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Teaching Ukraine

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963

This post is guest authored by Anna Müller

On February 22, 2022, Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, attacked Ukraine, one of the largest countries in Eastern Europe. It was an act of aggression based on fabricated threats against Russia. Ukraine found itself at war, with its major cities being bombed, civilians targeted in missile attacks, tanks and Russian soldiers penetrating the country from different geographic locations. While boys and men between 18 and 60 have been mobilized to fight this war, many women and children are moving toward the western and southern borders (to the west and south, Ukraine borders Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova). After a week of this merciless attack, over 1,000,000 people have already become refugees seeking shelter from danger for the foreseeable future.

The images shared widely on social and news media show destroyed schools, hospitals, and theaters; thousands of people hiding in basements and subway stations; children being born in the bunkers; and women and children standing in extremely long lines at various border crossings. A couple of bundles of their belongings, lots of anxiety about what lies ahead, and fear for the people they left behind are all they have. Many of them are on the move for the second or third time. Ukraine has been in a hybrid war (explained below) with Russia since 2014. 

For many of our students, this war, the way it is being narrated, the attention it has garnered, and the scale of both the courage and suffering it presents, is distressing and potentially (re)traumatizing. It awakens some anxieties and raises questions concerning the aid that we as individuals, a society, and a state can offer to the suffering people, and finally also stirs queries about the unprecedented attention that the world has given to this conflict. We cannot silence it in our classrooms. As with previous crises in recent years, it bears repeating that “times of crisis can have a significant impact on the college classroom” and that we need to do something.  

Vanderbilt’s Teaching in Times of Crisis webpage is not just a resource for teaching strategies but also summarizes why it is important for faculty to talk to their students about the crisis:

 A 2007 survey by Therese A. Huston and Michelle DiPietro (2007) reveals that “from the students’ perspective, it is best to do something. Students often complained when faculty did not mention the attacks at all, and they expressed gratitude when faculty acknowledged that something awful had occurred” (p. 219). Students report that “just about anything” is helpful, “regardless of whether the instructor’s response required relatively little effort, such as asking for one minute of silence…, or a great deal of effort and preparation, such as incorporating the event into the lesson plan or topics for the course” (p. 216). The exception, the least helpful and even most problematic responses are a “lack of response” and “acknowledging that [the crisis] had occurred and saying that the class needs to go on with no mention of opportunities for review or extra help.”  

“Teaching in Times of Crisis,” Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, 2001, revised and updated 2013.

Below I first briefly enumerate why this invasion matters to us and to our students and then I list some of the topics and lessons that have emerged from this crisis that we can try to integrate into our classrooms. 

Why should we care?

The simplest answer is we care because we are citizens of the world and injustice in one corner of the world can bring injustice anywhere else. We care because there is a lot at stake:

– Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on democracy in general. 

– Ukraine stands for values that we all should care about and protect: the right of a sovereign nation to decide its own fate and future.

– We care because ethnicity is not and should not be treated as destiny.  

– Putin’s decision to attack is an unprovoked invasion that is based on lies and a fabricated version of reality – a phenomenon that has recently become an important aspect of our reality as well, and something we need to actively fight against.  

Again, you could consider Vanderbilt’s Teaching in Times of Crisis webpage for some strategies to engage students in some of these difficult conversations. 

What can we teach about? What topics can we integrate into our classes? 

 History of Ukraine

Ukraine is an independent country with a rich culture and over one hundred years of desperate attempts to shake off the colonial yoke of neighboring countries. Just in the most recent decades, Ukrainians went to the streets twice to fight for their right to democracy and sovereignty: in 2004 (Orange Revolution) and in 2014 (Revolution of Dignity). You can find an amazing archive of resources on Ukraine, its history, society, and culture at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) and the Ukrainian Institute in London. Sometimes it is enough to play a Ukrainian song or read a Ukrainian poem to give students a sense of the country’s vast history and rich cultural horizons.

Global Problem

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is not a bizarre, one-off occurrence; we should see it in the larger context of Russia’s attempts to limit democracy in the region and undermine stability far outside of its borders. In the last two decades, Russia stirred a number of conflicts (to name just a few, in Chechnya and Georgia in 2008) in its attempts to claim its role as a global power. More recently we saw Putin meddling with the American presidential election. Last year, Putin and his Belarusian ally used the Afghani refugee crisis to further undermine security in Europe. Placing this war in a larger global context raises issues of European and worldwide security. Whether we see it as caused by dreams of a paranoid autocrat or the role of NATO in the world security system, we need to see this conflict as part of a larger whole. 

War of Disinformation 

Russia has led a hybrid war against Ukraine since 2014. This hybrid war includes not only conventional methods but also terrorist acts and irregular tactics. This hybrid war started with the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the creation of a separatist republic in Donbas. Russia is also leading a war of disinformation, starting with misrepresenting their reason for engagement in Ukraine and presenting a distorted image of the past. The manipulation of facts and history is a dangerous activity that is not limited to Russia. We should strive to help students to develop critical thinking skills and help them think critically about the information around them not only for this particular invasion but for all current and historical events.

Language creates our reality 

The words we choose to communicate matter. They communicate our understanding of the world and our system of values. Whether we name this war an ‘aggression,’ a ‘crisis,’ or a ‘conflict’ matters. The same goes with whether it’s defined as a war by Russia or Putin. By calling it Russia’s war we include in it many of the citizens of Russia, people who have been deprived of the majority of their rights. Many Russians do try to oppose as much as they can. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the first week of the war, over 6,000 Russians were arrested for protesting against it. It may be a good moment to help students realize the importance and consequences of our choice of words when discussing this war and other historical and current topics. 

War destruction and war heroism 

The images of the war that are flooding our social and news media are disturbing. On one hand, we see bombed cities and suffering civilians; on the other hand, we see those who are joining the war effort, women and the elderly operating tanks, civiliansmaking Molotov cocktails, and men declaring a readiness to die for their country. The cruelty of war is mixed with respect for the courage of those ready to sacrifice their lives. It’s both disturbing and moving. Despite moments of heroism, war always creates violence and affects individuals for years and societies for generations. The images of heroism in the war provide a promise of victory, but the price is tremendous. 

Displacement and Refugees 

As the war progresses, we increasingly see more refugees. Social and news media share images of Ukrainian children finding shelter and friendly help in neighboring countries. As a Polish citizen, my heart is warmed by the incredible help that Ukrainians are receiving in my own country that so far has received more than 50 percent of the refugees. And yet, there is something disturbing in this image if we compare it to the reluctance with which Syrian and Afghani refugees were received throughout Europe. Occasional news stories have revealed problems when African and Asian students try to leave Ukraine. This is alarming. How do we account for differences? How do we make sense of this sudden opening of hearts? What are our imagined biographies of where people belong, and what accounts for that? Higher education can build appreciation for nuance and empathy.

Resistance and the value of individual action

There is a lot that we as individuals can do, even if we live far from the countries where tragedies take place. This is something we should keep conveying to our students. Just speaking about this war and correcting misinformation is enough. This is also the moment to emphasize the importance of peace and cooperation and show our disagreement with aggression. Taking action and doing something no matter how small, helps us deal with our fears as well. 


Many of the refugees, people engaged in the armed resistance, and people in the neighboring countries are reliving some of the worst memories or stories told by their grandparents or teachers of war and displacement that have been plaguing the region in the 20th century. The memory of the Second World War is still vivid in this part of Europe, and fear and distrust of the former Soviet Union is something that many people harbor. For many, this war is as much about the loss of safety and security. The war is truly traumatizing. How do we deal with that? I asked a friend and scholar Wiola Rebecka, an internationally recognized psychologist and researcher on war trauma and rape, to share some of her thoughts on the issue. The thoughts that she shared can be found on this blog post and are also excerpted below:

Trauma is the psychological response(s) one has to the overwhelming experiences. War always brings complex trauma and long-term consequences that we define as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No one can completely escape war and conflict unscathed. The lasting damage can be witnessed by the survivors’ physical, mental, and emotional scars. We already know that war oppression and trauma determine epigenetic changes and build transgenerational trauma. No one is safe and accessible when the war occurs. To talk about war trauma is to discuss individual personal experiences, individual pain and damage, inhuman levels of cruelty, abuse and torture, and the consequences of these violent acts. The individual and group memory of the past is marked by the many historical events and the new war in 2022 in Ukraine.

War rape trauma is a response to the invasions and aggression of others to the human body. Publicly speaking about sexual violence is a challenge. Sexual violence is already used in Ukraine as a weapon of this current war.

However, we tend to deny things that bring us discomfort as humans. Sexual violence creates pain for survivors and all people in general. That’s why it is crucial to listen to them, to every single story of the survivors of sexual violence during the war activity.

Wiola Rębecka, War Trauma, Ukraine 2022

About the guest author

Dr. Anna Müller is associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. From 2010-13, she worked for the Museum of the Second World War, in Gdansk, Poland, as a curator responsible for the sections on concentration camps, the Holocaust, and eugenics. Between 2014 and 2018, she was a faculty member at the Summer Ukrainian Social Sciences Schools that met in various Ukrainian cities including Lviv, Chernivtsi, Kharkiv, and others. Her book, If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women’s Prison in Communist Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) was chosen to receive the Oscar Halecki Award from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America.

Group of students holding a UM-Dearborn flag in the lobby of a historic building

Dr. Müller’s students on a study abroad trip in Ukraine, 2017

Images used with permission

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 37 seconds

1 thought on “Teaching Ukraine”

  1. Pingback: War Trauma, Ukraine 2022 – The Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources

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