Films and books about Ukraine
Ukraine is all over the media right now. People who knew nothing about Ukraine before, not even where it was, are hearing all about what is happening there and giving their opinions on why it is happening and what should be done. We lived and taught in Ukaine for 7 years and so have learned a lot about the history of the region, through visiting places, speaking to people and doing our own background reading. We therefore want to share with you some films and books about Ukraine that you can look up, to find out more yourself. It’s important, in a time of fake news, that we seek information from sources other than just social media.
These are all books that we have either read, or are on our reading list, and films and series that we have seen. We aren’t going to describe the whole contents, as this would take away from the much better writers and film makers who created them, but just give you an idea of where there is out there for you to learn more.
If you want to find out more about how we left Ukraine in February 2022, you can read our post We need to talk about Ukraine
Books about Ukraine
Borderlands: A journey through the history of Ukraine by Anna Reid
Probably one of the first books about Ukraine that we read, it is part travelogue, part history book, which Anna Reid wrote in the 1990s as she explored the country following independence from the Soviet Union. She meets and talks to different Ukrainians from different regions and ethnic groups to tell the story of the country’s history. Covering the foundation of Kyivian Rus, the relationships with surrounding countries, particularly Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as, of course, the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
It was republished in 2015 following the 2014 Revolution, the Russian anexation of Crimea and the start of the war in the Donbass region, with 10 extra chapters covering this period.
The travel aspect of it really brings the country to life, and the stories make the history memorable and easy to follow. We have both read this book and learned a lot from it, not only about Ukraine but also about the whole region of Europe.
The Gates of Europe: A history of Ukraine by Sergei Plokhy
This is one we haven’t got around to reading yet, but we intend to. More of a pure history book than the above, it goes into the differences between the different regions of the country in both history and people, from the ‘red’ Vikings who apparently caused the name ‘Rus’, through the Cossacks, wars with Poland and Lithuania and
Prisoners of Geography: Tim Marshall
Tim Marshall’s Ten Maps to tell you everything you need to know about global politics seems to be on the shelves of many bookshops in the UK right now, so easy to pick up. One of the chapters talks about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the geopolitics behind it.
Red Famine by Anne Applebaum
For some more context of the history of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, this book describes another terrible period, Holodomor, from 1931-32 when an estimated 4.5 million people in Ukraine starved in a famine caused by Statlin’s collective farming policy. The books goes into the background of the prosperous peasants in the Ukraine region who had wanted their own independence following the Russian Revolution, which resulted in Stalin believing that they were hiding grain, and not that there wasn’t even enough to feed themselves.
This was something we had never heard about before moving to Ukraine. The Holodomor memorial in Kyiv houses thick books of the names of those who had died during the famine, with different books for different reasons. This was powerful enough, but more so when a Ukrainian colleague told us that when she went there, she found the names of her and her husband’s relatives.
The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy
This is the book that Kris was about to start reading before we left Ukraine, and it’s next on his reading list. Another book about Ukraine by Serghii Plokhy, it details the last weeks of the Soviet Union in 1991, and discusses whether it was the West that brought it down, or also Ukraine and their passionate desire for independence. Definitely one to read if you want to know more about the situation now.
Chernobyl: A history of a tragedy by Serhii Pokhy
The third on our list of books about Ukraine from Sergei Plokhy tells the events of the Chernobyl disaster through the stories of those who were directly involved, and goes into the background of how this terrible event came about, both practically and politically.
When it happened in 1986, we didn’t really know where it was. I mean, we were children, but we don’t remember hearing about Ukraine particularly in relation to it. When we moved here, we went to the excellent Chernobyl museum in Podil, housed in one of the fire stations that responded to the disaster. Inside there is an increadibly well-laid out display of items taken from the site and the exclusion zone, belonging to people who died and those who survived. We had no idea until we visited quite the scale of the exclusion zone, that the other reactors at Chernobyl continued to work until December 1999. There’s a lot more to learn.
Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kyiv by Andrey Kurkov
Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov was living in a flat by Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Freedom Square) during the Maidan protests which began in November 2013 and ended in February 2014. He kept a diary during this time of the events he was witnessing both the events in the city and on the media, as well as his day to day life during this period. As a novelist, his writing is fascinating to read and he gives his thoughts and feelings about the time.
Films and TV shows about Ukraine
This is the one that we imagine most of you have seen, the HBO miniseries about the events around the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
The scenes of Moscow here were actually filmed in Kyiv, and we saw the filming around our flat. One Sunday morning, they had closed off Bogdan Khemelnyski Street and set it all with 1980s signs and cars. We had no idea what it was for until the series came out and we spotted our local area in the shots.
Mr Jones: available in the UK on Amazon Prime
Returning to the topic of the great famine in Ukraine in 1931-32, this film tells the story of Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who visited Ukraine during the period to uncover the truth about rumours about the famine. Finding horrific scenes of starvation around him, he was captured and returned to the UK. However, he struggled to find anyone who would believe him.
Winter on Fire: Netflix
We arrived in Ukraine in February 2014, while the Maidan protests were ongoing and shortly before the revolution to overthrow President Yanocovich, who was refusing to aline Ukraine more towards Europe and further from Russia. This was a very contentious issue, but brought Ukrainians to stage a three month protest in the main square in Kyiv, ending in violence in February when 100 protestors were killed.
The Winter on Fire documentary was put together from video footage and interviews with people during the period.
Donbass: BFI Player
This film is one we haven’t seen yet, which chronicles the conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the Donbass region of Ukraine. It’s not a documentary, its an apparently satirical feature film on the propaganda produced by Russia about what was happening in the region. It has been criticised for being both truthful, but also one sided, as many things are, but is can show some of what was happening.
Servant of the People: Netflix
The face of President Zelensky of Ukraine is now one that many people would recognise worldwide. Did you know that he didn’t come from a politics background? In fact, he was a comedian, actor and producer until standing for the presidential elections in 2019. In the TV series, Servant of the People, he plays a high school teacher who is elected as president after his students crowdfund his campaign.
Whatever his background and people’s opinions on his election, I don’t think we can doubt now his commitment to his country.
That’s our round up of the films and books about Ukraine that we have read and personally recommend. I mean, there are lots more. I’m sure lots of them are great. But we still prefer to talk about what we know! Alternatively, take a look at all of our blog posts on living and travelling Ukraine, to see what this country used to be like.
Please take some time to choose at least something to read or watch to learn more about the tragic situation that Ukraine is facing now.
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