Mark R. Beissinger, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics at Princeton
Princeton University Office of Communications

Politics professor Mark R. Beissinger has long specialized in the topics now under international scrutiny as Russia invades Ukraine, with his scholarship covering revolutions and nationalism in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states. He has written five books on these subjects, including Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, published in 2014. His latest book, The Revolutionary City: Urbanization and the Global Transformation of Rebellion, is due out in April. 

PAW asked Beissinger to recommend three books to help readers understand the present conflict, and he suggested these.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

By Serhii Plokhy

Conflicting interpretations of the past stand at the center of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and this is the most authoritative work available on that history. Covering roughly the millennium from the Viking princes to Ukrainian independence, Plokhy weaves a nuanced story of the making of a country situated on the western edge of the steppes and the eastern edge of Europe that is repeatedly contested over by neighboring empires, each of which has left its marks on Ukraine’s regions, as well as a bloody trail in its wake. Sadly, these same forces are playing themselves out once again in the current invasion.

Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War

By Paul D’Anieri

For those interested in learning about the international and domestic origins of the war, D’Anieri’s straightforward account of Russian-Ukrainian encounters after independence and the conflict in the Donbas is a good place to start. Rather than focus on personalities, D’Anieri instead emphasizes the inexorable confrontation between two larger forces: European enlargement and democratization in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s desire to retain its “great power” status and domination over its immediate neighborhood. He shows not only how and why these conflicting forces have produced widespread bloodshed on Europe’s edge, but also the ways in which domestic politics in both Ukraine and Russia has been intimately intertwined with these struggles.

The Orphanage: A Novel

By Serhiy Zhadan

This dark and gritty tale of the war in Donbas by one of Ukraine’s leading writers conveys the story of Pasha, a schoolteacher who sets out to retrieve his nephew from an orphanage as war encroaches on his Ukrainian city. Ukraine is the obvious metaphorical orphan, abandoned to its own devices to eke out its survival. The Orphanage provides a taste of the madness of war in Ukrainian cities and the lives ripped apart by the Russian invasion today. As Pasha reflects, “You had to wind up here, in the middle of hell, to feel how much you had and how much you’ve lost.”