BY TABITHA REEVES
Associate News Editor
Last February, Russia invaded Ukraine, escalating a conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of Ukrainian civilians since then. However, the events that dominated the headlines almost a year ago was not the beginning of the long-time contention between Russia and Ukraine.
In 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, the Washington Post did a survey asking Americans where Ukraine was on a map and found that only one in six people could accurately locate the country. While knowledge of Ukraine’s existence has certainly expanded since then, many of the factors that have led to today’s war are not universally understood.
For students to expand their contextual knowledge of the conflict, history professor at the university Polly Zavadivker put together a European history course last fall semester listed under HIST339: “Ukraine and Russia: The Road to War.”
Zavadivker, who is a first-generation immigrant of Ukraine herself, described the course as “experimental” on two different fronts. First, that there have been no courses on Ukrainian history offered at the university until now. Second, that the course was taught in reverse chronological order.
“Because we were observing this history as it was unfolding, and knowing that students would be taking the course out of interest in the war, I wanted to start in the present,” Zavadivker said. “That required moving backwards in time, and it allowed for understanding how the recent past, in some ways, has a greater immediate impact on what is happening today.”
In course evaluations at the end of the semester, one student compared the reverse chronology approach to the movie “Pulp Fiction,” where you reach the end and understand how all the pieces fit together.
“In many ways, Putin’s justification for launching the war is historical,” Zavadivker said, explaining her motivation for creating the course. “He claims that Ukraine is an invented country and that it’s been constructed, so the key to fighting that is showing that that is false. Ukraine does have its own history, and it’s a long history.”
Many students of the course reported that they learned contextual information about Ukraine they had not previously known, despite the fact that Ukraine was one of the most discussed news subjects that year.
“For some of [the students], I think they realized how significant the events of Ukrainian history have been and how impactful,” Zavadivker said. “Not having known about that previously can be very eye opening and give a person a sense of empowerment in learning about such an important event.”
One such student is Mekenna Montgomery, an international relations major who did her research project on rape as an effect of war in the Ukrainian crisis. The idea originated from a news article she saw, where survivors spoke up about being raped by Russian soldiers. When discussing the article in class, Montgomery found that, like her, most of her peers had no idea that so many Ukrainian civilians, often regardless of age or gender, were victims of rape during the war.
“Naturally, in a lot of rape cases, people don’t speak up about it,” Montgomery said. “So I was automatically thinking, ‘If this is something that I’m just hearing about, there must be more stories like this.’”
In writing her paper, Montgomery ended up exceeding the 10-page limit on the project, feeling that it would be a disservice to the current happenings to exclude anything. She explained that uncovering information about this “hidden war crime” required reading many academic journals and articles, with less of her sources from the mainstream news.
“It’s almost kind of like, ‘We posted about it, so now we can check that off and let’s keep moving forward,’” Montgomery said. “Unfortunately, Ukraine isn’t always going to be the top trend that it was last spring.”
Montgomery is still adding to her essay, even after the class’ completion, planning to have the paper published. She attributes her passion to spreading the word about this topic to the resources and education she gained through the Ukrainian history course.
“It’s difficult, I think, to be detached emotionally and ethically from what has happened,” Zavadivker said. “And so I think having learned these subjects, [students] felt very compelled to share them in their writing and research and have their own kind of interpretation and understanding of that.”
Through his research in the course, recently-graduated fine arts major Derek Charleton was inspired to do an oil painting depicting a tank burning in the Ukrainian war.
The piece can be found on Charleton’s website and all proceeds from its purchase will be donated to Ukraine’s military defense against Russia through the National Bank of Ukraine.
Charleton explained that he had taken the course in search of context, and ended up learning about parts of the war that he had not seen in mainstream media sources. He encouraged not just history majors to take the class, saying that it would be beneficial for anyone.
Another student of HIST339, Rebecca Volk, is a junior history major who did her research project on the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Ukraine, due to her interest in Jewish studies. Through her paper, she was able to explore how various portions of history connect in a meaningful manner.
“History as a whole is very valuable, but it was valuable for me to learn about a country that I didn’t know about, and that a lot of people didn’t know about,” Volk said. “As long as people are continuing to be educated in history like this, I think that we’re going to be a better society.”
Last spring, the university was home to many campaigns and fundraisers in support of Ukraine, such as the selling of flowers on the Green, organized by the Russian Club. Since then, immediate action on campus has slowed. Zavdivker and students of the course share concerns about continued interest in the conflict.
“I would love for this class to continue to be offered in the future, especially because it is an ongoing war,” senior history education major Emily Smulewitz wrote in an email. “I feel that people already have ‘forgotten’ about the war since I do not hear it being talked about as much.”
Last fall, the course filled up quickly, demonstrating an overwhelming interest in the subject at the time.
“[The class] is going to be timely for quite a long time I think,” senior history major Rajan Gidumal said. “Even if peace breaks out, it’s still going to be timely because you know that it’s on a knife’s edge.”
According to Zavdivker, the continuation of the course is contingent on whether or not Russia-Ukrainian warfare remains a relevant issue in the news.
“I hope that the interest will be sustained so that Ukraine isn’t forgotten by Westerners and by the students at UD,” Zavdivker said.