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Understanding Russia: A Cultural History

Get a comprehensive look at Russia's fascinating cultural history with an award-winning historian and Russian specialist.
Understanding Russia: A Cultural History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 116.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from I understand that this course was designed for an American audience. As a former Soviet citizen who spent a lot of time studying history including Russian history, I really like this course. I can see how much hard work went into designing and delivering this course. It gave me a chance to look at a number of political events and phenomena already familiar to me from different angles. I would like to thank Dr. Hartnett for her hard work and this amazing course. P.S. One little note: in certain parts of the course, professor uses the word "Russians" when she clearly means Soviet people. This was especially noticeable in the lecture about The Great Patriotic War. It was the Soviet people who won the war, not Russians. Not all of us are / were Russian no matter how much Putin and many other Russian politicians want it to be the case. In any case, thanks again.
Date published: 2024-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great guide to understand today's Russia This is very valuable overview of the last 600-odd years of Russian history. In a clear and engaging manner, the instructor explains the story of Russian rulers, culture, art, and the makeup of Russian society. It becomes clear that Vladimir Putin's autocracy, corruption, and militant imperialism are not aberrations in Russian history, but that he is following in the footsteps of a line of despots stretching back to at least Ivan the Terrible. The course gives great insights into a complex and deeply troubling country and society.
Date published: 2023-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good introduction to Russian history and culture Before I wrote this, I read both the 4 and 5 star as well as the 3 star and less reviews. No point in repeating what the 5-star reviewers said, probably better than I could. The ‘Cliff notes’ excerpts are below: “the instructor is very knowledgeable… presents the material in a clear and objective manner… speaks well and is organized” “she connected various leaders and events across time… course was comprehensive and broad surveying imperial, political and religious history, art, literature, music and ballet.” And so on… Now, back to my review. Professor Lynne Ann Hartnett was able to portray what it was like for both leaders and the typical Russian peasant/worker through history. I particularly enjoyed seeing the individual’s names in both English and Cyrillic characters. Helps me as a Russian language learner. To address the comments seen in the 3-star and less reviews, I would encourage the reviewers to read the free included guidebook and try to answer the thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter rather than relying strictly on watching the lectures. Need more? The included biography is worth its weight in gold. Still need more? Buy the transcript or rewatch the lectures. I always get more out of a second or third viewing. As one of my college professors said in the 1970s, ‘We aren’t going to spoon-feed you. Our job is to teach you how to learn.’ I highly recommend the course to anyone who wants a good introduction to Russian history and culture. Professor Lynne Ann Hartnett has provided a solid foundation.
Date published: 2023-07-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Very Worthwhile Course—with a Few Flaws Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett’s 24 lectures on Russian cultural history also provide significant Russian and Eurasian general history. I consider this a good companion course to Dr. Vegas Gabriel Liulevicius’s “A History of Eastern Europe,” and Dr. Joyce E. Salisbury’s “The Middle Ages around the World,” also available Great Courses. Here are some particular strengths of the present course: * Dr. Hartnett is an earnest instructor who speaks from the point of view of one who has had a life-long fascination with her subject. * Some of her analytic insights are truly choice and convincing. * She has a knack for making the historical people she discusses “come alive” and seem relatable. * She works through her material methodically, not “biting off too much” per lecture. * She makes clear how the growth of the Russian/Soviet Empire proceeded, especially during its vast eastward expansion, which I had not fully understood before. * She describes well how “autocracy is still autocracy,” plain and simple, experienced as such by subject peoples regardless of whether autocrats’ titles change (e.g., from Grand Prince, to Emperor, to Tsar, to Leader, etc.). * Staging and the musical introduction for these lectures are both very appealing. * Lecture-by-lecture summaries in the provided course guidebook are ample and well illustrated. Here are a few aspects that could have been better: * Neither a glossary nor a timeline is included in the guidebook—both would have been helpful for quick reference. While I generally view The Great Courses without subtitles turned on, I did make use of those in this case, partly so that I could pause to check unfamiliar words in a dictionary, and partly because the speaker’s pronunciations were sometimes atypical and/or inconsistent. * While most of the visual accompaniments are relevant, or even beautiful, the printing on some of the maps shown is close in colour to their backgrounds and not easy to read. * Too frequently, Dr. Hartnett’s words and phrases seem to be imprecise, non-standard usages, or verbal slips. Just one example is her use of “continental divide” to mean “continental boundary.” Personally, that sort of thing bothers me less when a lecturer is speaking more conversationally, perhaps searching for just the right term while trying out more than one to make an extemporaneous point. It strikes me as less acceptable when text is obviously being read directly from a teleprompter, as is the case here, causing me to wonder if either the professor or a production assistant should have done more careful proofreading. A related point is that, occasionally, Dr. Hartnett uses an unfamiliar term without defining it until much later. * Multiple extended repetitions of information aren’t necessary in a recorded course which students can “rewind” for themselves, as needed. My wife and I wondered if Dr. Hartnett had been directed to give each of these lectures a stand-alone character, which might explain why she so frequently repeats material. There is a lot to like about the overall content of Dr. Hartnett’s course, and it deserves to be recommended. Its strengths outweigh its relative weaknesses.
Date published: 2023-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Overview of This Misunderstood Culture I just finished this course and I can't recommend it enough. Understanding history is key to understanding current events.
Date published: 2023-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good One ! It has been quite some time since I bought a course and both format and content - though always good - have improved. I like all the extra visual material in both the DVDs and the course book. And there is more information about women than there used to be. It took about a month to arrive, but it's That Time of the Year.
Date published: 2022-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Russian CULTURAL history Dr. Hartnett was a great presenter which the majority of reviewers appeared to appreciate. The contents were enlightening to me and gave a greater understanding of present day Russia, which was my intention when taking the course. It certainly focused on the cultural aspects, put this was put into historical context.
Date published: 2022-12-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Odd Organization & Flow to Lectures I tried to enjoy this course. I was very excited and anxious to learn about Russian history. I went in with every intention of enthusiastically focusing on a topic I had been waiting for some time for the Great Courses to present (none of the other Russian courses surveyed history prior to Peter the Great). But I found this a difficult course to get through. My first disappointment was with the dearth of information on ancient Russian history (prior to Peter the Great): this had been one of the main reasons I had been looking forward to this course. However, 600 years of history were covered in only 14 minutes of lecture 1: one of the main reasons for my interest in this course was to more deeply explore early Russian history but little can be found here. Not much on how the original Rus state came to be. Hundreds of years of Mongol domination were discussed in a line or two. Military engagements such as Russia’s confrontations with Sweden and Poland-Lithuania are mentioned but come with no details of the actual battles or specifics on how the conflicts played out or of the underlying dynamics. Without deeper discussion or analysis how are we to truly understand these events or of how Russia built their empire? Yes, there is a lecture on Ivan the Terrible but even that failed to describe the events of his time in any kind of detail. But what was more maddening to me (although it probably says more about my personal style of learning) was the organization of the lectures themselves and how the course enfolds. I cannot say it is in a traditional chronological manner: not only does it result in the feeling there is little connection or momentum from one lecture to the next (perhaps the lectures were meant to all stand alone on their own vs. relating a chronological full story of Russia?) but it also leads to material being repeated numerous times such as the odd scenario of a history of Russian serfdom being described in some detail twice....even more bizarrely in consecutive lectures (6 & 7)! I think it is good to repeat certain events or thoughts for reinforcement purposes but this was altogether something different: events were discussed in great detail TWICE such as Stalin's funeral. And the topper is the double relation of this event is intermingled in other stories of his life! Why in the world wouldn't his life be described first followed by his death? Instead we get the the odd sequence of the professor describing his funeral first (the very first mention of Stalin), then events of his life, then his funeral again, and then other events in his life! I almost question did anyone QA this course (even the professor herself)? It's not that this course doesn't have great content. Lecture 14 on the Romanovs was well put together and engaging. The professor is obviously very qualified and there is a lot to learn in this course but it is painful to get there. The organization of the course and the lack of detail of some of the most critical political and military historical events prevents me from fully appreciating this course. Sorry one last nag: the professor is passionate and enthusiastic about the subject but her delivery veers into "way too emotionally over the top" territory at times. I was on the fence with giving a 2 or 3 star review. I think if it wasn't for the course organizational concerns this would be a solid three star course worth future listenings. However, add everything up and I don't think I will retain this course. Listening for another 12 hours strikes me as too painful. I certainly hope The Great Courses produces a course that describes in greater detail Russian history from its Rus origins to the present.
Date published: 2022-08-12
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Overview

In a time when the eyes of the Western world are drawn to Russia and her role on the world stage, it's amazing how little many of us really know about it. Blending history with cultural studies, the 24 lectures of Understanding Russia: A Cultural History bring you closer than ever to the Russian people through the poetry of Pushkin, the comfort of early folk tales, the faith of medieval iconography, the avant-garde films of Eisenstein, and more.

About

Lynne Ann Hartnett

For better and worse, people are the central characters in revolutions.

INSTITUTION

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 research in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and London. She regularly presents her research at international conferences in the United States and Europe. Dr. Hartnett’s work, which has been published in a number of academic journals, focuses on the Russian revolutionary leader Vera Figner and the terrorist group People’s Will; Russian political émigrés in European exile; the Russian Civil War as experienced by an individual family; and the transnational activist networks that Russian émigrés built with British liberals, socialists, and suffragists. Immigration policy and refugee issues are central to this work and provide a link to contemporary policy questions. Dr. Hartnett is also the author of the book, The Defiant Life of Vera Figner: Surviving the Russian Revolution. Dr. Hartnett is the director of Villanova’s graduate program in History and the president of the Sigma of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. At Villanova, she has served as the director of the Russian Area Studies Program. Dr. Hartnett has been nominated three times for the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award and has received several teaching awards at both Villanova and Boston College.

By This Professor

Understanding Russia: A Cultural History
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The Great Revolutions of Modern History
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Understanding Russia: A Cultural History

Trailer

A Russian Past, the Putin Future

01: 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’.

31 min
Ivan the Terrible’s 500-Year Reign

02: 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?

31 min
The Russian Orthodox Church

03: 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.

32 min
Peter the Great and a European Empire

04: 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.

31 min
Russia’s Northern Window on Europe

05: 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.

31 min
Nobility, the Tsar, and the Peasant

06: 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.

31 min
The Authentic Russia: Popular Culture

07: 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).

30 min
Catherine the Great and the Enlightenment

08: 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.

32 min
Alexander Pushkin’s Russia

09: 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.”

33 min
Alexander II, Nihilists, and Assassins

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?

31 min
The Age of Realism in Russian Art

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.

32 min
Russian Fin de Siècle and the Silver Age

12: Russian Fin de Siècle 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 Fabergé, and more.

32 min
Empire across Two Continents

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.”

32 min
The Rise and Fall of the Romanovs

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.

32 min
Russian Radicals, War, and Revolution

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.

33 min
The October 1917 Revolution

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.

31 min
Lenin and the Soviet Cultural Invasion

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.

33 min
The Roaring Twenties, Soviet Style

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.

33 min
The Tyrant Is a Movie Buff: Stalinism

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.

31 min
The Soviets’ Great Patriotic War

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.

31 min
With Khrushchev, the Cultural Thaw

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.”

33 min
Soviet Byt: Shared Kitchen, Stove, and Bath

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.

32 min
Intelligentsia, Dissidents, and Samizdat

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.

32 min
Soviet Chaos and Russian Revenge

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.

30 min

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