Understanding Russia: A Cultural History

Course No. 8374
Professor Lynne Ann Hartnett, PhD
Villanova University
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Course No. 8374
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for diagrams, illustrations, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. While the video version can be considered lightly illustrated, it includes maps, illustrations, portraits, painting, and photos, as well as on-screen text, which may help reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how Russia's colossal geography inspired and shaped its search for a cultural identity.
  • Explore cultural innovations sparked by leaders like Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and Joseph Stalin.
  • Meet some of the most important intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries who transformed the Russian spirit.
  • Discover how Soviet culture influenced (and repressed) the everyday domestic lives of Russian people.
  • Consider how 21st-century Russian politicians and citizens think about their vast, dramatic cultural history.

Course Overview

Russia’s global importance is undeniable. After a brief period of decline after the Soviet Union dissolved, the Russian state has reemerged in the 21st century with a geopolitical influence that rivals some of its most significant eras. Yet for as much as Russia demands the attention of Western policy makers, there remains uncertainty about Russian objectives on the world stage and confusion about what motivates the leaders who direct this immense land. Even as Russian art and music captivated the larger outside world, for many in the West, Russia and its people seemed enigmatic, shrouded in mystery. To a surprising extent, it still seems to be.

Stretching across two continents from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean and occasionally beyond, Russia is unique on the world stage and has been for centuries. It is neither fully European, nor fully Asian. For most of its history, it has been more of an empire than a nation; a dynamic power whose expanse and continued expansion was both at the basis of its greatness and the essence of its greatest struggle. For much of the country’s history, Russian artists, philosophers, revolutionaries, and rulers have sought to define what it meant to be Russian and to promote a culture and identity that could bring both unity and legitimacy to this massive political state. While Russian history has been shaped by centuries of triumph and tragedy, progress and despotism, glory and revolution, the cultural developments fostered by this political turbulence prove an enduring legacy.

From the earliest recorded history of the Russian state, its people have sought to define their place in the world. And while we may try to make sense of Russia through its political history, in many ways a real grasp of this awe-inspiring country comes from looking closely at its cultural achievements. Painting and architecture, literature and music, theater and film, fashion and food—these and other topics chart the evolution of Russia’s national identity in fascinating ways. To study Russian culture is to discover how Russia today is rooted in a history that extends beyond the Soviet era and relies upon a culture that bridges the era of the Romanov Tsars and the Bolshevik Commissars who overthrew them.

In Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, award-winning professor and Russian historian Lynne Ann Hartnett of Villanova University guides you through hundreds of years of Russian culture, from the world of Ivan the Terrible to the dawn of the Soviet Union to the post-war tensions of Putin’s Russia. Blending history with cultural studies, these 24 illuminating lectures are designed to bring you closer than ever before to the Russian people—not just the authoritarian rulers like Peter the Great, the Romanovs, and Stalin, but also the everyday men and women who sought their own meaning in the poetry of Pushkin, the comfort of early folk tales, the faith of medieval iconography, the avant-garde films of Eisenstein, and more.

In a time when the eyes of the Western world are constantly drawn to Russia, it’s amazing how little many of us really know about its culture and its people. These lectures will help you finally understand the complex, thrilling, and undeniably fascinating Russian spirit.

Learn What Shapes Russian Culture

“Efforts to discover an organic Russian cultural identity spurred much of Russia’s artistic achievements,” notes Professor Hartnett. And, as you’ll discover in Understanding Russia, it’s a cultural identity influenced by a variety of enduring themes that stretch from the beginnings of the land known as Rus’ to the start of the 21st century.

Russia’s cultural mythology has been shaped by a number of factors and themes you will explore in these lectures, including:

  • Russia’s geographic enormity, which is the basis of its greatness—and its insecurity;

 

  • Russia’s drive to become an empire, masked by a grand civilizing mission; and
  • Russia’s shifting relationship to religion and the Orthodox Church.

 

Place Russian Culture in a Historical Context

As a way of organizing the vast scope and span of Russian culture, Professor Hartnett delivers this fascinating exploration chronologically, allowing you to experience how tumultuous shifts in Russia’s political landscape in fact paved the way for much of its cultural heritage. Some of the periods and movements you will witness include:

  • The Rise of the Tsar: In 1480, Ivan III (“the Great”) declared Russian sovereignty, and the country found its apparent destiny in the hands not just of a grand prince, but a new Caesar, or “tsar.”

 

  • The Romanov Dynasty: The Romanovs, who came to power at a time of foreign invasion and civil war, ruled Russia for more than 300 years. They inherited the peasantry’s traditional reverence for the tsar as their rightful ruler; commoners didn’t blame their problems on him but on Russia’s noble landlords.
  • The October Revolution: When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they found a way to take advantage of “popular aspirations” to impressive effect. Presenting the old culture as backwards, antiquated, and unjust, the new Soviet culture was said to be the most modern and progressive the world had ever seen.

 

  • The Great Patriotic War: World War II, for Russia, defined not only a generation but the entirety of Mother Russia. Tied to monumental victories of the past, the “Great Patriotic War” was seen as the latest in a proud line of Russian heroism and achievement—a victory won not by an individual but by the Russian people.

Along the way you’ll discover surprising insights into centuries of cultural history, including:

  • The enduring legacy of peasant superstitions such as avoiding whistling indoors and spitting over your shoulder to avoid curses;
  • The influence of Catherine the Great’s Nakaz, a political instructional that denounced torture and criticized capital punishment;
  • The Igor Tale, Russia’s only surviving piece of secular medieval literature and a morality tale extolling the Christian leadership of a single prince;
  • The policy of Russification under Alexander III and Nicholas II, designed to maintain control in the empire’s European areas by making the people more Russian; and
  • The culture of queuing for goods and services that defined everyday life for ordinary Soviets, especially in its impact on women.

 

Meet a Cast of Cultural Creators

“If you’ve ever enjoyed—or hoped to enjoy—the treasures of Russian art, literature, theater, and film, each takes center stage in these lectures,” Professor Hartnett says at the outset of this grand cultural inquiry.

Understanding Russia puts you in the fascinating company of a range of novelists, painters, poets, filmmakers, impresarios, composers, revolutionaries, and intellectuals, each of whom shaped Russia in myriad ways.

In addition to Russian cultural titans like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Diaghilev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Anna Akhmatova, you’ll hear the fascinating stories and important contributions of people and groups like:

  • Stenka Razin, the 17th-century Cossack whose rebellion vexed the tsarist state for four years and whose death left a “myth of rebellion” that would inspire future generations;

 

  • The Five, a group of Russian composers including Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who created a distinctly national sound based in part on Russian folk music;
  • The House of Fabergé, whose imperial Easter eggs, while works of opulent craftsmanship, also represented a ruler completely isolated from his people;

 

  • Vladimir Mayakovsky, often described as the leading poet of the Russian Revolution who paid homage to technology and delighted in mocking pre-revolutionary culture; and
  • Sergei Eisenstein, the filmmaker whose techniques (in films such as Battleship Potemkin) revolutionized the language of cinema and inspired generations of film auteurs.

 

Connect the Past to the Present

“The Romanov tsars may be long-dead and buried,” Professor Hartnett says,” and the Soviet Union may be gone for good. But beliefs rooted in Russia’s long history and its rich culture—these endure.”

Professor Hartnett’s course is, above all, about connecting the past to the present we’re currently living: a world in which Russia’s global power and influence continue to grow. She keeps this relevance at the core of Understanding Russia, injecting many of her lectures with personal anecdotes from her own extensive cultural scholarship and experiences in cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow.

In addition, her lectures feature period illustrations, photographs, maps, film clips, and other visuals that add layers of depth to this intellectual adventure. These lectures  also go a long way toward making Russian culture a little less enigmatic and a little more relevant to our own distinctly Western culture.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    A Russian Past, the Putin Future
    As you start your journey into the heart of Russian history and culture, consider several themes you'll encounter throughout these lectures. Among them: the enormity of Russia's geography, its desire for power, and its search for an organic cultural identity. Then, explore the beginnings of Russia in the land known as Rus'. x
  • 2
    Ivan the Terrible's 500-Year Reign
    For better and worse, Ivan the Terrible’s reign has become a cultural and historical symbol of Russian leadership. Was he really terrible—or just awe-inspiring? How did he use cultural symbols to create a spectacle of autocracy? And to what extent did he set the standard for subsequent centuries of Russian leadership? x
  • 3
    The Russian Orthodox Church
    In this lecture, examine the fascinating relationship between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. Along the way, you'll assess how religion, as practiced by the Russian masses, changed church institutions (and how the Russian state responded in turn) and the extraordinary influence of the Russian church on state culture. x
  • 4
    Peter the Great and a European Empire
    What makes the Russian ruler Peter deserving of the title “great”? The answer lies in looking at how he transformed a minor power on the periphery of Europe into a formidable empire, how he embraced Western culture, and how he spearheaded transformations (including calendar reforms) to create a new European capital. x
  • 5
    Russia's Northern Window on Europe
    Modern Russian culture was born in the city of St. Petersburg, built on the shores of the Gulf of Finland in the early 18th century. It's here where you'll witness the dawning of the Russian Elizabethan Age: a time of extravagance and cultural energy that produced wonders in everything from architecture to opera. x
  • 6
    Nobility, the Tsar, and the Peasant
    The political alliance the Russian nobility forged with the Romanov regime facilitated Russian expansion—but at tremendous cost to the Russian masses. Here, Professor Hartnett explores some of the many fissures in the tsarist system that led to popular resentment of the Russian nobility and made the country ripe for revolution. x
  • 7
    The Authentic Russia: Popular Culture
    Russian popular culture, produced by the masses of uneducated peasants, can be described as a culture of sentimentality rooted in religious devotion and the agricultural calendar. Here, explore everything from superstitions and folk tales and Stenka Razin’s “myth of rebellion” to the popularity of Russian baths (banya), vodka, and nesting dolls (matryoshkas). x
  • 8
    Catherine the Great and the Enlightenment
    In this lecture, explore the powerful legacy of Catherine the Great, who would extend the empire westward and accomplish what even Peter the Great had been unable to do: establish Russian dominance of the southern regions. You'll also learn how Catherine fueled Enlightenment-inspired developments in politics, architecture, and more. x
  • 9
    Alexander Pushkin's Russia
    To understand the poet Alexander Pushkin’s literary significance, you must understand the Russia in which he lived. Here, explore how Pushkin (today recognized as Russia’s greatest poet) intersected with significant events, trends, and individuals, and how he created works including the novel Eugene Onegin and the poem, “The Bronze Horseman.” x
  • 10
    Alexander II, Nihilists, and Assassins
    Focus on the reign of Alexander II, who ruled Russia from 1855 to 1881. Central to this lecture are three questions: Why did this promising reign end so violently? Did Alexander II shape developments in literature and culture? How could Russia's last great tsar inaugurate a violent confrontation between the state and its people? x
  • 11
    The Age of Realism in Russian Art
    Dive into the age of artistic realism, whose artists are among the most celebrated in all of Russian culture. As you meet composers like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, writers like Ivan Turgenev, and painters like Ilya Repin, you'll learn how artists found their muse in the history and traditions of Russia. x
  • 12
    Russian Fin de Siecle and the Silver Age
    By the end of the 19th century, Russian artists were helping to make Russian culture among the most exceptional in the world. Here, take a closer look at the cheeky apathy of Anton Chekhov's plays, the Bolshoi Theater and the Ballets Russes, decorative arts from the House of Faberge, and more. x
  • 13
    Empire across Two Continents
    Chart the tsars’ development of a grand Eurasian empire. You’ll consider the commonalities Russian colonizers shared with their Western counterparts, explore incursions into Alaska and Siberia, examine the Napoleonic and Russo-Turkish wars, and investigate the policy of “Russification,” designed to make the empire’s European areas “more Russian.” x
  • 14
    The Rise and Fall of the Romanovs
    Get the real story behind the Romanov dynasty, from its rise to power in 1613 to its bloody end in 1917—a tale filled with adventure, intrigue, romance, and heartbreak. It was this period that saw the Decembrist revolution, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and the machinations of the notorious Grigori Rasputin. x
  • 15
    Russian Radicals, War, and Revolution
    On October 26, 1917, a new era in Russian history began. In the first of two lectures on the October Revolution, explore the events that led up to this epoch-making moment, including the devastation of World War I, the repressive rule of Tsar Nicholas II, and the ideas of Vladimir Lenin. x
  • 16
    The October 1917 Revolution
    Examine the Bolshevik seizure of power during the October Revolution and its immediate aftermath. You'll explore the Bolsheviks' attempt to implement a utopian vision through the barrel of a gun, and you'll also investigate how the revolution created a system where violence was a typical tool of statecraft. x
  • 17
    Lenin and the Soviet Cultural Invasion
    Professor Hartnett reveals how Lenin and the Communist Party aimed to win the hearts and minds of the Soviet people through a cultural battle fought on every possible front. See how this battle was won through a militarized economy, propaganda radio, the renaming of streets, and the “secular sainthood” of Lenin. x
  • 18
    The Roaring Twenties, Soviet Style
    The Russian Revolution wasn’t just about changing politics. The Bolsheviks also attacked Russia’s traditional religious, sexual, and social norms. Here, examine how the Soviets built a new proletarian culture that had powerful ramifications for education, women, religion, folk songs—and even cinema. x
  • 19
    The Tyrant Is a Movie Buff: Stalinism
    Stalin and his cadre aspired to transform everyday Russian life (byt) in ways that brought forth such horrors as collectivization and the gulags. But, as you'll learn, this was also a period where the creative work and cultural influence of writers, composers, and painters were suppressed by the terrifying mandates of Socialist Realism. x
  • 20
    The Soviets' Great Patriotic War
    By the time World War II ended, the Soviets would lose 27 million men, women, and children from a total population of 200 million. In this lecture, examine Soviet life during the Great Patriotic War and investigate how culture (including poetry and film) was used in service of the war effort. x
  • 21
    With Khrushchev, the Cultural Thaw
    Nikita Khrushchev emerged from the power struggles after Stalin’s death with a daring denunciation of the dictator’s cult of terror and personality. As you examine Khrushchev’s liberalization of culture, you’ll also explore its limits, including the continuation of anti-Semitism from the Stalin era, embraced under the guise of “anti-cosmopolitanism.” x
  • 22
    Soviet Byt: Shared Kitchen, Stove, and Bath
    What was everyday Soviet life like during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods? How and where did people live? How did they spend their leisure time? Answers to these and other questions reveal the degree to which politics affected even seemingly apolitical areas of life. x
  • 23
    Intelligentsia, Dissidents, and Samizdat
    In this lecture, explore the culture of intellectual dissent in Russian history. Professor Hartnett reveals how Russia’s intellectuals and artists (including writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov) played a unique, important role in challenging the status quo of autocratic rule—often at the expense of their freedom. x
  • 24
    Soviet Chaos and Russian Revenge
    On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union came to an end. Follow the road that led to this moment under the policies of perestroika (restructuring the centrally-planned economy) and glasnost (removing rigid state censorship). Then, conclude with a look at the rise of a new popular leader: Vladimir Putin. x

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Your professor

Lynne Ann Hartnett

About Your Professor

Lynne Ann Hartnett, PhD
Villanova University
Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett is an Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, where she teaches courses on all facets of Russian history as well as on the social, political, and intellectual history of modern Europe. She earned her PhD in Russian History at Boston College. Dr. Hartnett’s research focuses on the Russian revolutionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and she has conducted archival...
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Reviews

Understanding Russia: A Cultural History is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 16.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and informative I learned much from listening to understanding Russia. It has influenced many other areas of Eastern Europe that I wanted to know more about how the people and rulers became who they are
Date published: 2018-11-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The cultural approach is Useful The cultural approach adds a good deal to the more conventional political history. Peter the Great made much more sense in this context.
Date published: 2018-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great insight into Russian Soul This has proven to be an invaluable resource to expand my understanding of how Russian culture evolved and how the arts fit into the political and religious picture of Russian history. It has added a deeper and more expansive knowledge for my talk at our library on the Russian Soul. Particularly insightful are the discussions of cultural biases and tendencies across the classes, and the changing class dynamics over the centuries. Dr. Hartnett pulls the subject matter out of academia and pulls the viewer into active understanding of the rich and complex Russian culture and history. Excellent teaching.
Date published: 2018-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I purchased this a couple months ago mainly because I listen while I walk. Then I watched on my iPad and will continue to do so as it came alive with color!
Date published: 2018-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Russia I've only seen two lectures but, so far, this course is excellent.
Date published: 2018-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course, wonderful professor! I am nearly finished with this course and enjoying it immensely. I have been buying Great Courses audio CDs for years for use during gym workouts. This time I got the video. The many graphics are gorgeous and the professor’s delivery is engrossing. I’m so glad I tried the video format. It was perfect for this course. I highly recommend both the course and the format.
Date published: 2018-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent review I have read several books on Russian history, and the instructor hits all the major points, so for me it is added reinforcement, with added interesting details here and there, especially how the class system developed. I do wish however that more focus was given to the 1800s and how the events of 1917 were the result of the century before, especially since the Decembrist revolt, especially how Russian literature and writers supported the eventual revolution. This could be a very interesting course in itself, and I hope Great Courses will consider offering it!
Date published: 2018-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fascinating Overview, Both History and Culture Basically - read Challenger's excellent review, with which I entirely agree. This is a fascinating course, which covers over a millenia of Russian history. It focuses on culture - literature, art, music, and religion - as well as on everyday life, but also reviews, for context and in adequate depth, the major events of political history. Professor Hartnett clearly loves her subject, is highly knowledgeable and well-organized, and speaks beautifully and eloquently; the only (minor) drawback here is the occasional misplaced stress which makes it too obvious that she is reading. Another quibble is TGC's recent inexplicable tendency to have professors treat each lecture as an independent unit, without references to past or future discussions. This results in a number of unnecessary repetitions and a certain lack of cohesion. Keep in mind that covering over 1000 years in 12 hours is quite a challenge; I was left wishing the course had been two or three times as long. The visuals were plentiful and extremely helpful, and the Course Guidebook is complete and well-written. So - an excellent course, if too brief, highly recommended for any with an interest in Russia or in cultural history.
Date published: 2018-10-16
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