and sounds horrifying.

This book is a difficult read but an important one. Aseyev is a journalist from Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russians in 2014. He stayed in Donetsk after the occupation and reported on what was happening.

Then he was captured and brought to a concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for two years, from 2017 to 2019. In the book, he describes all the forms of psychological and physical torture that he and the other prisoners of this concentration camp endured.

This book allows us to understand the Russian occupation and everything that has been going on since Russia forcibly invaded Ukraine in 2014. When we hear various calls to appeasement, to peace talks with Russia, this is what we need to keep in mind. This is what Russia does on occupied territories. This is what Russia does to Ukrainian citizens. Aseyev’s witness reminds us that we need to keep focusing attention on the lives of those in occupied territories, on the Russian trademark concentration camps. We know that other similar detention centers are mushrooming wherever Russia has been able to establish its occupation authorities.

What happened after 2019? Was Aseyev suddenly released?

Yes. He was brought back from prison in a political exchange, and he became an advocate for political prisoners illegally held in Russia and occupied territories of Ukraine, including Crimea. It is well known that Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, are treated by Russian occupying forces as traitors. They were the regime’s first target, and they’ve been imprisoned in their hundreds. Those Crimean Tatars who are not imprisoned are often forced to take up arms and to fight against their compatriots, against Ukrainians. It’s a very difficult situation that’s been going on for too long a time.

It’s horrifying that these things can happen even when we know so much about them. 

Yes, it’s out in the open. Perhaps it’s just that we all live in our bubbles. I imagine that for many people who are not familiar with what has been going on in Ukraine since 2014, this would be shocking news, and they just can’t imagine the level of brutality to which people in the occupied territories are being subjected.

Aseyev writes with beautiful clarity and philosophical richness. His book is a testament to the dignity and the strength of the human spirit.

As an academic, and also as someone who bears witness to all of these stories, what has it been like for you? 

It’s been a very weird ten years, which started with the Maidan Revolution in 2014. For my generation, it was a turning point when we realized that we will not live under an authoritarian regime and we were willing to risk our lives and overthrow the pro-Russian authoritarian president in Ukraine. It was a life-changing experience. The power of the people was there, united. After that, there could have been a moment for Ukraine to rise and thrive, but Russia invaded straight away. From the revolution, we jumped straight into the war.

Since then, the war has been hanging over everything that my generation has tried to do with our lives. It was always there, determining all our actions.

The full-scale invasion marked another turning point. Despite all the tragedy and grief and destruction and pain we are enduring, we are fated to have a future because of our memory and because of our responsibility for everything that has already happened. So much sacrifice and so much human suffering cannot be in vain. It means that we have to win this war. It means that we have to bring justice to the survivors and make sure that Russians are held accountable for what they did. It means that we have to rebuild our country.

People like me, with one foot in Ukraine and the other one in London, are bridging these communication gaps and trying to explain to the outside world what Ukraine is going through. It’s occasionally a schizophrenic experience.

Are there any last thoughts that you have about the books?

I really want people to discover Ukrainian literature. As I was trying to think of books I could recommend, I realized how much of this literature has not been translated. You would think that after the full-scale invasion, publishers would be knocking on our doors and begging us to give them more, and that everyone would want to publish, translate, and read Ukrainian literature. This hasn’t happened at all. Any opportunity we have to throw some light on this writing is much appreciated.

Interview by Chenxin Jiang

September 5, 2023

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Sasha Dovzhyk

Sasha Dovzhyk

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London (UIL) and editor of the London Ukrainian Review, the latest issue of which explores Ukrainian war literature. She is an associate lecturer at UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES).

Sasha Dovzhyk

Sasha Dovzhyk

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London (UIL) and editor of the London Ukrainian Review, the latest issue of which explores Ukrainian war literature. She is an associate lecturer at UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES).