Five of the best works of fiction about Ukraine

Depeche Mode
by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Myroslav Shkandrij (Ukrainian 2004, English 2013)

Serhiy Zhadan’s 2004 debut follows a ragtag group of extravagantly alcoholic teenagers as they traverse post-Soviet Ukraine. The “eternally hungry crew, held together by no one knows what”, with names like Dogg Pavlov and Cocoa the Donbas Intellectual, go on a mission to track down their friend Sasha Carburetor, who has disappeared to a “laboring class camp” ahead of his stepfather’s funeral.

Dark and apocalyptic, with a sprinkling of slapstick comedy, Zhadan’s novel is full of characters who are indifferent to everything from “culture [to] the weather forecast” but find their lives permeated by the politics of their surroundings.

Lucky Breaks
by Yevgenia Belorusets, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky (Russian 2018, English 2022)

Published in English earlier this month, Lucky Breaks is the first work of fiction by the Ukrainian artist, photographer and writer Yevgenia Belorusets. In this collection of short stories, she focuses on the lives of women in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and the numerous subtle acts of heroism that pervade their daily existence. Folklore and humor combine with sadness and an ever-present sense of threat to give a complex insight into a multifaceted region.

gray bees
by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Russian 2018; English 2020)

Set in 2017 in Little Starhorodivka, a village in Ukraine’s Gray Zone, a no man’s land between loyalist and separatist forces in the Donbas region, gray bees follows retired safety inspector-turned-beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich as he moves his bees to safety from the conflict on his doorstep. “The war,” Kurkov writes, “had n’t made Sergeyich fear for his life from him. . . it was as if he has lost all feeling. . . except for one: his sense of responsibility from him ”to his bees from him. Translated into English by Boris Dralyuk, the story of Sergey’s desire to find a place for his bees “where the fields were n’t pockmarked by craters. . . where you could walk. . . through woods, across meadows and along country roads” is told with Kurkov’s signature political humour.

Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex
by Oksana Zabuzhko, translated by Halyna Hyrn (Ukrainian 1996, English 2011)

First published in Ukraine in 1996, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex has been called “the most influential Ukrainian book [since] independence” and become an international phenomenon. Reeling from a recently ended affair with a Ukrainian artist, the poet and visiting Harvard Slavic studies professor at the center of Zabuzhko’s novel reflects on the abuse she endured and the love she felt during the relationship. In unpicking her recollections of her, the nameless protagonist unravels how intricately her experience of her was tied to her Ukrainian identity of her and explores the cultural intersections between Ukrainian and American culture.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
by Marina Lewycka (2005)

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was German-born writer Marina Lewycka’s 2005 debut and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Lewycka, who is of Ukrainian origin, grew up in Britain and her novel by Ella finds the humor in one culture encountering another. The story is set in Peterborough, where sisters Vera and Nadezhda put aside their differences to save their émigré father from Ukrainian divorcee Valentina, who explodes “into [their] lives like a fluffy pink grenade.”

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