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Michael Czobit is a writer in Toronto.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine – its people, its culture and its independence – do not exist.

Last July, in what was now clearly part of the lead-up to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin published a 5,000-word essay penned by Mr. Putin where he excavated and advanced his selective version of history. His paper is part of his justification to absorb Ukraine into a new Russian empire, the goal of a war that has already led to hundreds of civilian deaths and created two million refugees, according to the United Nations.

The problem with Mr. Putin’s version of history? He is a bad historian. He makes gross if expedient errors that align with his geopolitical ambitions and ignores the work of actual historians, never mind the lived experience of millions of people across centuries.

If, however, Mr. Putin were right about history, I would have a lot of difficult questions for my teachers about what I learned in the 11 years I spent going to what our Ukrainian-Canadian community in Etobicoke, Ont., called Saturday school. But Mr. Putin is not right; what I learned there about Ukraine tells me that many children of Ukrainian background have a fuller and more sophisticated grasp of history than the dictator-cum-amateur-historian. In fact, I think Mr. Putin himself would benefit from a few Saturday morning classes.

Almost 20 years have passed since I graduated from Saturday school – yes, students do graduate from Saturday school. It would be disingenuous to say that from my first class to my last I had an instant and deep appreciation for the Ukrainian language, culture and history I learned. Most children, if given the option, would choose sleeping in and watching cartoons over waking up early and sitting in a classroom for a sixth day in a row.

Though I was a sometimes-unwilling participant in those classes, I learned a great deal about my family’s background. My father is ethnically Ukrainian and moved to Canada from Poland with his family when he was 12. My mother was born in Toronto after her parents moved here from Ukraine by way of England, after the Second World War. My parents speak Ukrainian and hoped that my three siblings and I would speak the language too, so they sent us to Saturday school.

There, I learned the language and the geography of a country Mr. Putin claims does not exist and is doing his utmost to erase. Thanks to Saturday school, I would not struggle to find on the map the cities of Kyiv or Lviv, the Dnipro river, or the Carpathian Mountains. In our literature classes, we read the poets Lesya Ukrainka and Taras Shevchenko, and discussed how their work on gender and politics influenced Ukrainian culture and identity.

I also learned a lot of history dating back centuries, full of distinctively Ukrainian patterns and events – more tragic than triumphant and also more resilient than romantic – that come into direct conflict with the monomaniacal beliefs of Russia’s leader. And though there is not a Ukrainian nation to point to from 1000 CE, it is not because Ukrainian identity and culture did not exist, but because nations, as we know them today, did not exist. But for a millennium and counting, the world has had people who have understood themselves as constituting a distinct nationality that we continue to call Ukrainian.

These are the same people who, in 1991, held a referendum that led to Ukraine becoming an independent modern nation-state. Because of Ukraine’s sheer size relative to the other component parts of the failing Soviet Union, the referendum effectively ended the USSR. This point of shame for Mr. Putin was a point of pride for my history teachers and my parents. Now, after Russia’s recent invasion, that source of pride is under dire threat from the country that has harmed so many of them in the past.

From 1932 to 1933, for instance, Stalin’s Soviet Union caused a famine that took the lives of more than three million Ukrainians. As Anne Applebaum recounts in Red Famine, the genocide, known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor, was Stalin’s reaction to rebellion from Ukrainian peasantry. One consequence of this horrific event was significant Ukrainian emigration to Canada, as part of the worldwide Ukrainian diaspora. Indeed, decades later, at Saturday school, I learned this history.

We also learned of a country that after 1991, struggled with democracy. Corruption in politics and business slowed the growth and maturity of the nation. Even today, Ukraine ranks low on Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (122 in the world, slightly better than Russia, which comes in at 136).

But that does not mean Ukrainians do not want democracy and would prefer to be a client state of an authoritarian regime. In fact, in 2004, presidential election fraud led to the Orange Revolution protests, which worked to overturn a corrupt result. Again in 2013, Ukrainians went to Independence Square in Kyiv to protest a Russia-leaning government wanting, against the will of the country, to align itself more closely with its neighbour to the east than with the European Union and the West.

The Euromaidan protests did not achieve what was hoped for, but they would eventually lead to the unexpected election of Volodymyr Zelensky as President in 2019. The ex-actor and comedian is now confronting challenges and demands that exceed even the most extreme television scripts. In short, there has not been a happy ending. Not yet.

I should have known as much. During Saturday school and my own travels in Ukraine as an adult, I could be accused of wanting Ukrainian history to resemble a fairy tale: for a happy ending to come quickly – to already exist – so I could move on to the next lesson, even though the pattern of Ukrainian experience suggested otherwise. But what I have been learning of late, what we are all learning by following the news from Ukraine, is that the country, the culture and the people exist. And because they do, Ukrainians are willing to fight – even at mortal stakes – to continue to exist.

If Ukrainians manage to change the pattern of their history this time, it will be because they turned away a bad historian and made a fresh case for Saturday school.

Editor’s note: (March 18, 2022): An earlier version of this article included an incorrect title for Anne Applebaum's book.

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