Monday, August 20, 2007

Syllabi, pt. I: Peter and Catherine and pals in the Gulf(of Finland, that is)

As the drums roll, here comes the fall 2007 edition of History 462, Imperial Russia
History 462
Imperial Russia
Fall ‘07/WSUTC

Photo of prewar Winter Palace...from a old Petersburg postcard collection.

Essential info: Office 207 J West Building 332-7257. Reality-based, up-close and personal office hours: 3:30-5:30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays; virtual office hours 24/7 by email at I always will try to get back to you as soon as possible—email is my favorite means of communication. For emergencies, my ancestral estate in Pendleton, Oregon may be reached at 541-276-6962.

Students with Disabilities: Accommodations are available for students with a documented disability. See Cherish Tijerna, Disability Resources Coordinator, as soon as possible to seek information or to qualify for accommodations. To make an appointment, please call 372-7352. Translation from Officialspeak: If you have a learning disability, people and resources are available to help you.

Important note: I’ve got a blog called Blogside Inn, named for the Bogside Inn, Londonderry, N.I., where I learned my first lessons about Irish history and culture. The various contributors and I comment on history and culture of all kinds, really just interesting stuff that might miss the front page, and I also post class-related stuff from time to time, like syllabi, exams and various announcements. If you think about it, check the blog every day or so. The URL:

If you’d like, register(as yourself or someone else)and leave comments. The more the merrier!!

Non-essential information: I’m an old Russia hand—I started studying Russian at Pendleton High School, just over the mountain in Pendleton, Oregon and decided I wanted to take it as far as it would go. After graduating from Georgetown University in l979 with degrees in French and Russian Studies, I spent 6 months in St. Petersburg as an exchange student, a memorable experience. I thought briefly about becoming a Russian-language broadcaster for the Voice of America, but in the end opted for grad school and the chance to get paid for teaching, reading and writing about the things I am most interested in.
In l987, I spent l4 months as a United States Information Agency Exhibit guide, basically talking to Soviet citizens about life in the United States 8 hours per day, 6 days a week in Moscow, Kiev, Rostov-on-Don and also Tbilisi, the capital of now-independent Georgia. Shortly thereafter, I finished grad school in Russian history at Indiana and eventually found my way back home to the Pacific Northwest and the job here at WSUTC.
I’m not very thrilled about events in Russia at the moment, but I keep going back there anyway. At last count, I’ve been there about 30 times and am going again in November. I don’t know whether all these trips qualify as persistence or masochism.

The Lowdown: Welcome to the rise and fall of Imperial Russia, the most brilliant and intriguing period in the grand drama of Russia. The names of the players say it all: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Grigorii Grigorievich Potemkin-Tavricheskii, Aleksandr I, Aleksandr II, Napoleon, Aleksandr Pushkin, Nicholas and Alexandra, Rasputin, Modest Mussorgskii, Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov, Sergei Rakhmaninov, Lev Tolstoy, Rastrellis, Aleksandr and Volodia Ulianov, Nijinskii, Diagliev/Ballet russe, Vera Zasulich, Princess Elizaveta(Ella) and the new Romanov martyrs, “yellow monkeys,” and many, many more.
In the political narrative, plots and subplots are equally compelling: Tsar grabs subjects by the beards and drags them into a new capital and new century; successor to this Tsar comes to Russia as a German princess, has husband bumped off and assumes the throne; Tsar-Victor over Napoleon quits the throne at the height of his power and disappears; Tsar-Liberator does more to advance Russia than anyone in his century, then gets blown up by revolutionaries for his trouble; Tsar born on Job’s feast day hit with tragedy upon tragedy, ending with the murder of himself and his family before a firing squad in l9l8; small band of revolutionaries seizes power over l/6 of the world’s surface, holds on to promise to create “utopia,” instead bringing to power the world’s most prolific serial killer.
But it’s in the realm of the arts and culture where the Imperial Russians have their most transcendent and long-lasting successes. I spent a week this summer watching and listening to the Kirov(St. Petersburg)opera and its brilliant conductor, Valerii Gergiev, interpret Richard Wagner’s immortal Ring of the Niebelungen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Their interpretation was distinctly unorthodox, even provocative, which brought forth indignant cries of protest from the traditionalist fans I was with. I was kind of removed from those debates, because this was my first experience with the Ring. What struck me, as I watched the cast take bow upon bow after the finale, “Gotterdammerung,”was that this group, this Kirov opera, was returning to form. In its heyday, l870-l9l4, it was the most exciting thing going, a company that lived to provoke, even shock people. On several occasions, foreign audiences charged the stage after performances, they were so outraged. Under the Soviet cultural bureaucrats, the Kirov played to the lowest common denominator, dumbed down, stripped of its edginess. That’s the way Communists liked their culture—boring and predictable.
Now that the Communist overseers are gone, the Kirov has returned to its imperial Russian/iconoclastic roots, its artists able to give their talents and inspiration free rein, their capacity to agitate, shock and make you think limitless. That was an Imperial Russia flashback for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. So you can look backward AND forward to some brilliant art and culture.

I don’t have a complicated agenda for this course. What we’re after is basic literacy in the imperial period, including acquaintance with Russian arts and letters, which I hope will go with you and inspire you long after you have left the course. By the end of this term, you will have demonstrated your ability to:

Discuss some of the achievements that won Peter I and Catherine II inclusion on the millenium’s top 100 most influential individuals of all time.

Discuss the meaning of St. Petersburg and outline the differences between Petersburg and Moscow, the “other” and current capital of Russia.

Identify some of the most celebrated and historical buildings and monuments of Imperial Russia and what they commemorate.

Explain the origins of Russians’ love of poetry and identify the best-loved poet, and very probably the best-loved Russian, in Russian history

Identify a few Russian composers and their works. Hopefully, you will like one of them enough to let him(sorry, ladies, they are all men) give you an introduction to the classics.

Identify some l9th Russian painters and their works. Not enough people know about them because it’s terribly complicated and expensive to get them over here--but they are terrific.

Discuss in general terms the issues that divided the Tsar from his subjects between l860 and 19l4 and outline some of the reasons why some people wanted to get rid of him.

Readings: We begin with Robert Massie’s biography of Peter the Great. You have to begin at the beginning, and the beginning is Peter I, founder of St. Petersburg and author of Russia’s long interaction with the west. Isabel de Madariaga’s short biography of Catherine the Great can be a bit dry, but she is the leading scholar of Catherine the Great in the world, and she’s done a good job with this book in covering Catherine’s basics. We will add color in lecture. Then, Edward Radzinsky’s two biographies of the last and next to last Tsars, Alexander II and Nicholas II. Radzinsky isn’t an historian, but he has awfully good sources for his work, especially the one on Nicholas II, and he has a playwright’s way with words.
P.S. If you find you really like St. Petersburg and would like to keep abreast of day-to-day events there, bookmark the St. Petersburg Times website,, and visit there often. Registration is not required.

Class Procedures: We will have two essay-type exams this term,(35% each) along with a final exercise(30%), the nature of which is a deep, dark secret, during finals week. On the two essay exams, you will receive a copy of the questions two weeks in advance—the only mystery is which question will be chosen on test day. Sometimes you will get to choose, other times I will choose for you. Sometimes I will choose to let YOU choose. The point is, be prepared for any of the questions, because you can’t bring your notes. For the deep, dark secret exercise, well, just pay good attention all the way along and you won’t be TOO lost(heh, heh, heh…)

Caveats: Come to class, keep up with the readings, do a little extra something each week, enjoy this rendezvous with Imperial Russian splendor, before it all comes crashing down.


Part I: The Titans: Peter and Catherine, l672-l796

B.P., Before Peter: the Moscow background

Peter I Alekseevich and the “Grand Embassy”

Sankt-Peterburg or bust! Or else!

New capital, new Russia, new(Peter’s) people

Paradise?! Paradise!!

Peter’s last years

Empress Elizabeth, her favorites and the coming of western culture

Young Catherine, wife of the heir

Catherine II, Empress of Russia

Empress of the Enlightenment: Catherine the Collector/Builder/Educator

Catherine the stateswoman: Let’s carve up the Poles, then go recapture Constantinople!

Pavel I Petrovich the Strange

Readings: Text, TBA, relevant sections; read all of Massie and de Madariaga
Recommended readings: Lindsey Hughes, Peter the Great: A Biography. Professor Hughes, who taught at the University of London, was the first to access all the sources on Peter after the fall of Communism. Tragically, she died a few months ago of cancer, at age 58. She will be greatly missed, because she was such a great scholar and wrote so well.

Exam #1 after this section, a standard two or three essay questions.

Part II: The brilliant l9th century, I

From Pavel I Petrovich to Aleksandr I Pavlovich: controversy and murder

Napoleon, the Grande Armee and the decision to conquer Russia

The burning of Moscow and the end of Napoleon

Aleksandr triumphant

The Decembrist revolt and the debut of Nikolai I Petrovich, Tsar Nicholas I

Nicholas I, gendarme of Europe

The golden age of Russian poetry: Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin and his circle

War, defeat and death

Readings: text, relevant sections; start Radzinsky, The Last Great Tsar.

The brilliant l9th century, II: The “Great Time,” Tsar Aleksandr II Nikolaevich, l856-1881

Picking up the pieces, making big plans

Russia before liberation: serfs and masters

The Abraham Lincoln of Russia

Russia after liberation: a nation in transformation

Going to the(liberated) people: artists and musicians

Going to the(liberated) people: young idealists and revolutionaries

Going after the Tsar

Readings: Continue with text, TBA; finish Radzinsky.
Recommended readings: Priscilla Roosevelt, Life on the Russian Country Estate. The one portrait of nobles and estate life available in English, a treasure of a book. I would also advise you to pick up Ivan Turgenev, A Sportsman’s Sketches, Fedor Dostoevsky’s Devils, and Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina OR War and Peace. That is a really long one, but it’s the Gone with the Wind of Russian history.

The Road to Revolution, l881-l9l4

Tsar Aleksandr III Nikolaevich

“Black” reaction: anti-semitism, arrests, executions

The heir, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, “Nicky”

Tsar Nikolai II Aleksandrovich and Tsarevna Aleksandra Fedorovna

The empire he inherited: Russia at the turn of the century

War and revolution, l904-05

Hemophilia and history

The coming of the world war(and revolution: the whole of Russia mutinies in l9l7)

Readings: Text, appropriate sections; Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, all.
Recommended readings: if you like this period, you should read Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Aleksandra. I read that in 9th grade, just before I started Russian language That’s a novel about Nicky and Alicky, with some fictional details, but it’s a pretty good account of that marriage. For my money, the best Russian history book ever written is Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, l890-1924. Everything you ever wanted to know about Nicholas II’s Russia.

Second midterm at the end of this section or the week before deadweek, whichever comes first. Standard essay-type.

Final: The Deep, Dark Secret Exercise will take place on the regularly scheduled day for finals. You can’t really study for it, because it depends on what you have learned all along. Be Scared. Be Very Scared.

1 comment:

mishdiaz said...

Talk about a Wealth of Information! And the Deep Dark Secret! HMMMMMMM..... some kind of torture I presume? Can't wait... what if we have old timers disease? LOL