War and Punishment

I just finished “War and Punishment: The story of Russian oppression and Ukranian resistance” by Mikhail Zygar. I’ve read several books on Russian and Ukranian history written by historians. Zygar isn’t a historian, and the style of this book is more of a reporter, albeit one describing history.

The writing here is vivid, if somewhat quirky. Zygar toggles frequently between present and past tense, which is sometimes distracting but can enliven the prose.

I’ve found the writing of Serhii Plokhy and Timothy Snyder that cover much of this material more authoritative, but Zygar’s purpose is different. The biggest lesson I learned from this book was how much events in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine have become dominated by media and appearances. In particular, while I knew that Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s career before becoming president of Ukraine was as a comedian, Zygar does a deep dive into that biography and we come to appreciate how such an unlikely career path, pursued by a Russian-speaking Ukranian Jew, prepared him for the present moment.

Zygar begins and ends with apologies for his previous Russian chauvinism. This book is certainly an impressive act of expiation and atonement. There are better books on the subject, but this one is good and entertaining to boot.