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Ukraine, 10 lessons - free for all teachers - Over 1000s years of fighting off oppressors

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is criminal. But first, before I get on my high horse, let’s address the hypocritical elephant in the room.

I came of age as Britain and the US used dodgy dossiers to try to convince the UN that an invasion of Iraq was required – and then went ahead with a ‘coalition of the willing’ when it could not get the authority to do so. This was also illegal. But the optics around it were less so.

Saddam had a track record of killing his own people. Ukraine does not (despite the fabrications of Russian media – which even if they are to be believed, speak of very small-scale crimes compared to the likes of Saddam).

Saddam had a track record of invading his neighbors. Ukraine does not.

Saddam had built one of the largest armies in the world. Ukraine had not.

Saddam ran an oppressive dictatorship that killed and raped with abundance. Ukraine is a democracy. An imperfect one. But nonetheless, a democracy that its own people had fought for first in 2004 in the Orange Revolution and then again in 2014 in the Euromaidan Protests.

The US and UK tried to convince the world of their evidence. Russia did not bother. It just launched a full-scale invasion without apparently even informing its close allies of the scale of it.

The UK and US had no intention of incorporating Iraq into their home territory – Russia wishes to do so to Ukraine (indeed, it has already legally redefined the lands it has captured as ‘legitimate’ Russian territory).

So, this is a different kettle of fish. Despite what some Russian sympathisers would like you to think. It is objectively very, very different.

It is the most blatantly criminal act in international affairs since… if you match it for scale… Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. It is. There is no getting around it. This is nothing like Korea or Vietnam. It isn’t an Iran v Iraq scenario with two like-sized powers slugging it out. It is nothing like Afghanistan and, as we’ve seen, it is unlike Iraq.

It is also a huge test for a declining West.

Brexit and then Trump, the West has spent the last seven years doing its best to dismantle itself, to self-sabotage, to destroy everything it had spent a hundred years fighting to protect – swiftly undone by the bigotry of old English voters in Kent and the science-hating, evidence denying, conspiracy theory loving racists of the US South and the Rust Belt.

Throw Covid into the mix and the economic shock that this had caused, and it was a perfect moment for Putin to invade.

But. But.

Through a combination of Russian military incompetence, Ukrainian dogged resistance (which, as we shall see, is something that should really have been counted on) and a surprisingly co-ordinated and resilient West under the leadership of Biden, Macron and a recently elected Olaf Scholz in Germany. I suppose we could throw in Boris’ enthusiasm for a photo op to escape his own domestic troubles – but I don’t like attributing anything positive to Boris, even if it was a pitiful attempt to divert attention.

They have, so far, failed. And failed in a rather dramatic – and for Putin, a highly embarrassing – fashion.

It is the first conflict in my lifetime that I’ve felt a huge amount of burning anger about. It doesn’t help that I have had a lifelong obsession with Eastern Europe and Ukraine specifically. As a student of 20th-century European history, I always felt that Eastern Europe was the West’s most important asset – these are the guys we had freed from Communist oppression. We plugged them into our markets in exchange for a promise to adopt democratic norms (which their people had been fighting for since the 1950s!) and hey presto! An economic and human rights miracle on our doorstep. The European Union was largely responsible for this – NATO won the war, and the EU won the peace. It rightfully was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

So, when in 2004 and in 2013 I saw Ukrainian protestors waving EU flags as part of their efforts to force out a corrupt President who had rigged an election at Moscow’s request and was then dragging Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit - it struck a chord with me. As a university student I had an EU flag in my bedroom. It was above my head as I watched these news reports. It was, and still is, a symbol of hope.

When I was much younger I often raised money for Ukrainian charities, I had an email correspondence (before social media was a thing) with an orphanage run by a Christian charity called Hope. I sold my old clothes, books and DVDs, I collected spare change and then as often as I could, I sent them money. I would proudly read the newsletters they sent to me in the post.

When in 2007 I discovered Kiva microfinance loans, I immediately created an ‘Eastern Europe’ supporters' group and have since then donated over $5000 (much of it recycled over the years) to Eastern Europe, most of it to Kosovo, Moldova and Ukraine.

So, when Russia invaded it hurt.

I felt anger and hopelessness. What could I do? Romantic ideas of running away and joining the international brigades or moving to Kyiv and helping charities like District One (which rebuilds damaged buildings) filled my mind. Being over the hill to be of fighting age, knowing nothing about construction work – and of course, the small matter of my wife and kids – obviously put a swift end to those thoughts (that’s not to say on dark days they don’t resurface…).

But what could I do to help? I began looking for charities to shift some Wolsey Academy revenue towards – we have sent a lot of money recently to Ukrainian charities, particularly District One and another called Dzyga’s Paw which deliver clothing, body armour and supplies to the Ukrainian military directly (but not weapons).

So, this was something, but I still felt – and feel - hopeless sat listening to the daily podcasts of the sacrifices being made in places like Bakhmut.

What could I do to help? I’m just a History Teacher.

…Well. I can teach. Well, Ofsted might not agree, but in practice – I can teach quite well when I want to.

And so – here it is. Almost 1000 words later – I bring to you, the main point of this blog - my new free-to-access 10 lessons on Ukrainian history. From the founding the Kievan Rus by axe-wielding Vikings to the fight for democracy on the streets of Kyiv by EU flag-wielding democrats in 2014.

The more I read and studied the more I came to admire even further just how darn stubborn the Ukrainians have been as a people throughout their history.

The Kievan Rus – which also became ancestors to modern Russians – created a large kingdom which saw the rule of law and trade flourish across Eastern Europe, providing an overland trade corridor between the Middle East and Northern Europe.

This came to a crushing end with the Mongol invasion and later the region of Ukraine came under the rule of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania. While this stabilised the region these two strongly Catholic powers marginalised their Orthodox Christian Ukrainian subjects.

This was not sustainable for long and in 1648 the Ukrainian Cossacks revolted against their Polish masters. In so doing they freed themselves and carved out a semi-autonomous region they called the Hetmanate which allowed Ukrainian identity and culture to flourish – however it came at a price – they switched from the Polish orbit to the Russian one and the Tsar’s influence soon began to overwhelm them, and they were integrated into the Russian Empire.

Seizing their chance at the end of that Empire and during the Russian Civil War the Ukrainians bravely fought again for their independence but were overwhelmed by forces outside their control. The Reds proved capable fighters and the Whites in that Civil War were more concerned with restoring Tsarist control than encouraging Ukraine to go its own way – and were of little help.

Then in 1932 the Ukrainians suffered an intentional man-made tragedy mostly forgotten in the West but it was on a cataclysmic scale – the Holodomor. Stalin’s decision to collectivise Ukrainian farming, withhold aid and move food supplies toward Russia’s cities – somewhere between 3 – 7 million Ukrainian starved to death.

Ukraine never really recovered from this and spent the next fifty years under the Soviet Union’s oppressive control – suffering yet another tragedy in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, spreading radiation across Ukraine, and leaving large areas of it, even to this day, uninhabitable.

Yet, their luck began to change with the fall of the USSR. Newly independent Ukraine established itself as a democracy and began to wrench itself back towards the Western sphere of influence – encouraged by the example of its neighbours like Bulgaria, Romania and Poland who have benefitted so greatly by EU membership (not to mention the Baltic States). However, standing in the way of this move were the vested interests of Vladimir Putin – who worked behind the scenes to rig elections and poison democratic leaders like Yushchenko. Thrown into this mix is the unstable economy, riddled with corruption in much the same way Russia’s economy is – both were victims of the collapse of the USSR and the poorly enacted capitalist ‘shock therapy’ that followed. While their western neighbours largely sorted themselves out and joined the EU, Ukraine, given its size, relative economic weakness and geographic location next to Russia was always going to be one of the last European nations to finally join the rest. Despite several attempts – and an invasion of Crimea by Putin in 2014 – they still looked to move towards Europe. Led by the popular TV President turned real President Zelensky they looked all set to continue that path – right until February of 2022.

Then everything changed.

The fight is far from over. But the Ukrainian people deserve a chance to control their own destiny, it is something they have been fighting for ever since the Mongols showed up in the 13th century. They’re not about to stop now.


I hope you find these ten lessons enjoyable and useful for your students. Each one follows a similar structure but each one is also packed with more than enough activities for several lessons over, so if you’re following the lessons in sequence, you can vary each lesson by dropping some activities and picking up others. Additionally, activities like the relay factor can very easily be changed into a team teach, round robin or a simple round the room factor collect.

I hope they help.

Find them free to download at


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