Ukraine, Russia, and the Disconnect of History and Current Events

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I started my US History II class meeting a few minutes late last Thursday so that I could show my students pictures of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square. When I entered the room that morning the group was discussing the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Many had no idea where Ukraine is and few understood the significance of it having once been a part of the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, the Cold War that clouded my high school years has been replaced in relevance for today’s students by the War on Terror, which for more than twenty years now has dominated American foreign policy. 


The Lenin’s Mausoleum discussion started because I told the class that in 1989 I had the privilege of traveling to the then Soviet Union with a group of students and teachers from my suburban public high school. I shared that one of the most memorable experiences was waiting in line to pass through the Mausoleum. I can remember my seventeen-year-old self wondering if what I saw in front of me was really the physical remains of one of the founders of the Soviet Union or a wax model put in place to force citizens of the communist nation to pay homage. The students in my high school group debated the legitimacy of the body in the days that followed. We could think of no comparable memorial in the United States and its mere existence fascinated us. To our unsophisticated rationale, the willingness of the Soviet people to honor the remains of Lenin in such a public way seemed to support the arguments of American politicians that people in communist nations did not think for themselves but were, instead, puppets under the control of a brutal political ideology. Years later as a college student studying the history of the Soviet Union I learned that the reality of life under communist rule was far more complicated.


I have been thinking about that tip a lot lately because in addition to the Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) our guides brought us to Ukraine to witness life in a Soviet Republic. We toured the city of Kharkiv and saw evidence of Soviet military control in the region. The people were exceedingly friendly, though also desperate for any morsel of life outside of the USSR. I can remember more than once being asked to trade my sneakers or blue jeans for a cheap trinket. The cleaning woman on the overnight train was overjoyed when I gave her my (used) make-up as a tip, and an American dollar was worth far more to a street vendor than the rubles I so carefully counted.  


Thanks to Google I was able to quickly put pictures of the Mausoleum up on the screen for the class to view, which inevitably led to a series of questions, most of which revolved around “why”: why would a government put a long-dead body on permanent public display? Why would people wait hours to view it? And, most importantly, why did any of what I was saying relate to the current conditions in Ukraine? 


Truthfully, I assumed when I started my Google search that Lenin had been long buried by now considering the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. I was shocked to find that the body remains on display, a testament to the past and an era I believed had ended, which brings me to my most significant observation of my students’ curiosity: there is so much about world history that is completely disconnected to the lives of today’s students. While they can see up-to-the-minute reports of violence in Ukraine through social media feeds and 24-hour news stations, none of those sources provide the context for the horror currently being unleashed on the Ukrainian people. No social media post adequately explains why the Ukrainian people are so willing to fight, again, in defense of their sovereignty.


We, as teachers and historians, must be prepared to help today’s students understand not just the timeline of the Russian invasion but the much longer history of Soviet/Russian aggression in the region. Let’s start sharing resources. Have you found a web site or digital resource that is particularly helpful in explaining the complicated history of Russia and Ukraine? Share here in the comments or email me and I will compile a list of resources for a future blog.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.