To better understand the background to the Russia-Ukraine war, we have put together a reading list of Yale books with relevant free extracts of each. We hope that these extracts will help to shed light on the history, socio-economic and political relations of Ukraine and Russia.
A highly-regarded general history of Ukraine from expert Professor Andrew Wilson of UCL. This is from 2015 so doesn’t cover recent events but it is essential background reading.
“Expect the unexpected in this compelling and highly original reinterpretation of Ukraine’s past and present.”—Serhii Plokhy, author of Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy
Read Chapter 8. Independence: Gained or Gifted from The Ukrainians below. This extract looks at how Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Maidan Revolution in 2014 ousted Ukraine’s Putin-aligned president Viktor Yanukovych and pushed the country closer to the West. In this lyrical and intimate book, Marci Shore evokes the human face of the Revolution.
“The Ukrainian Night . . . seeks to portray the ideals that animated the protesters. Shore succeeds admirably, particularly because she tells the story through their words. . . . Her depictions of the sights, sounds and smells on the Maidan [are] superb.”—Rajan Menon, New York Times Book Review
This has been described as one of the best novels about the current war in Ukraine. Recalling the brutal landscape of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to Arms, The Orphanage is a devastating story of the struggle of civilians caught up in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“Brilliantly rendered into English by Reilly Costigan‑Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, draws on Dante to offer a vivid glimpse of the current inferno in Eastern Ukraine…Costigan‑Humes and Stackhouse Wheeler do a masterly job.”—Amelia Glaser, Times Literary Supplement
Read an extract from The Orphanage below
Vladislav Zubok offers a major reinterpretation of the final years of the USSR, refuting the notion that the breakup of the Soviet order was inevitable. Instead, Zubok reveals how Gorbachev’s misguided reforms, intended to modernize and democratize the Soviet Union, deprived the government of resources and empowered separatism.
“A deeply informed account of how the Soviet Union fell apart.”—Rodric Braithwaite, Financial Times
Read Chapter 14. Independence from Collapse below. This extract provides details about the events leading up to the Ukrainian independence referendum in December 1991.
Learn more about the events leading to the fall of the Soviet Union in this timeline taken from the book
In his annual press conference in December 2021, Vladimir Putin said, “‘Not one inch to the East,’ they told us in the nineties. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us!”. He was referring to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s assurance in 1990 that NATO would move, “not one inch eastward” following German reunification. Putin again referenced the expansion of NATO to the east in his speech declaring war on Ukraine.
Pulling back the curtain on U.S.–Russian relations in the critical years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Putin’s rise to power, prize-winning Cold War historian M. E. Sarotte reveals the bitter clashes over NATO behind the facade of friendship and comes to a sobering conclusion: the damage did not have to happen. In this deeply researched and compellingly written book, Sarotte shows what went wrong.
“Prize-winning historian Mary Elise Sarotte…charts all the private discussions within the western alliance and with Russia over enlargement and reveals Russia as powerless to slow the ratchet effect of the opening of Nato’s door.”—Patrick Wintour, The Guardian
Read Chapter 1. Two Dresden Nights from Not One Inch below. This extract describes the actions undertaken by Vladimir Putin, then a Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB, in Dresden in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
From Kaliningrad on the Baltic to the Russian Far East, Ben Judah travelled throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics, conducting extensive interviews with President Vladimir Putin’s friends, foes, and colleagues, government officials, business tycoons, mobsters, and ordinary Russian citizens to provide a probing assessment of Putin’s rise to power and what it has meant for Russia and her people.
“Nothing in Vladimir Putin’s early life marked him out as a future president. A rough childhood in postwar Leningrad led to an undistinguished career as a KGB agent. Yet as journalist Ben Judah shows in this detailed and impressive account of Putin’s years in office, it was his very ‘greyness’ that enabled him to succeed in the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union.”—Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times
Read Chapter 1. The President from Nowhere from Fragile Empire below. This extract provides details on Vladimir Putin’s life before his Presidency, including interviews with his former teacher and neighbour.
In December 2013, David Satter became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War. He is known in Russia for having written that the apartment bombings in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens and brought Putin to power, were actually carried out by the Russian FSB security police.
In this book, Satter tells the story of the apartment bombings and how Boris Yeltsin presided over the criminalization of Russia, why Vladimir Putin was chosen as his successor, and how Putin has suppressed all opposition while retaining the appearance of a pluralist state.
“Provides crucial insights into Vladimir Putin. The negligible value he and his cohorts place on human life is chillingly illustrated. Here you will find a gripping account of the deliberate lethal gassing of hundreds of innocent hostages held captive by terrorists, demonstrating that seizing and holding power by any means is Putin’s stock in trade.“—Richard V. Allen, senior fellow Hoover Institution and former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan
Read Chapter 4. Selective Terror from The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep below. This extract looks at the Dubrovka and Beslan hostage takings by Chechen terrorists in Russia in the 2000s. In both instances, the Russian authorities refused to negotiate and acted instead to kill the terrorists as well as hundreds of hostages. And in both cases, there was evidence that the government had a role in instigating the original attacks.
Telling the story of Putin’s rule through pivotal episodes such as the annexation of Crimea and the War in Eastern Ukraine, Greene and Robertson draw on interviews, surveys, social media data, and leaked documents to reveal how hard Putin has to work to maintain broad popular support, while exposing the changing tactics that the Kremlin has used to bolster his popularity. Unearthing the ambitions, emotions, and divisions that fuel Russian politics, this book illuminates the crossroads to which Putin has led his country and shows why his rule is more fragile than it appears.
“Putin v the People wrestles with perhaps the central conundrum of contemporary Russia: the endurance of support for Putin amid deepening disillusionment with the present and pessimism about the future.” —Daniel Beer, The Guardian
Read Chapter 1. The People and Vladimir Putin from Putin V. People below. This extract looks at the political and social foundations of Vladimir Putin’s power in Russia.
Charles Clover, award-winning journalist and former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, here analyses the idea of “Eurasianism,” a theory of Russian national identity based on ethnicity and geography. This eye-opening analysis pieces together the evidence for Eurasianism’s place at the heart of Kremlin thinking today and explores its impact on recent events, the annexation of Crimea, the rise in Russia of anti-Western paranoia and imperialist rhetoric, as well as Putin’s sometimes perplexing political actions and ambitions.
“Part intellectual history, part portrait gallery… Black Wind, White Snow traces the background to Putin’s ideas with verve and clarity.”—Geoffrey Hosking, Financial Times
Read Chapter 13. Political Technology from Black Wind, White Snow below. This extract looks at how Putin used ‘political technology’ to win and preserve overwhelming popularity. This includes removal of competition, election fraud and gathering information on which themes resonate with the people, what they care most about and how to appeal to them.
The New Russian Empire
Agnia Grigas illustrates how—for more than two decades—Moscow has consistently used its compatriots in bordering nations for its territorial ambitions. Demonstrating how this policy has been implemented in Ukraine and Georgia, Grigas provides cutting-edge analysis of the nature of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and compatriot protection to warn that Moldova, Kazakhstan, the Baltic States, and others are also at risk.
“A compelling analysis of the drivers and methods of Moscow’s foreign policy, demonstrating how Russia leverages it compatriots and employs a mix of soft power, disinformation, cyber and hybrid warfare. This book should serve as a wake-up call for Western policy makers and their publics.” —Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Former President of the Republic of Estonia
Read an Chapter 4. Separation and Annexation from Beyond Crimea below. In this extract, analysis of Ukraine places the 2014–15 war in a broader framework of Russia’s policies, demonstrating how the annexation of Crimea as well as the ongoing separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine were gradually achieved with soft power, passportization, and information warfare policies. The case of Ukraine is contrasted to Moscow’s policies toward Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Moldova’s Transnistria and Gagauzia.
Mark Galeotti’s timely account charts the rise of the vory—as the Russian mafia is also known—a group that has survived and thrived amid the changes brought on by Stalinism, the Cold War, the Afghan War, and the end of the Soviet experiment to become Kremlin collaborators under Putin
“A timely, readable and important text for anyone thinking of ways to restrict Russian influence over the west and to punish Russia’s leadership for its crimes.”—Oliver Bullough, Observer New Review
Read Chapter 15. The Criminal Wars from The Vory below. This extract looks at the weaponisation of the vory and how criminals were used in Russia’s wars in Crimea and the Donbas.
This insightful study explores how the economic system Vladimir Putin has developed in Russia works to consolidate control over the country. By appointing his close associates as heads of state enterprises and by giving control of the FSB and the judiciary to his friends from the KGB, he has enriched his business friends from Saint Petersburg with preferential government deals. Thus, Putin has created a super wealthy and loyal plutocracy that owes its existence to authoritarianism.
Much of this wealth has been hidden in offshore havens in the US and UK, where companies with anonymous owners and black money transfers are allowed to thrive. Though beneficial to a select few, this system has left Russia’s economy in untenable stagnation, which Putin has tried to mask through military might.
“There are many books already on the Russian oligarchy, but Åslund’s is unique. He does not hesitate to name names and to identify Russian and foreign banks, financial institutions, and government agencies which have facilitated this massive and arguably historically singular episode”— Oleh Havrylyshyn, Atlantic Council
Read Chapter 5. The Expansion of Crony Capitalism from Russia’s Crony Capitalism below. This extract analyses Putin’s four most important cronies and their businesses. Putin’s cronies are a small group of private businessmen who are old personal friends of Putin from St. Petersburg who have flourished immensely under his reign, thanks to preferential deals with the government and with state enterprises, and their sons have been given privileged starts in life through early promotions.
Transnational crime expert Mark Galeotti provides a comprehensive and ground-breaking survey to the various ways in which war is now waged— everything from disinformation and espionage to crime and subversion— and how to adapt to this new reality
“This brisk everyman’s guide—straight-talking and free of jargon—is a useful tasting menu to a fast moving, constantly evolving set of problems . . . A lively reminder that war adapts to technology, that civilians are part of modern conflict whether they like it or not.”—Roger Boyes, The Times
Read Chapter 1. The Renaissance of Weaponisation below. This extract explores the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ through Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014.