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Summer Reading List: Books That Will Help You Understand The War In Ukraine

2022 May 29
by Greg Satell

No matter what’s going on during the year, I always look forward to summer. I love the heat and, despite spending 15 years in frigid Eastern European countries, I hate the cold. Every year I find myself counting the days before I can slap on gobs of sunscreen and while away the hours underneath the sun.

Of course, one of my favorite things to do at the beach or by the pool is to read. There’s something about summer that helps me block out whatever else is going on and focus on the book in front of me. So every year I find myself looking for good books that will make the time and effort worth it.

Today, the world is focused on a country I know well, but most people are unfamiliar with. To a surprising extent, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads of world affairs, with conflicts between east and west, democracy and authoritarianism, populism and globalism in the balance, it’s a war we must win. This summer’s list focuses on understanding why.

The Gates Of Europe by Serhey Plokhii

One of the more difficult things about the crisis, and the Russian invasions that brought it about, is that Ukraine that seems foreign and far away. It has a complicated history, was dominated by one or another power most of the time and shares strong linguistic and cultural heritage with both Russia and Poland. Russia uses these nuances to undermine Ukraine’s nationhood.

This book by Serhey Plokhi, who leads Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, provides an excellent guide to Ukraine’s history and culture. It’s clear, comprehensive and does vastly more than simply retell events, it help you understand why these people have fought so hard and for so long to forge a national identity.

Get it now


The Revenge of Power by Moisés Naím

Almost a decade ago, Moisés Naím, wrote The End of Power, about how technological and other forces were undermining the traditional roles of large institutions. From the corporate world and organized religion to governments and nonprofits, power had become, “easier to get, but harder to use or keep.”

This book shows how autocrats, corporations and other powerful institutions are undermining that process of power dilution through the “3Ps” of populism, polarization and post-truth, which is exactly what Putin’s Russia has been promoting not just at home, but throughout Europe and in the United States.

Get it now


Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on any subject. A gifted writer and historian, Snyder writes about Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s German as part of one big microcosm, which developed in close, if often adversarial, connection to each other. I found it incredibly insightful and eye-opening, even after living in the region for 15 years.

Another book by Snyder that is also worth taking a look at is On Tyranny, which explains through “20 lessons from the 20th century” how autocratic regimes take hold. It offers telltale signs of what to look for, such as the corruption of the judiciary. It’s very short and a great companion to Naím’s The Revenge of Power.

Get it now


Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

Like Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum is among the most insightful historians of Eastern Europe and in Iron Curtain she picks up where he leaves off in Bloodlands. Set in the years after World War II, she describes, in amazing detail, how people were forced to adjust to the inhuman society that Stalin created in the Eastern Bloc, the same society Putin is trying to recreate now.

You also might want to check out Red Famine, which recounts the story of Holodomor, the forced starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the early 1930s. Many like to point out that Stalin achieved impressive economic growth during this period, but fail to note that he used the grain seized from Ukrainians to finance industrialization.

A similar crime is now being repeated by Putin, as he steals thousands of tons of grain from occupied territories and attempts to sell it abroad.

Get Iron Curtain      Get Red Famine


Revolution in Orange edited by Anders Aslund & Michael McFaul

The seeds of today’s events in Ukraine were sown in 2004. That was the inflection point. It was then that millions of Ukrainians decided that they would no longer simply accept a corrupt, immoral regime dictated to them by Russia, but would demand to choose their fate for themselves as a sovereign, independent country.

Surprisingly little has been written about those days, which is why this wonderful little volume is such a treasure. Edited by two noted scholars of the region, it compiles expert essays about every aspect of the events. If you want to deeply understand how things evolved to this point, this is a great place to start.

Get it now


Cascades by Greg Satell

I wrote Cascades to be a guide to creating change, not as a history book. However, the two chapters that I devoted to Ukraine, which cover both the Orange Revolution and the later Euromaidan protests that led to the Revolution of Dignity, will give you an understanding about how those two sets of events are linked.

Perhaps even more importantly it will help you understand how important the struggle in Ukraine is. The conflict is not about land, geopolitical “spheres of influence” or even “great power” politics, but about the basic values that will determine the world we get to live in. It shows that it is not only crucial that we win the war in Ukraine, but also that we survive that victory.

Get it now


We Need To Talk About Putin by Mark Galeotti

Mark Galeotti is one of the most insightful observers of Russia today, especially with regard to its security services. His In Moscow’s Shadows podcast is really the best place to understand the various factions and intrigues within the Kremlin and elsewhere in Russia. We Need To Talk About Putin gives that kind of perspective.

One of the most interesting things about the book is actually what isn’t in it. Galeotti notes that Putin has been, historically, somewhat risk averse, although clever about going up to the line without crossing it. That clearly changed in February, which has helped fuel speculation about Putin’s health and state of isolation.

Another book of his worth reading is his A Short History of Russia, which at just 176 pages, is delightfully short, but still amazingly helpful.

Get it now


Putin’s Russia by Anna Politikovskaya & The Man Without A Face by Masha Gessen

Of course, it’s impossible to understand current events in Ukraine without understanding Vladimir Putin and these two books, both by prominent Russian writers who practiced on-the-ground reporting in their native language in Moscow, provide essential background. They are both excellent.

Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s leading journalists until she was brutally murdered in 2006, just two years after Putin’s Russia was published. Throughout her career she was subjected to continued threats and assassination attempts, but continued to investigate so that the truth could get out. Gessen continues to be a leading voice on Russian issues.

Get Putin’s Russia      Get The Man Without A Face


Prisoners Of Geography by Tim Marshall

One of the most underrated aspects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and world affairs in general — is the impact of geography. While Russian history, Ukrainian national aspirations and economics all play important roles, issues like access to the Black Sea and the location of the Carpathian Mountains are also supremely important.

In Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall not only surveys the maps of ten major regions throughout the world, he makes Russia a particular focus, devoting the very first chapter and a large part of the introduction to Russia. Although it was published in 2015, explains why geographical pressures made the invasion of Ukraine likely.

Get it now



So that’s my list for this summer. If you would like to add a suggestion of your own, please feel free to do that in the comments section.



Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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