winter scene in Russia of people bundled up against the cold

The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia, Alphonse Mucha (1914)

Instructor: Dr. E. Fraser

“We [the Russians] are alone in the world, we have given nothing to the world, we have taught it nothing. We have not added a single idea to the sum total of human ideas… We have not taken the trouble to invent anything ourselves and, of the inventions of others, we have borrowed only empty conceits and useless luxuries.”       

– Philosopher Peter Chaadaev, 1836

Is that true? Can you name anything before the time of Lenin, or perhaps Dostoevsky, that Russian history is famous for? Long before Putin, Facebook, and election bots put Russia back in the news, Chaadaev’s musings were part of a larger debate in the mid-19th century about Russia’s place in the world, and it will help guide our major questions in this class: Why should we study Russian history today? How does deepening our understanding of Russia’s past – a past of conquest, slavery, and widespread inequality but also a past of philosophy, invention, and creativity – help us understand this crucial part of the world order today?

This course is an analytical survey of Russian history from the earliest medieval records we have to the present. In addition to the themes above, we will focus on three major areas:

  1. Chronological: Kievan Rus’ (claimed today by Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians as their ancestral home) in the 10-13th centuries; the Mongol invasions and aftermath in the 13-14th centuries; the Muscovite period in the 14-17th centuries that established autocratic rule; the Imperial period from Peter the Great in the late 17th century to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in which autocracy under the Tsars persisted through an age of democratic revolutions in western Europe; the era of the Soviet Union from 1917-1991 that is still so relevant today; and the complexities of post-Soviet Russia.
  2. Thematic: Within this chronology, we will also examine persistent themes such as leadership and political authority; the Orthodox Church and religious minorities; women’s lives; empire and non-Russian groups; slavery (called serfdom) and emancipation; and the philosophies and ideologies that helped shape Russian history.
  3. Record-keeping and interpretation: How do we know what we know about Russian history? What records have survived, and how? We will look at bark carvings from early centuries, religious texts, epic poems of battles, etiquette books, law codes, royal decrees, and – in the 19th and 20th centuries – newspapers, films, and memoirs. In each era and with each of these sources, we will ask how the Russian people (and those around them in Slavic lands) saw themselves in history; how they recorded their experiences and preserved (or lost) those documents; what might have been left out or who was not permitted to record their experiences for various reasons; and how the historian should evaluate the sources we do have – especially in today’s world, when Russian politics in the news can easily shape our opinions in how we view the Russian past.

Prerequisites and Language

All students who are at least in their second-year are welcome in this class and no knowledge of Russian is required; lectures, discussions, and readings will be in English. Students who are native speakers of Russian or Ukrainian have the option of coming to see me for links to some of our primary source readings in their original language.

Class Format

This is a 1.0 credit full-year class that will consist of one 2-hour interactive lecture with the professor per week, and one 50-minute discussion session with a T.A. in a smaller unit. Both of these sessions require students to be present and active in the class and to come prepared with notes on and ideas about the assigned reading.


Each week, students will read a section from a textbook as well as a collection of primary source documents (ie: voices from the period of history we are studying). We will spend time discussing how one should read and analyze primary sources. Voices from the past sometimes lie to us, after all, or try to mislead us, or record the wrong event, or make the author look like a hero, or diminish the voices of women or minority groups, or remain silent on a major event that the author didn’t like… or, is it just our own contemporary goggles making these historical documents look that way to us? In short, we will learn to take a critical eye to these sources and in doing so, learn much about their authors and the societies those authors lived in – and about ourselves and our biases as historians. These documents are also a great deal of fun to read and analyze, as we try to piece together “what happened” (and “why does it matter?”) from these historical fragments.


  • Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark Steinberg, A History of Russia, 8th edition. Oxford University Press, 2010. (ISBN: 978-0195341973)
  • A short memoir or novel for purchase TBA
  • Primary sources will be available via web links on cuLearn


The exact grading criteria will be available on the course outline at the beginning of the semester. Overall, written assignments will consist of two 5-8 page papers each semester, two quizzes each semester, and some discussion board posts on the primary source readings. Attendance in all classes is required, especially the discussion sections with T.A.s, and student participation in discussions will also form part of your grade.

Questions about this class? Feel free to email me at