Teachers are undoubtedly scrambling to address the Russian-Ukrainian war in their classrooms, and many probably feel underprepared to talk about a war in an area about which they may have little expertise. One of my guiding pedagogical principles is that, in a history classroom, providing context is often more powerful than an exhaustive recitation of facts. That is, you can do a lot this semester to address the war in Ukraine without late-night deep dives into the history of Kievan Rus. There are of course many, many experts providing us with essential facts about the war – and I’m grateful to them. However, there are ways to expand upon the topics already included in your modern US survey (whether at the postsecondary or high school level) to help students better grasp some key elements of the conflict.
1. History and Power
The war in Ukraine is not limited to weapons. It is also a fight about history. In his speech on February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out his version of history that claimed Ukraine is not a sovereign nation, and he has long argued that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” (The New York Times’ The Daily podcast had a very good episode breaking down the speech.) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his constituents have taken to social media to rebuff such claims, with Zelenskyy arguing in one speech that Russian soldiers “have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all.”
This conflict over how to frame the story of Ukraine is a reminder of how historical narratives make our world and the power of controlling such narratives. Undoubtedly, your students have already watched videos explaining the history of Ukraine on Tik-Tok or YouTube–draw their attention to how they themselves are participating in this fight over history. We cannot teach our students enough the lesson that history matters, and exploring it in our classrooms opens up an opportunity to reflect on the inevitable stakes we all have in the creation of history.
2. The Power of World War II in Our Global Memory
The history and mythology of World War II have been infused into much of the rhetoric surrounding the start of this war. Putin has exploited this powerful memory in his calls to “de-Nazify” the Ukrainian government, which is an attempt to rally his soldiers around the memory of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. In contrast, Ukrainians have invoked the war by drawing parallels between Adolf Hilter and Putin – both began their attacks on Ukraine with an early morning bombing of Kyiv. In a speech to the United Nations on February 28, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya argued the attacks paralleled the beginning of WWII. On March 1, the Russians bombed a TV tower in Kyiv that is very close to the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site, a place where Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews between 1941 and 1943. Zelenskyy criticized the act as “history repeating.”
Very importantly, these countries are presenting the war as a high-water mark of national power, unity, and bravery. This is not an unfamiliar story to your students, who have grown up steeped in the mythology of WWII in the United States. As you teach WWII, make space for discussion about the memory of the war; texts such as Michael C. C. Adams’s The Best War Ever (1993) or Elizabeth D. Samset’s new book, Looking for the Good War (2021), offer a good place to start. Ask students if they’ve seen discourse about WWII in the media. Helping your students understand how WWII memory is so closely tied to contemporary politics offers an accessible way to unlock this war. It is also useful to consider that it comes at the moment when we are losing our last firsthand witnesses to WWII. How might the war be shaping the memory of an event that is increasingly known only through records?
3. Give the Anti-Nuclear Movement Some Attention
Now more than ever, we are all contemplating what it means to live in a world where nuclear weapons exist. And some of us are undoubtedly asking if they should exist. Add the histories of anti-nuclear organizations like the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), Women Strike for Peace, or the Anti-Civil Defense Protestors to your discussion of Cold War politics. Adding the parallel story of anti-nuclear activism to the story of US nuclear development helps underscore not only how relatively new this technology is, but that it did not emerge without debate, criticism, and protest. Help your students understand they are inheriting an issue that is still very much undecided.
4. Televised War vs. Digital War
People are already referring to the war between Russia and Ukraine as a “Tik-Tok” war and noting the powerful way that antiwar Russian influencers are undercutting the Russian government’s arguments for war. As you discuss the Vietnam War this semester, ask students how much of their information about Ukraine has come from Tik-Tok or other social media sites, and then relate that to the growth of an antiwar movement during Vietnam. There are also important links you can make to the Gulf Wars and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which were televised with very different results. I think it is notable that many Ukrainians speak English and appear white, allowing them to directly connect with US audiences. Consider the ways that media – television, radio, and social media – can both humanize and dehumanize a group of people.
5. Give Attention to the End of the Cold War
I assume many US history teachers will turn their attention to the creation of NATO in 1949, but perhaps a more important place to beef up in your curriculum is with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In many history classrooms, the end of the Cold War is at best mentioned quickly at the end of the semester, and at worst uncritically celebrated as an American, capitalist victory. In my experience in the classroom, while students grasp the significance of 9/11, the fall of the Soviet Union barely registers as a major historic event.
There are two important things we can explore here. First, is the idea that history ended in 1991 (famously articulated by Francis Fukuyama in his essay, “The End of History?”). This is the notion that the world was settled by the destruction of the Soviet Union, leaving the West and capitalism triumphant forever. Students need to understand that we are, almost exactly thirty years later, living through the consequences of that arrogant assumption. They are growing up in the decline of the “American Century.”
Tied to this is a second point. The 1990s were an incredibly difficult decade for the citizens of the former Soviet Union. Shock Therapy capitalism and the overnight emergence of oligarchs led to intense poverty and deep suffering. A 1993 New York Times article wondered if Russia, a “huge, humiliated nation,” would “stoically bear the pain of the transition” to a free market. It is crucial to understand that Putin built his political career in the 2000s by promising Russians that he would build the country back stronger and end this humiliation. Now more than ever, the 1990s is a decade we need to focus on in the classroom.
6. Complicate the “Evil Empire” Narrative
The fact that students are now likely learning more on their own about Ukrainian history and culture can aid your US survey, because they may be receptive to view the citizens of the former Soviet Union with more humanity. It goes without saying that American culture at large still views the Soviet Union as an evil, faceless adversary. President Ronald Reagan famously called it the “evil empire,” an image that has been largely copied and pasted onto modern Russian politics by the media and our politicians (some of whom confusingly still refer to Russia as Communist or Soviet). The US history classroom can provide a necessary bulwark against negative stereotypes about the Soviet Union more broadly and indiscriminate Russophobia more generally. We can encourage this by listening to Ukrainian songs and watching Ukrainian films, discussing the Americans who lived and worked in the USSR in the 1920s, reading about Langston Hughes’s journey to Soviet Central Asia, or the success of the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Because this may be the first war your students are watching in real-time, it can be an entry point into the complexities of war and the shortcomings of a simple “good” versus “evil” narrative.
Hopefully these ideas help give you some confidence to tackle such a huge event in your classroom. Even small additions, a few minutes at a time, to your lectures for the rest of the semester can have a significant impact.