How history can help people make sense of Russia’s war

The Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered, in the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “the greatest threat to European stability since World War II.”

Since then, not a single day has passed without powerful stories and shocking images of bombings and casualties circulating online.

In a recent CBC interview, Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan examined how history became “an instrument of war” used by President Putin to claim Ukraine through a one-sided interpretation of the past.

According to Putin’s distorted view, Russia’s future and its place in the world are at stake and these depend on Putin’s goal: “to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine”.

The disciplinary tools of history are important in helping people today understand two essential things that are related: stories engage people in powerful ways; and the ability to analyze, challenge and judge the credibility of stories is central to empowering citizens to participate and create democratic societies.

The past, in all its complexity

Historians, observes MacMillan, have a central role to play in making sense of the war. She notes:

“We must do our best to educate the public about the past in all its complexity.”

Like MacMillan, we believe that leaders like Putin cannot mobilize for military operations without invoking the past or certain interpretations of it.

In Dangerous games: uses and abuses of historyMacMillan writes that historians are highly qualified to interrogate one-sided, even false, stories that politicians use “to support false assertions and justify bad and foolish policies.”

History and the power of knowledge

In recent decades, there has been a push in Canada, England, and other countries to implement curricula aimed at developing historical thinking, historical literacy, or powerful knowledge. All of these terms refer to approaches that seek to develop a “historical gaze” or a distinctly historical way of looking at past and current issues.

The underlying logic is democratic: all future citizens should have equal access to the knowledge resources necessary to exercise power in their world.

A man rides his bicycle past a statue of Grand Princess Olga of Kyiv, covered with sandbags to prevent damage from possible shelling, in Kyiv on March 28.
(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Learning a discipline is learning to reason and organize information in specific ways, drawing on discipline-specific concepts and ways of thinking.

History, as a discipline, can provide us with powerful ways to go beyond the acquisition of stories (as content knowledge) to learn how those stories were created, including their degree of certainty and their purpose. Such a disciplinary way of thinking helps people understand history as a tradition of inquiry and opens up a particular way of looking at global conflicts.

Reasoning with source materials

Studying history involves developing a deep knowledge of the human past understood as the history of power relations. It also means:

  • develop knowledge of the particular historical contexts of past and current conflicts;

  • provide education on how knowledge claims can be made, understanding, for example, that claims to the past emerge through questioning and reasoning with sources, not simply reassembling memories and fragments of the past in a story ;

  • and finally, it involves developing an understanding of historical storytelling – both how storytelling can be used to develop new understandings and ideas and how it can be misused to maintain fixed political positions.

“Giving meaning” to war?

How can studying history help young people make sense of the war in Ukraine?

A historical perspective on the current war in Ukraine can help understand both the events unfolding in the present – ​​as understood by different opposing sides – and how narratives are used to influence perceptions.

A historical perspective on the causes of the invasion of Ukraine would avoid simplistic explanations.

Instead, history teachers could construct a situational model to explain the Russian invasion by placing it in short-, medium-, and long-term contexts, looking for both enabling and determining factors in order to explain why the invasion took place.

Read more: Stop telling students to study STEM instead of humanities for the post-coronavirus world

Taking a historical perspective would certainly require going beyond the Putin-centric explanation and asking questions about Putin’s thinking, psychology, and intentions.

He would ask questions about the contexts that allow his actions to have profound consequences in the world.

A man in military uniform is seen laying flowers in front of a flame.
A Soviet army veteran lays flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to mark Victory Day in World War II, in kyiv on May 9, 2022.
(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Evaluate Competing Narratives

Taking a historical perspective also means moving beyond explanation and beginning to ask questions about the multiple stories that different sides offer, to make sense of what happened and shape our responses.

This means considering different historical perspectives on events and analyzing different views on the conflict: Russia/Putin, Ukraine, Canada/NATO.

It also means exercising narrative skill and judgment to compare, deconstruct and assess the competing narratives circulating about events that are part of the process of mobilizing action and shaping the future.

Read more: Commemoration controversies in classrooms: Canadian history teachers disagree on ethical judgments

Why, one might ask, has a euphemistic narrative that speaks of a “special military operation” and not of “war” been actively disseminated by the Russian government, especially in schools, and what ideological function does it help?

Why, on the contrary, have psychologized “Mad Vlad” narratives arisen in the West? What function do they fulfill and what do they obscure and reveal? History has things to learn about what responsible, realistic narratives look like and what kinds of narratives we should question and find incredible.

A large mural shows a man in a suit depicted as having skeleton teeth and a man walking ahead in the street holding flowers.
A man walks past a depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin with skeleton teeth by artist Krišs Salmanis outside the Russian Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, April 29, 2022.
(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Learn to detect patterns

Traditional education, focusing either on content knowledge or skills, is insufficient to educate young citizens to navigate complex futures – as the Economic Cooperation Organization now recognizes.

To orient ourselves on global issues, including climate change and war, we need what education researchers Michael Young and Johan Muller call a “Future 3” education, grounded in disciplinary ways of knowing, not simply on sets of knowledge. For them, “Future 1” education simply reproduces dominant knowledge traditions and fixed histories. “Future 2” education eliminates distinctive forms of knowledge to emphasize soft skills that ultimately limit our ability to understand history – and its uses and abuses.

As Michael Ignatieff summarizes, “to orient ourselves, to know what to do, we have to understand how we got here… we have to be able to see the pattern in the rug.

Read more: How pattern analysis helps students spot misleading media

To do this, we do not need to learn more stories or facts but, above all, to learn to look and look critically at narratives aimed at shaping perceptions of the past and the future.