As all eyes turn to Ukraine, audiobook listeners can dive beneath the roiling surface of each day’s news to better understand the history, culture and experiences of Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans.
For a thorough overview of Ukrainian history from ancient times to the recent past, try Serhii Plokhy’s “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.” Harvard Professor Plokhy brings expertise and nuance to the complex history of an embattled people poised between East and West, and their emerging quest for national and civic identity after centuries of domination by Huns, Vikings, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Swedes, Poles, Germans and Russians. Somewhat less nuanced is British narrator Ralph Lister’s emphatic delivery, which has the ring of a cable news anchor and may be best taken in small doses.
Those seeking a briefer and more up-to-date crash course on Ukrainian history will enjoy Serhy Yekelchyk’s 2020 title “Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know.” With calm authority, narrator Joel Richards takes listeners through an overview events up to and including Russian incursions into the Donbas region, the election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s unwilling involvement in American electoral politics. For an expert insider’s perspective on the last of these, listen to “Here, Right Matters: An American Story,” by retired Lt. Col. (and Ukrainian emigrant) Alexander S. Vindman, whose testimony regarding President Trump’s extortive phone call to President Zelenskyy in July of 2019 placed him at the center of impeachment hearings later that year, and ultimately lead to his being sidelined in the military. Related with affable restraint by Jacques Roy, Vindman’s struggle of conscience highlights the quiet, self-effacing patriotism of the dedicated civil servants in the so-called “deep state,” and the cruel irony of a nation struggling to free itself from a legacy of corruption, only to be suborned into shady dealings by the leader of the free world.
Younger listeners can understand something of the past and present struggles of Ukrainians with “Don’t Tell the Nazis,” one of several children’s novels by Canadian Ukrainian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch based on the real experiences of Ukrainian people during and after World War II. When the Germans roll into her village in 1941, young Krystia is among the elated crowds throwing flowers in the air and greeting them as liberators from Soviet oppression. After all, as the saying goes, “Good things come from the West, Bad things come from the East.” And even the doubters reckon that after all, how could the Germans possibly be worse? The grim answer to that question is delivered with heartfelt emotion and a sense of hopeful determination by accomplished narrator Kathleen McInerney, convincing as the 12-year-old Krystia in her struggle to resist tyranny, whatever the cost.
Lev Golinkin was eleven years old in 1989 when he and his family fled the teetering Soviet state, part of a vast exodus of Ukrainian Jews seeking to leave behind generations of antisemitic persecution for the promise of a new life. The family’s scant belongings are summed in the title of Golinkin’s gripping and frequently hilarious memoir, “A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir,” referring to a stuffed toy named “Comrade Bear” and a supply of bottles to bribe officials along the way. Golinkin’s family was entirely secular — “I was about as interested in Judaism as I was in cannibalism,” Golinkin writes — and only later as an adult with children of his own did he move past pain and stigma to embrace his heritage. Narrator Daniel Gamburg hits all the right notes, leavening darker moments with wry understatement and portraying with an array of accents his family’s dangerous journey from Soviet oppression to the bewilderments of small-town life in Indiana.
The gallows humor in Maria Reva’s devastating collection of sardonic and surreal stories starts with the title: “Good Citizens Need Not Fear: Stories.” From such grim Kafkaesque scenarios as the plight of a tenant seeking to restore heating to an apartment building that the government insists doesn’t actually exist, Reva’s stories take unpredictable flights of fancy reminiscent of Ukraine’s own fabulist master Nikolai Gogol. Curious metamorphoses carry the listener from the bureaucratic absurdities of the Soviet era to the bizarre, winner-take-all ethos of late stage capitalism. The mummified body of a forgotten orphan is repurposed as a Holy relic, which then becomes a moneymaking attraction. The menacing surveillance of a party apparatchik turns into a sadomasochistic tryst, and then an employment opportunity. A talented ensemble cast of narrators perfectly capture the droll ambivalence of Reva’s prose, conveying the oddest premises with deadpan seriousness, and recounting sometimes horrific imagery with lightness and wonder. The result is a unsettling dive into the Ukrainian psyche.