By Kenneth Maclean FRSGS, RSGS Collections Team

Write a geographical essay on: ‘The Ukraine is virtually a major European state’ [Higher Grade, Paper 2, 1968].

Watching the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine prompted some rambling thoughts as to what extent past ‘Higher’ Grade Geography questions encompassed Ukraine, former U.S.S.R. and even the impact of war? Would candidates in 1968 have selected the question on Ukraine, noted above? Responding to such questions involved a curricular journey to the years before 1975 which saw the introduction of the new Alternative Higher, with its syllabus framed around skills, concept acquisition and a greater emphasis on thematic geography. Instead, combing for specific questions on Ukraine and the former Soviet Union involved sampling Higher Grade questions from the 1940s to the early 1970s, especially Paper Two of the traditional Higher syllabus; years when the regional geography paradigm still held significant sway in schools.

By 1968, for teachers and candidates alike, preparation for Higher Geography, involved OS mapwork, and thematic physical and human geography for Paper One. Paper Two, however, was a challenging global trawl, often revisiting earlier work and material studied for Paper One to ensure adequate spatial coverage. Paper Two fell into five sections: Section A-British Isles; Section B-Europe; Section C-North America; Section D-Asia and Section E-Southern Continents. Candidates answered five questions: one from each of sections A, B, C and either D or E, with fifth from any of the four sections. Each question was worth 20 marks. Unlike today, questions with reference diagrams, maps and sub-division headings were not standard fare. Instead, open-ended, essay type questions frequently were set, often prefaced with a quote; candidates were encouraged to draw relevant sketch maps as an integral part of their answer. 

Debatably, the 1968 question would have challenged many fifth-year Higher candidates, but this was one of a wide choice of some eight questions set that year in Section B-Europe. But would this question have been attempted by many pupils? In the absence of data concerning overall candidate response to individual questions that year, it is suggested tentatively that few would have chosen this one or indeed any on the U.S.S.R., however relevant in the Cold War era. Several overlapping reasons are possible.

Firstly, any questions on the former U.S.S.R. could appear either in the compulsory Section B-Europe or optional Section D- Asia.  Sometimes they dealt with the U.S.S.R. as a whole, for example, when candidates were asked in Section D-Asia to: ‘Examine the contribution made by the tundra and the taiga lands to the economy of the U.S.S.R.’ [Higher Grade, Paper 2, 1970]. Other years, questions focused either west or east of the Urals. In 1971, in Section B, pupils had to: (a) On a sketch map show the differences in natural vegetation in European Russia between 30ᵒE and 40ᵒE (b) Give a description of the natural vegetation in any two of the zones shown on your map (c) Compare (i) the climate and (ii) the agriculture of those two zones.’ [Higher Grade, Paper 2, 1971].; while in an earlier  year, in Section D, they had to: ‘Give your reasons for the growth of population and industrial output in Asiatic U.S.S.R.’ [Higher Grade, Paper 2, 1964]. Regardless of whether the question embraced the former U.S.S.R. as a whole or differentiated its European or Asiatic division, the sheer scale of this vast, geographically ambivalent communist world was spatially formidable for teacher and pupil alike.

A related issue was that of time. Higher geography was a mainly two-term crammed rush; Western Europe was testing enough in its own right, never mind Eastern Europe and former U.S.S.R. In 1968 alternative Higher questions likewise comprised topics such as: ‘Write a geographical account of the valley of the Rhine as a major commercial highway’, or ‘France, of all West European Countries, is best fitted by geography to repay study through natural regions.’ Fair enough questions, yes; but also, representing well-trodden, recognizable examination territory. Despite a growing number of accessible texts and a lifting of the Iron Curtain, this vitally significant part of the communist world was, effectively, terra incognita.

A third issue was the teaching framework that commonly was adopted. Frequently cropping up in Higher examinations was the ‘geographical description.’ In the 1949 Paper 2 candidates were met with: ‘Write a geographical description of one of the following areas: Bohemia, Ukraine, Sweden, Greece, Belgium, the Seine Basin and North German Plain Basin. Illustrate by a sketch map.’ Guiding candidate response was the usage by teachers of a regional catechism with its well-rehearsed sequence of position, relief, climate, natural vegetation, occupations, transport, settlement and population. Arguably, certain elements of the catechism may have assisted candidate response to the 1968 question on Ukraine, at least in part, but even such as broader historical (back to Kyivan Rus?), political and cultural issues of national identity (including a Slavic, Indo-European language, Russian Orthodox faith derived from Eastern European Christendom) may also have been anticipated by examiners.

Three years earlier, candidates could choose: ‘Select one of the major industrial regions of the U.S.S.R. in Europe and discuss the factors which have encouraged its growth[1965 Higher Grade, Paper 2]. Although examined in Paper 2, they might have studied an industrial region such as the Donbas coalfield as part of industrial location for the thematically-oriented Paper 1:  a valuable exemplar of a command economy with its  modification of ‘normal’ economic laws in response to contemporary Soviet political decision making by Brezhnev and Kosygin. Pupils may also have elicited information from the Black Earth belt of Ukraine had they attempted the following in Paper 1: “Steppe lands tend to pass through four stages in their development – nomadism, settled pastoralism, arable farming, and industry.”  Select one of the great areas of steppe land, describe the present occupations of its inhabitants, and state how far the area has progressed through the above stages. [1950 Higher Grade, Paper 1]. Whether the steppe land would have been first choice as opposed to, say, the Prairies is moot; teacher preference and availability of source material has always been critical.

Ultimately, despite a range of questions on offer, it was often a matter of luck whether topics specifically covered in class manifested themselves in the Higher papers. Some years there were no questions whatsoever on Russia/Ukraine. Yet teachers had to prepare for a wide range of themes, covering not just the ‘banker questions’ but also potential contemporary issues even in WW2, such as: Explain clearly how the resources and industrial development of the land between the Urals and Lake Baikal do and will enable the Soviet Union to carry on in spite of her material losses in West Russia [1943 Higher Grade, Paper 2].

A final thought: allowing for pressures of time, not least because of Covid restrictions and a markedly different syllabus, might teachers nowadays find time to discuss, however briefly, whether ‘The Ukraine is virtually a major European state’? Arguably, it is a question more relevant today than in 1968, conceivably even more so than climatic change?

The ongoing war in Ukraine is a key topic in the upcoming Summer 2022 edition of The Geographer, themed on population...

RSGS members will soon receive a hard copy of the magazine, before it is eventually published digitally at