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Cecil the Lion Had to Die

Cecil the Lion Had to Die

Olena Stiazhkina

Translated by Dominique Hoffmann

ISBN 9780674291645

Publication date: 08/06/2024

“Filled with gut-wrenching anecdotes and rousing prose, this is an alarming look at the human toll of Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine.”

—Publishers Weekly

In 1986 Soviet Ukraine, two boys and two girls are welcomed into the world in a Donetsk maternity ward. Following a Soviet tradition of naming things after prominent Communist leaders from far away, a local party functionary offers great material benefits for naming children after Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party from 1925 to 1933. The fateful decision is made, and the local newspaper presents the newly born Ernsts and Thälmas in a photo on the front page, forever tying four families together.

In Cecil the Lion Had to Die, Olena Stiazhkina follows these families through radical transformations when the Soviet Union unexpectedly implodes, independent Ukraine emerges, and neoimperial Russia occupies Ukraine’s Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Just as Stiazhkina’s decision to transition to writing in Ukrainian as part of her civic stance—performed in this book that begins in Russian and ends in Ukrainian—the stark choices of family members take them in different directions, presenting a multifaceted and nuanced Donbas.

A tour de force of stylistic registers, intertwining stories, and ironic voices, this novel is a must-read for those who seek deeper understanding of how Ukrainian history and local identity shapes war with Russia.


  • Olena Stiazhkina is a historian and award-winning Ukrainian writer and journalist. Her fiction, under the pen name Olena Iurska, includes short stories, novels, and detective stories. She was a professor of Slavic history at Donetsk National University until the occupation of the city, as well as at Mariupol State University. Having written almost exclusively in Russian before, Stiazhkina transitioned to writing in Ukrainian following the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014.
  • Dominique Hoffmann holds a degree in Russian history and a doctorate in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has taught courses in Russian language, history, and culture. Her previous translations include scientific, art, and historical publications.

Book Details

  • 200 pages
  • 5 x 8 inches
  • Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

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