10 literary reportage books to understand Ukraine

10 literary reportage books to understand Ukraine

Before the Russian invasion of 2022, many people could barely find Ukraine on the world map. Now, the names of Ukrainian cities resonate on daily international news casts in the most tragic of circumstances. Yet their intimate pre-war histories - containing multitudes of lives, wishes and daily struggles - remain mostly unknown to the outside world.

PEN Ukraine recently published a list of fiction and non-fiction books in English to help international audiences better understand Ukraine. Now we are showcasing a collection of literary reportage that may appeal to readers abroad. Sometimes the best way to discover the real Ukraine is by giving the floor to ordinary people.

Stanislav Aseyev, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street (English translation by Nina Murray and Zenia Tompkins, 2021)

The rule of law does not apply to the Russian torture camp in occupied Donetsk. Humiliation, pain and terror are a day-to-day reality for prisoners, with bones frequently broken by guards, bodies scorched, and individual will crushed. The only remaining wish for those held captive there is to survive and stay sane. Faith, hatred, and a passing glance between executioner and victim take on new meaning in the most inhumane of conditions, where sometimes it seems no one is in control.

The Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev wrote this account in a bid to stay sane through the hell of the Donetsk torture camp. His unflinching, detailed work raises troubling questions about the nature of human conduct during war, in which the lives of those held captive will forever remain divided into an irreversible "before" and "after".

Nataliia Humeniuk, The Lost Island. A Book of Reportage from Occupied Crimea

The renowned Ukrainian journalist Nataliia Humeniuk made a series of reporting trips to occupied Crimea after the Kremlin seized the peninsula in 2014. Her Lost Island is a troubling collection of personal stories, each an illustration of a life forever changed by the annexation. Businessmen, retirees, students, public activists, soldiers, and human rights advocates, Crimean Tatars are all heard trying to come to terms with their new existence. Voices of people from all backgrounds and political persuasions cry out with devastation and dread.

Lost Island depicts occupied Crimea as it really is. In this polyphony of hidden stories, disparate lives are laced into a common continuing history of the peninsula.

Vira Kuryko, The Street of Those Involved. The File on Lukianenko from Chernihiv

Kuryko’s work delves into the hidden lives of common people involved in the second arrest of the dissident Levko Lukianenko during his residence in Soviet-era Chernihiv. Who are these people? Do they still remember those hushed conversations and seemingly insignificant decisions? Do they still consider their actions a matter of self-protection? Or were they acts of complicity? These days, one of the main streets of their town might be named after the man who the Soviet authorities were so afraid of. But it seems the former colleagues and onetime neighbours of the late Lukianenko are not quite ready to embrace a new reality.

Denys Kazanskyi, Black Fever: The Illegal Coal Mining in Donbas

This book of reportage is a detailed observation of life in Donbas during the last 20 years. It is also an incisive investigation into illegal mining, government protection rackets, workers’ deaths and fortunes made by local elites.

Oleh Kryshtopa, Ukraine: Scale 1:1

In his book, Oleh Kryshtopa attempts to observe Ukraine in microcosm, on a scale of 1:1. He travels throughout the mass of the country, speaking with people the middle of nowhere, hearing their grievances and witnessing their transformations amidst an ever-changing landscape in a land both endearing and intruging.

Les Beley, The Dashing Nineties: Fear and Loathing in Uzhgorod

In The Dashing 90s, Les Beley provides a cultural exegesis of Uzhgorod as the 20th Century draws to a close. Political transformation, unhinged capitalism, daily survival, all manner of smuggling, and the rise of the pop culture are seared into the memories of a pivotal decade in Ukraine’s recent history.

Elizaveta Honcharova, Somewhere Around Here Is War

Winner of the 2016 national Literary Reportage Award, Honcharova’s work is a mosaic of every day stories from people living in Ukraine’s frontline territories. People who need to be heard with the clarity that only a dedicated reporter’s eye can bring.

First and foremost, this book is about people whose lives were upturned by war. Neither children, nor even pets escaped atrocities. This account is replete with the unheard voices of those who go on living while there is war somewhere around them.

Pavlo Stekh, Catcher in the Rust

At times, even a simple train can define us somehow. Such was the suggestion of Pavlo Stekh when he started his journey around the country, train by suburban train. His reportage recalls a familiar panoply of alcohol, jokes about Leonid Brezhnev, noisy children, cabmen, pop songs from the 1990s, and, of course, a lot of rust. Stekh struggles to remain a silent observer in jam-packed carriages and bustling provincial stations, where the grime of life leans in, sits you down and leaves a man no option but to interact.

Veni. Vidi. Scripci: Life in the City

15 of the best reports from the 7th Samovydets Literary Reporting Award are showcased in this collection. The towns and cities of the future: their struggles with development, their traumas of the 20th century, their latest injuries of war – these are the topics the authors explore. Wrapped in 15 very different plots are stories of Kyiv, Lviv and Chernihiv in both modern and Soviet times, alongside accounts from the streets of occupied Crimea and Donbas.

Olesya Yaremchuk, Our Others: Stories of Ukrainian Diversity (English translation by Zenia Tompkins and Hanna Leliv, 2020)

Ukraine is a homeland for dozens different peoples, and millions of stories and memories – among them Germans, Armenians, Meskhetian Turks, Romanians, Swedes, and many others. As a reporter, Olesya Yaremchuk visited numerous towns and villages, from Donbas and Bukovina to Bessarabia and Transcarpathia, to sketch the everyday life of minorities in Ukraine and their stories of the past. 14 memorable chapters explore the people and communities who represent the kaleidoscope of Ukranian life.

Translator – Anna Vovchenko
Editor – Joel Keep









April 4, 2022
Support our work

We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.

Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.

Support PEN

We recommend viewing: