Dispatches From the Front #2: Thoughts on Ukraine by Steve Davis
Last month, my wife and I were in London during Spring Break to visit a historian friend I hadn’t seen in more than forty years. On a gray Sunday a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, we walked upon a massive pro-Ukraine street demonstration. Thousands heard a series of speakers denouncing the Russian invaders in the most passionate language. Most of this was in Ukrainian but some from the platform called out Vladimir Putin in profane Anglo-Saxon. There was a sea of the now-familiar yellow and blue Ukrainian banners and a fair number of flags with wide blue and white stripes. We learned from participants that these were Russian flags with their blood-red lower edges removed. I walked up to a woman with a protest poster and asked her if I could take a picture of it to show my students back home. It features Hitler and Putin standing alongside one another with an inscription between them that says, “Hell is waiting for you, tyrants.” Right below is a boiling vat ready to receive the dictators. This one simple image for me did so much more to encapsulate the nature of this war than the commentaries of all the area experts put together.
It is clear to me that the war in Ukraine is a teachable moment that we must fully exploit in the classroom. Just after the Russian invasion commenced on February 24, I was covering WW II and the origins of the Cold War in an Honors section of HIST 1302. Hitler’s targeting of Ukraine in his drive to the East in 1941 took on unusual importance and clarity as did the formation of NATO in 1948 as a means of containing Soviet expansion westward. One of the quotes I regularly use in class is from the British economist, John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” Keynes stresses the intellectual importance of altering our interpretations when new facts and developments require it, of not being so stuck in ideological rigidities that we refuse to adjust to new realities. I had always been skeptical for instance of the wisdom of NATO expansion. But the facts on the ground in Eastern Europe have now changed and I have a revised outlook because of that. Is there any doubt that Putin would have moved on the Baltic countries by now had it not been for NATO’s Article 5 which states that an attack on one is an attack on all? Is it not understandable that Sweden and Finland are now pounding on NATO’s door given Russia’s aggressive behavior in their backyards? Shouldn’t Georgia come into the Alliance to safeguard its own sovereignty and to block Putin’s move in that direction? If the Russians feel threatened by NATO’s movement eastward, that’s their problem. Putin and other Soviet nostalgists will need to be satisfied that their country still occupies by far the greatest extent of territory in the world. In recent classes, I’ve made clear my fresh perspective on this issue. Our students need to see us model this kind of real-world flexibility as we navigate such challenging times.
I think our current academic approach should be one of “Ukraine Across the Curriculum.” The war’s relevance is obvious in History and Political Science classes where foreign policy is a major component. But how about in a Philosophy course where the group could examine the ethics of force or in a Psychology section where authoritarian personality types like Putin and their followers could be the focus? Economics classes could examine the material costs of war or the nexus between war and inflation or compare the free trade unions of Ukraine to their state-controlled Russian counterparts. My friend and colleague Joan Samuelson has told me how students in her English class on the literature of the Holocaust have so passionately used the Ukraine story as the basis of discussions and essays. Students care about this fight. Many of them are young and idealistic and want to take a stand against injustice. If we teachers are oblivious to the Ukraine war, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant ourselves.
All of us who work at this college are leaders in some capacity. Is there any more inspiring example of a leader who has grown in office and faced up to crushing responsibilities than Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy? Here is a man who, while trained as a lawyer, made his career in acting and stand-up comedy before becoming a politician. One could reasonably doubt his capacity as his country’s head. And yet, like Harry Truman, he has revealed strength of character in this crucible of national calamity. Recall that Truman was a Missouri back-bencher in the U.S. Senate when picked by FDR to be his running mate in 1944. A failed clothing merchant and product of the Kansas City political machine whose formal education did not extend beyond a high school diploma, he hardly seemed White House material. And yet upon ascending to the presidency, Truman did such a remarkable job that most professional historians rank him among the office’s “near-greats.” What role models Truman and Zelenskyy are for all of us who in our work or personal lives frequently feel ill-prepared or overwhelmed. “Grit” has become a buzzword in educational circles in recent years as an essential component of student and other types of success. The 33rd American president and Ukraine’s current leader personify the concept.
Ultimately, the Ukraine story underscores how important truth-telling is in everything we do. When George Orwell went to Spain to fight the fascists in 1936, he witnessed firsthand the damage that modern war does to truth. As he later recalled, he read about battles that never happened and encountered silence in the case of mass casualties. The fascists and Communists in that conflict, though on opposite sides, used the same shameless dishonesty in their accounts, so much so that Orwell experienced the feeling that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Certainly, anyone in our country who samples even a few minutes of Fox News or talk radio has felt the same.
Putin and his cynical posse lie without hesitation or remorse. No, the Russian battleship, Moskva, which sank in the Black Sea, did not founder on its own. It disappeared because the intrepid Ukrainians hit it with two cruise missiles and sent the cursed vessel to the bottom. No, the Ukrainian civilians dead in the ditches of Kyiv suburbs were not actors in a scene staged by Zelenskyy to win Western support. They were victims of a brutal Russian military long known for its rape and murder culture. No, the true Russian mission in Ukraine was not to “de-nazify” the country; its president is Jewish and its political institutions, while imperfect, are democratic. Those of us committed to the whole truth will acknowledge that actual Nazis are involved in Ukraine’s defense, namely in the form of the Azov Battalion that has engaged in the defense of Mariupol. But to characterize the entire Ukrainian cause in those terms is an outrageous distortion. The real threat of the extreme right emanates from Russia, which every day resembles more and more Mussolini’s corporate state. The real threat to world peace is from the fascist monster in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, and from his acolytes around the world who speak openly of his “genius” and mimic his authoritarian style.
As always, I write in this space from the perspective of a classroom teacher. My ultimate take-away from the Ukraine crisis is that it underscores what we need to show our students every day. We must work hard, love learning, think critically, and always tell the truth, whatever the consequences. In this chaotic world, these are enduring objectives. This has never been more imperative, for as Orwell might say, the clock is striking thirteen and too many contend that two plus two is five.
Professor of History, LSC-Kingwood
April 18, 2022