It’s Time to Meet the Other Zelinsky: A Review of Misha Zelinsky’s The Sun Will Rise by Nicole Yurcaba

After Russia’s full-scale invasion began, global audiences everywhere became very familiar with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy’s fearlessness and courage inspired support for Ukraine’s survival and her people among many who had, prior to 2022, never even heard of Ukraine. However, what many do not know is that there is another, just as admirable, person bearing the same (but, yes, spelled differently) surname as Ukraine’s president—journalist Misha Zelinsky, a leading expert on the global rise of authoritarianism who spent 2022 and 2023 covering the war from inside Ukraine. Zelinsky’s book The Sun Will Rise, inspired by real events that happened in Ukraine, is sure to gain the other Zelinsky a wide readership and establish him as a thoughtful voice in the ever-evolving realm of Ukrainian literature focusing on the full-scale invasion.

The Sun Will Rise follows the brave heroine Oksana Shevchenko, who watches as those known as the Occupiers, who enter the city of Heryvin under the direction of the young, ruthless Mikhailovich. Mikhailovich forces Oksana and her Union comrades to begin operating the local power plant under their direction, despite the power plant’s lack of personnel. However, Oksana is not the only brave, stalwart character readers meet in Zelinsky’s novel. They cross paths with Elena, the school principal who lost her husband and her son in the war and knows the true cost of the Homeland’s freedom. They learn a lesson about patriotism from young Katya, who risks her own life to share her love of the homeland with others, and they witness a grandmother’s innovative trickery carried out using an usual weapon—a few bowls of borsch. It is this wide, distinctive cast of characters that not only etch the plot of Zelinsky’s novel into readers’ minds but also remind readers of real-life Ukrainian heroes who accomplished the unthinkable in the face of an evil dictator’s masterplan.

Part of the allure of Zelinsky’s novel is Zelinsky’s own writing approach. Rather than outright name the aggressor as Russia and the homeland as Ukraine, they are renamed as “the Motherland” and “the Homeland.” An incident—simply referred to as “The Accident”—is implicative of the 1986 Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Even the Homeland’s flag—a combination of yellow and blue—is an inverted version of the real Ukrainian flag of blue (representing the sky) over yellow (symbolizing Ukraine’s golden wheat). These inversions and linguistic minimalizations do not diminish the novel’s testaments to Ukrainian bravery or the Ukrainian people’s fortitude. Instead, it creates an Orwellian tone throughout the novel that works in an allegorical manner to highlight the actual brutality which inspired the novel’s events.

The narrator places a careful focus on the “small acts of defiance and civic pride” that “mattered” to the civilians. The focus mirrors real scenarios in which symbols like the Ukrainian flag or the Ukrainian tryzub (trident) developed even more significance for not only Ukrainians in Ukraine, but also for those in the diaspora witnessing the war from afar. More significantly, Zelinsky’s incorporation of fictionalized versions of the symbols which help define Ukrainian identity shows the Motherland’s (i.e. Russia’s) fragility since these symbols “slowly ate away at the enemy’s resolve by letting them know they were surrounded by friendly enemies.”

Global politics also play a key role in The Sun Will Rise, but they do not dominate the novel’s internal conversation about Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. Primarily, the novel quietly encompasses a subtle critique of the West’s slowness to deliver weapons to Ukraine. The narrator describes the deliveries as “Slowly. Obstinately” and as “Precious weaponry” and “not enough to turn the tide, but perhaps enough to stop it from drowning the innocent.” The critique mirrors political conversations surrounding aid to Ukraine that have dominated policy and funding bills from all across Europe to the United States. It also, sadly, reminds readers that the longer a country defending its existence goes without aid from its allies, the more the number of innocent people dying increases, and the longer a war lasts.

One cannot read The Sun Will Rise without noting the rather beautiful “A Note from the Author” section. Very few books—and particularly novels—contain a truly heartfelt and sentimental section that effectively answers the question “Why did I write this book?” However, Zelinsky’s novel is the exception. “To spend a week in Ukraine is to fall in love for a lifetime,” writes Zelinsky at the section’s beginning. “Her vibrant cultural heritage, physical beauty and complex history are all uniquely captivating and utterly spellbinding.” Nonetheless, Zelinsky attributes Ukraine’s true beauty to her people “who maintain a sense of humour and boundless optimism under unspeakable duress.” Thus, The Sun Will Rise is a novel about the people who shape a country’s identity just as much as it is about the events that shape and reshape it. Zelinsky adroitly portrays Ukrainians’ bravery and the small acts of defiance that showed its invaders that their spirit could not be broken and that their homeland was truly theirs. Zelinsky also offers readers an inside look at what is truly at stake in this war: “Ukraine is the fulcrum in a broader battle between the East and West. Between democracy and autocracy. Between the future and the past.” His words ring even more foreboding as the war enters its third year, the United States teeters at the edge of a pivotal election, and democracy across the globe faces harrowing challenges from dictators like Vladimir Putin.

The Sun Will Rise is one of the most accessible works of Ukraine-inspired fiction to receive publication. Its honesty combined with Zelinsky’s obvious admiration for Ukraine and Ukrainians make it an emotional read, one that sketches the human cost of war in such a way that readers will not forget the experiences of this book’s characters—or the individuals who appear in headlines each and every day.