As part of a recent Washington Post survey asking Americans what they thought the U.S. should do about the current conflict in Ukraine, participants were asked to identify Ukraine on a blank world map. You can see the map here; each dot indicates someone’s guess. Red means you’re warm. Blue is cold.

The upshot of the article is that the less able the respondents were to locate Ukraine on a map, the more likely they were to support the idea of American military intervention there.

Such a conclusion leads to plenty of pretty interesting and potentially disturbing implications, but the WP does a pretty fair job of covering those, so I’ll leave them to it.

I was more than a bit distressed, however, to notice the number of respondents who plunked their cold blue dots smack in the middle of America’s heartland. One should not infer from this that anyone is silly enough to think Ukraine is actually in Nebraska, but rather that the Americans who put their dots there (or in Florida, Iowa, Tennessee, Colorado, or Alaska) can’t locate the United States on a world map at all.

I did an exercise like this in one of my classes several years ago. Preliminary to a unit in which the students were going to be reading The Kite Runner, I gave them each a blank map of the world and asked them to identify Afghanistan with a red X. Only one student got it right — and when I told her she was right, she laughed and said, “Really? I totally guessed!”

We were already at war in Afghanistan. Some of these students had friends and even family members there. But not a single one of them knew where “there” was.

It’s true that none of those students actually put their red X anywhere within the United States, but a couple of them did put them in Canada, and one or two in South America. And these were college students. Not just college students but honors students.

Americans in general really are notoriously bad at geography.

I don’t always know where countries are either, to be honest—no high horse here—but I like looking things up. When something’s going on in a place I can’t already identify on a map, I go online and find it.

But in looking up where my grandparents came from, I got pretty confused.

(You were wondering what all this has to do with my WIP, weren’t you?)

My grandparents were Polish. I’ve known that all my life. And I assumed, logically, that that meant they came from Poland. A logical assumption indeed, but wrong. In fact, on both ships’ manifests, they’re both listed as Russian.

I went in search of a map to find the cities they were from, but as it turned out, those cities are both in Lithuania.

Needless to say, I was pretty confused.  It was a real game changer for me, to discover after all these years that we were actually Lithuanian.

Except we’re not.  Or not exactly.

As it turned out, the problem was that I knew nothing at all about Polish geography, history, or psychology. I was looking at a present-day map of Poland and assuming that it was the same now as it always had been. Anyone looking at a present-day map will find the cities of Wilno and Kowno (aka Vilnius and Kaunas) thriving just fine, well within the borders of Lithuania.

But when my grandparents came to the U.S., Poland didn’t look like that.  In fact, at that point, Poland didn’t exist at all.

Until the late 1700s, Poland was quite large. But in 1772, the surrounding kingdoms (Prussia, Russia, and Austria) divided it and each took a big chunk. Then in 1793, Prussia and Russia each took another chunk, and in 1795, the three countries divided the remainder among themselves, and Poland as a country was no more. It was not reinstated until the end of World War I, and its borders were shifted yet again during World War II.

My grandparents were born in what was known as the Russian Partition, but they never identified as Russian.  They were ethnically Polish, and that distinction was a source of great pride among Poles.  Their country, during the period from 1795 to 1918, existed within their hearts.  They were Polish just as surely as they would have been if there’d been a country to actually hail from.  But there wasn’t, so on official documents, they were listed according to the nationality of whichever kingdom had absorbed their land.

Poland as we see it on a map today has only existed for about seventy years, and it’s only 120,726 square miles in size—less than half the size of Texas.

So now you’re wondering, maybe, what the current situation in Ukraine has to do with all of this, and why the Ukraine situation is relevant to my WIP.

The answer is this: Poland borders Ukraine, and in fact much of Ukraine was once part of the original Poland. Some of the same land that was disputed and partitioned in the 1700s is the same land that Russia is once again interested in today.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it’s important to know where it is.