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Russian History Discussion and Essay Questions

  1. The Underground Man tells us the rank at which he left government service. Discuss this detail in the context of the broad impact of peter the Great’s instituting the famous Table of Ranks, Peter’s social policies and program, and the evolution of St. Petersburg as “the most intentional of cities”.

“I am a collegiate assessor.  I was in the service that I might have

something to eat (and solely for that reason), and when last year a distant

relation left me six thousand roubles in his will I immediately retired

from the service and settled down in my corner.”

Peter the Great – his program was secularization, modernization, and westernization

Secularization: Peter abolished the patriarchate, and replaced it with the holy synod. He also changed the way letters are formed, which led to a more efficient way of writing, and printing. Religious books were still printed in the old style, whereas secular books adapted the new style, and became more widespread. Changed the calendar system to start in January. Disallowed the wearing of beards, or else you would be taxed. Beards of course had a religious significance.

Westernization: Peter changed his own clothing to western style.

Founded St. Petersburg in 1703 as a bulwark to the Swedes in the northern war, intended as the window to Europe. St. Petersburg has a very western look and feel to it. Table of Ranks – defined what your formal rank was, what clothing you were to wear, how many serfs you had. The only way to get ahead was by taking exams to prove competence. Clearly the table of ranks is a system of merit advancement (meritocracy), which is truly a fundamental shift from the old to a new more effective and efficient government bureaucracy.  Service in infantry was a ticket to freedom. The army, navy, church, and state bureaucracy all had ranks, which thus placed an importance on education.

Modernization: Peter eliminated prikazy, and established a much smaller number of ministries. Created a modern Russian Navy. Great northern war 1704-1721, right after the founding of St. Petersburg, could be seen as a war for access to the Northern Seas, and more importantly to the west.

Intentional city: intentionally founded – what are the consequences of such a city? Western name, as oppose to Moscow, which is a medieval city. Peter founds the city to be his capital, but development and building of the city was done after Peter as well.

A yearly quote of 40,000 peasants was required to be sent to St. Petersburg to build the city. Peter disallowed the building of stone buildings everywhere in Russia except St. Petersburg, in order to force all of Russia’s stonemasons to come to St. Petersburg.

Site of the Decembrist uprising.

Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg. On the very spot where he was killed, the Church of the Savior on Blood was built. This church itself, is somewhat of a contradiction. It’s architecture and design is not in accordance with the city of St. Petersburg, but rather very typical of Moscow. With the unmistakable look of Moscow’s St. Basil, the giant Church of the Savior on Blood stands in the middle of St. Petersburg.

  1. A. S. Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman and F. M. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground are both profoundly “Petersburg” narratives. In what ways? In what ways? Be specific, using quotations from your source texts and direct comparisons and contrasts between the two texts.

Both the Bronze Horseman, and Notes from Underground are profoundly Petersburg narratives, in the sense that they embody the artificiality and rationalism of the city itself.

The idea of artificiality of St. Petersburg plays a critical role in both Notes from Underground and Bronze Horseman.

The first thing we hear from the author of Notes from the Underground, is that “The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary.” The contradiction between real and imaginary is at once apparent, since how could the reader be reading something that does not exist? The opening of Bronze Horseman mirrors this contradiction, with Peter the Great imagining St. Petersburg before it is built. St. Petersburg itself changes from dream to reality in such a small time frame that has never been seen. Unlike other European cities that grow gradually over time, St. Petersburg was rather forced, which gives it an air of artificiality.

people come to St. Petersburg to improve their social status (artificial construct), in particular both Yevgeny and the underground man do so.

“Our hero--somewhere--served the State”

and dreamed that through “pain and toil might some day hope to gain an honored, free, assured position”

 Nature fights against all things artificial:

“A siege! the wicked waves, attacking” 

 “ Some shifted by the seas; and scattered

Are bodies, flung as bodies lie

On battlefields. “

Nature is waging war on the artificial city. It seems very fitting that the artificial and the natural fight in this fashion.

Alexander I says "No czar, 'tis sure, is master

Over God's elements!"

The implication here, of course, is that not even Peter, with his artificial city can triumph over nature, and the natural course of action.

“Two sentry lions stood at guard

Like living things”

These two lions that guard the ministry of war building are not living things, and are artificial.

“He”, “Him”, and “Image” are capitalized, as if it make Peter the Great more Godlike. Yet at the same time he is an artificial, or a false God.

“Parasha--and his dream was she!

His dream--or was it but a vision,

All that he saw? Was life also

An idle dream which in derision

Fate sends to mock us here below?”

A dream is an artificial construct of the mind. The inability to differentiate between the real and fake only highlights the theme of nature versus the artificial.

“By fears that clamored inwardly.

So, dragging out his days, ill-fated,

He seemed like something miscreated,

No beast, nor yet of human birth”

This natural disaster incident robs Yevgeny of his humanity!

“A host of hideous thoughts attacked him,

A kind of nightmare rent and racked him,

And on he wandered silently;”

Dream becomes a nightmare, and Yevgeny becomes consistently described as being crazy and mad, but is it not the fault of his circumstances, rather than a natural inclination? Just like Yevgeny’s downfall is caused by St. Petersburg, the underground man experiences a similar demise. 

“in reality I never could become spiteful” says the underground man, however in reality, all of his actions are out of spite, and he truly enjoys this feeling of spite.

The Crystal palace allows mathematical formulas to determine everything. But he compares it to a chicken coop in the rain. It just gives physical essentials for life. After all it isn’t always raining. The Underground man says socialism, science, and materialism aren’t taking everything into account. On the other hand, he doesn’t offer any positive alternative, he just points out the flaws.

Our caprice “in reality... preserves for us what is most precious and most important—that is, our personality, our individuality”.

“I could never stand more than three months of dreaming at a time without feeling an irresistible desire to plunge into society”.

“The most striking reality they accepted with fantastic stupidity and even at that time were accustomed to respect success”

“since I had succeeded in so corrupting myself, since I was so out of touch with “real life””.

“Real life oppressed me with its novelty so much that I could hardly breathe”

The atmosphere of “real”, which is really just the false front in St. Petersburg is so stifling, that the underground man has trouble staying alive!


St. Petersburg was constructed in a manner that was considered highly rational, as the buildings, avenues, streets were well planned. Peter the great even brought in German engineers to help in the process. It is no mistake that Dostoevsky calls St Petersburg “the most intentional of cities”. St. Petersburg was intended as a window to Europe by Peter the Great, but at what cost? During Peter’s time, A yearly quote of 40,000 peasants was required to be sent to St. Petersburg in order to build the city. Moreover, the harsh climate was not very befitting in the construction of what would become the capital of Russia. The “ugly weather” described in the Bronze Horseman is only echoed in Notes from Underground with the adjective “disgusting”, describing of course the St. Petersburg weather. As if the climate wasn’t bad enough, the socio-political atmosphere is even more oppressive. The underground man attacks the very concept of rationalism which comes in the rising form of socialism. He argues that man is irrational, and wants the  INDEPENDENT choice, whatever that independence may cost”. In this respect, the underground man rails against socialism, whose goal is to give everyone the means of being happy. In the 1840’s the idea that you could pick a downtrodden person and help them came into being. The underground man parallels the idea of emancipating the serfs, when he follows the cliché of helping Liza escape the shackles of prostitution. While the underground man maintains control of the situation, he acts in a way that is against his self interest, which clearly shows his own irrationalism when he treats Liza hideously during her visit. The idea of rationalism is also what ends up killing directly and indirectly both Yevgeny and the underground man. The Underground man literally goes further and further underground, a symbolic death, while Yevgeny dies and is buried out of pity.

  1. In the works of literature and painting studied in our course, how have women been depicted? In the cultural history we have examined, how has the sponsorship and artistic achievment of women played an important role?

During the reign of Peter the Great, women’s participation in society was improved, at least in the upper classes. Arranged marriages were officially forbidden.

In 18th and 19th century Russian painting, women generally have been depicted as power and proud women, while women in the concurrent literature can be seen as downtrodden, and modest at best.


Liza is a strumpet from Riga, who comes to St. Petersburg.

"Besides, a man is no example

for a woman.  It's a different thing.  I may degrade and defile myself, but I

am not anyone's slave.  I come and go, and that's an end of it.  I shake it off,

and I am a different man.  But you are a slave from the start.  Yes, a slave!

You give up everything, your whole freedom.  If you want to break your

chains afterwards, you won't be able to; you will be more and more fast in

the snares.  It is an accursed bondage. 

The underground man calls Liza “a slave from the start” and that she “gives up everything”, her “whole freedom”. The underground man might not just be talking about one individual woman, but women in general. Perhaps the role of every women is prostitution in one form or another. Liza herself says that "Some [fathers] are glad to sell their daughters, rather than marrying them honourably."

Parasha lives in “a frail old house” with “a paintless fence”. Moreover, her very name evokes that she is not of aristocratic origin. This does not stop Yevgeny, who is of aristocratic origins, from fantasizing and dreaming of marrying Parasha, despite her lowly origins. In a similar fashion PROSKOVYA...


Boyarynya Morozova – by Vasily Surikov is a painting of Lady Morozova, who was of one of the richest and most powerful families in Russia. She communicated with Avvakum, who led the main opposition of patriarch Nikon’s reforms. She is also emblematic of the people who would become the old believers. In Surikov’s painting, she is raising two fingers, showing what the old believers considered to be the right way to cross oneself. She was moved to a convent by the Tsar, then to a prison, where she was put in a pit and left to starve to death. It was the Tsar’s intent to humiliate her by sending her in chains through the streets, however she sits up very proudly, which makes her even more of a martyr.

In a similar fashion to Lady Morozova,

Proskovya Nikolai Argunov painted a portrait of Countess Praskovya Sheremeteva. The countess looks majestic in this portrait, wearing a red shawl, a diamond ring (given by emperor Pual), and a very large locket of the count, as if to prove that she is in fact the countess. Born a serf. She learned Italian and French, and spoke and wrote with fluency. Count Nikolai Petrovich told her “today you are a peasant but tomorrow you will become a lady!”. He felt it was “morally wrong not to marry Praskovya, but his aristocratic pride would not allow him to do so” (Natasha’s Dance). Nikolai eventually went against the social conventions and married Proskovya. She died shortly after in 1803, and very few people came to pay respects.

Not only were women pervasive throughout Russian art and literature, but they also sponsored great works of architecture and art.


Late baroque period 1741-62 is also known as “Elizabethan”

Tsarskoye Selo and Petersburg Winter Palace were built by C. B. Rastrelli in the 1750s.

She indirectly founded Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg through Shuvalov. Wanted to establish St. Petersburg as the true capital as oppose to Moscow, due to a previous power struggle.

Catherine the Great – led a coup d’etat against her husband Peter III, and her contributions and sponsorship of art is largely based on the motivation to establish her link with Peter the Great, even though not blood related. Was called the englightened despot. Carried on correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot. Under Catherine, women began to be educated. Catherine wrote more than 30 plays. Catherine “founded the collection of paintings that forms the core of the reat Hermitage collection in St. Petersburg”. Catherine got Falconet to build the an equestrian  statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Catherine was eager to appear to the people as the rightful heir to the Russian throne, despite not having any connection with the bloodline. It is inscribed with “Catherine the Second to Peter the First, 1782”

  1. Nineteenth-century Russian painting is less widely appreciated than is the great Russian literature of the 19th century. Discuss in detail one or two examples of 19th-century Russian painting discussed in our course, and explain how the specifically Russian cultural-historical context illuminates the painting or paintings you choose. Then consider the painting in the context of the painter’s own background, development, and artistic achievment.

Vasily Surikov (1848-1916 )was born into a family of Siberian Cossacks. focused on historical Russian works. He visited countries: Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and in particular was influenced by French impressionism. Upon returning to Russia, Surikov painted  Boyarynya Morozova. Other great works: he Conquest of Siberia by Yermak, The Taking of a Snow Fortress - Siberian game in which a horseman must jump over a snow wall, defended by young people with twigs and whips., Morning of Strelets’ Execution

Nikolai Argunov (1771-1829) – from the Argunov family, which was known for  being Sheremetev serf artists. “The position of the creative serf was complicated and ambiguous” (Natasha’s Dance). Serf artists lacked independence. Received liberty in 1809, and was elected to the Imperial Academy of arts.

  1. The reign of Nicholas I is often described in negative terms, but some observers have thought he gets an unfairly bad press, especially in view of the cultural flowering that took place during his reign. What do you think about this issue, and why? Give pros and cons, and be sure to include details.

Polevoi (non noble intellectual) in his journal Moscow Telegraph writes a bad review of the obsequious History of the Russian State by Karamzin.

“the most sustained effort to keep freedom of thought alive in the first years of the reign of Nicholas I appeared to have come to nothing” (Saunders).

According to Herzen, in 1850, “the thirst for instruction is taking hold of the entire new generation” (Saunders). During the reign of Nicholas I, there was an explosion in the numbers of students in the official educational institutions. 62,000 in end of 18th century. 250,000 in the 1830s. 450,000 by 1856, a year after Nicholas died.

CON: in 1834 only 1/208 was being educated, 1/143 in 1856.

“Nicholas’s edict of 1827 [forbid] secondary schools and universities to educated serfs” (Saunders).

Encouraging writers: copyright law in 1828, prevented piracy. regime of Nicholas supported idealogical exchanges, and founded and supported journals which expressed the government’s point of view.

The inefficiency of the censorship under Nicholas I, allowed works such as Gogol’s The Government Inspector in 1836, and Dead Souls in 1842.

Under Nicholas I, the Westernizer and Slavophile philosophies took shape. Progressives and Reactionaries.

The Russian intelligentsia planted the seeds in the 1830s and 1840s for what would become the reforms of Alexander II

Nicholas I was not as militaristic as many historians make him seem. Nicholas I was very cautious, even more so than his advisors. During the war with Persia and the Turks, it was clear that “peace rather than war had been [Nicholas’s] goal throughout” (Saunders). Moreover, the advantages of having the Ottoman empire are greater than the disadvantages, was the guiding Russian opinion and policy.

Nationality, Orthodoxy, and Autocracy – 1833, propagated by Uvarov, Nicholas’ minister of education.

Russianization – enforcing russian practices on people to whom they were totally alien.

instituted in Poland , when Nicholas prompted the publication of history books arguing western provinces are historically Russian, taking away noble status from many Poles, forcing local administration to be conducted in Russian.

Ukrainian federalism was suppressed by forcing the best known activists to military service.

“If a few Ukrainians suffered as individuals at the hands of the Nicholaevan regime, Jews, like Poles, suffered collectively” (Saunders).

In accordance with his Russianization policy, Jews were now obliged to serve in the military, but the recruitment age was set to 12 years instead of the usual 20.

In the 1830s a conflict arose between Egypt and Turkey, in which Russia helped Turkey just to maintain the status quo. 1833, Russian and Turks sign the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, in which Russians promised Turks assistance in return for the closure of the Dardenelles. The British believed this was an act of aggression, when in fact it was just a defensive measure.

Ironically, thanks to the Petrashevskii circle, Dostoevsky was exiled, where he “underwent a spiritual transformation in Siberia which turned him into the greatest of nineteenth-century writers” (Saunders).

Crimean War: arose over who gets the right to control various Christian buildings in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Tsar Nicholas I believed that war was unlikely, but that he could win if necessary. He also thought that he could find an ally in Britain because of his trip to London in 1844. He also thought that he would have the support of Austria because of the his help in putting down the Hungarian revolt in 1849. Nicholas turned out to be wrong on every front.

The British ambassador in Constantinople ignored instructions from London, because he was pro-turkish.

Nicholas’ emissary Menshikov plucked defeat from the jaws of victory, by asking for more than Turkey was ready to give.

Austria would not support Nicholas because it was scared of gaining too much territory it could not defend, as already experienced in 1848.

Britain, France, Austria and Prussia tried to write the famous Vienna Note, but the sultan did not approve and made amendments, to which Russia refused to accept, and the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia.

Ultimately, Nicholas was not a warmonger, but cared much more about domestic issues, and preferred peace and the status quo, however obfuscation and miscommunication created the Crimean War.

#6: In what ways do you think Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches are personal documents, reflecting the writer’s attitudes, and in what ways do you believe that they are social-historical documents, reflecting the fortunes of war? Do you think that the stories are artistically successful? What artistic techniques does the author use to try to engage his readers in what he has to say? In your answer, be sure to differentiate among the stories appropriately and consider in what ways the stories do or do not constitute a unified work.

Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches are both personal documents, as well as social-historical documents.

Sebastopol in December – writing as if he is a tour guide guiding you around city. Appeals to the  senses of smell, vision, sound to give you a real taste of the city. He tries to be realistic and truthful to “you” whom he constantly refers to you who have “slight doubts as to the validity of the current notions concerning the defenders of Sebastopol”. You are guided through the very defenses of the city, and the strange reality that is war. Readers would be Russians not fighting in the war, so Tolstoy appeals to them: “it is quite impossible for Sebastopol ever to be taken by the enemy” “you are convinced that the strength of the Russian people cannot possibly ever falter”

Beautiful historic legend becomes reality [...] become[s] a reality”.

Sebastopol in May – Pacifism: The war has dragged on for 6 months... pointless. “the dispute which the diplomats have failed to settle is proving to be even less amenable to settlement by means of gunpowder and human blood”. Idea of trading in quantity for quality, dismiss one solder at a time. “either war is madness, or, if men perpetrate this madness, they thereby demonstrate that they are far from being the rational creatures we for some reason commonly suppose them to be”.  – follows the life of an infantry officer Mikhailov. Obsession to get honors and medals and advance the ranks of the military. Is vanity what differentiates low class and aristocrats? “there is also a great deal of vanity to be found; there are, in other words, aristocrats, even though death hangs above the heads of aristocrat and non-aristocrat alike, ready to strike at any moment”. Whole notion of aristocrats is rather vain, and really ridiculous. “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” “In the age we live in, are there only three kinds of people: those who accept vanity as a fact that is unavoidable, [...] those who accept it as an unfortunate but insuperable condition of human existence, and those who slavishly and unconsciously act under its influence?” The realistic impression is made more real by the mixing of aristocrats with peasants. The death of Praskukhin is presented in such realism, that the reader can almost feel the “terrible thirst” that racks Praskukhin. 

“It might be supposed that when these men – Christians, recognizing the same great law of love – see what they have done [...] will embrace one another with tears of joy”. But they don’t. Hero is truth. None of the officers are deserving of being heroes, even the ones who die.

Sebastopol in August – Impressionistic account – seen through the two Kozeltsov brothers. The older brother is experienced in fighting, whereas the younger brother has never seen it. “War’s not at all how you think it is, Volodya”!

Stories represent a unified work because December is an introduction, May is the body, and August is the Conclusion.

7. When Alexander II died, his country went in profound mourning. Discuss the significance of his reign and of his death, paying special attention to literary and artistic developments. Judging from the materials you have studied, do you think that the sociopolitical culture of Russia in the era of Alexander II and his immediate successor was well understood by Americans?

Known as 'Tsar Liberator'. Came to power in 1855. One of the first things Alexander II did was end the Crimean War. “The new tsar soon accepted that Russia at all costs needed peace” (Cultural Atlas). The Crimean War was largely unpopular in Russia, and was accompanied by a loss of influence and prestige. Alexander also brought the much needed reforms to Russia. Abolition of serfdom “and other reforms were the most ambitious attempt to transform Russia’s political and social structure undertaken before the revolutions of 1917” (Cultural Atlas).

1861 – Abolition of Serfdom. Gradual and partial emancipation of the serfs over 20 years. The Russian serfs were never supposed to be slaves, but how could the landowners be compensated for something they were not supposed to “own”. The compensation given to landowners differed from province to province. The peasants were not allowed to own land individually, since the land was sold to peasant communes. Moreover, the land prices were fixed by the existing owners. So while the peasants were free in principle, in practice they were still dependent and impecunious. “It is better to abolish serfdom from above then to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below” – Alexander II. Also, the peasants were almost completely illiterate, so the proclamation was rather inaccessible to the very people it set out to free.

1864 – Administrative reforms – The government had to change to accommodate the newly freed serfs. Created the Zemstvo, an assembly and executive board. The new administrative centers were severely limited, since they had little power, due to little means of enforcing rules.

1864 – reformed the Russian legal system. Based on western judicial models. You had to have a public trial, had the right to legal counsel for defense. Also established a professional bar, so the laws of the country have to be accessible, which further led to the rise of the legal profession.

1863-74 – military reforms: The defeat in the Crimean War demonstrated the need for military reform. The military reforms instituted by Alexander were considered to the most democratic reforms of all. Universal conscription with a shorter term of service for those with higher levels of education, easier to advance for lower classes.

During the reign of Alexander II, the reading public grew to larger proportions mostly due to the development of a larger middle class and better education.

Chernishevsky – What is to be done? Tells of a new age, with a new future. This book was written while he was in jail, and even passed by 2 prison censors, which were supposed to be the strictest.

Tolstoy – War and Peace, Anna Karenina

Turgenev- Fathers and Children 1862 – popularized word “nihilist”

Dostoyevsky – (involved in the Petrashevsky affair, and nearly executed.) The gambler 1867, Crime and Punishment 1866, The Idiot 1868-69, The Devils 1871, The Brothers Karamazov 1880, Notes from underground 1864. 

The Wanderers, a group of 14 students who walked out from the Academy.

Leaders were Kramskoi and Repin

Ivan Kramskoy (1837-87)

Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Barge Haulers on the Volga – men are hauling a ship on the Volga. They are clearly seen to be reduced to the state of animals.

Nikolay Gay – The last supper – supposed to be conventional, like in western European Christian art, but Gay’s painting is very unconventional. Emphasis is a kind of argument for social community. What is sacred is exactly the community. Gay’s paintings were very controversial, and he was even excommunicated.

Populism – to the people movement 1873-1874, failed to grip the attention of the peasants. When the populism movement failed, there was a sharp rise in terrorism, with the many attempted assassinations of Alexander II himself.

1881 – Alexander was assassinated by members from the “people’s will” The result of the assassination was not reform, but massive repression.

The American view is perhaps best expressed through the political cartoon The Russian Cossack Carrying Off the Bride of Civilization—Liberty. The Cossack, emblematic of the force of the Russian government is not fully a man, but a centaur. This exemplifies the monster aspect, which shows the governments inhumanity. In America’s eyes, the Russian government under Alexander was viewed as an oppressive regime, which was certainly biased in terms of a relativistic view of Russian history. Looking back from today, it would seem as if the tsarist regime was oppressive, it is not entirely right to view it in this way. Through the four reforms instigated by Alexander II, it is clear that the regime became much less oppressive, and tried to change its ways, however Americans were blinded with the bias of already living in a democratic country, and by the little actual information of Russian conditions. Of the information readily available in America about Russia, was that of George Kennan, who visited Russian during the reign of Alexander II’s immeadiate successor Alexander III. Kennan focused on the penal system in effect in Siberia, which of course displayed the harshness and severity of its prisoners.  Clearly the sociopolitical culture of Russia under Alexander II and III was misunderstood.


  1. It is sometimes suggested that geography has heavily predetermined the history of Russia What reasons might someone have for saying this? Do you agree?


The geography has strongly shaped the history of Russia.

European Russia is roughly equal in area to all the rest of Europe, although it has  less than ¼ of the total European population.


Rivers offer a very efficient way of traveling including portages.

Russian explorers later found lateral river routes to Sibera (including portages) which were easy to travel since rivers flow south to north. These routes instigated further expansion to the east – Siberia. Also the trackless and cold tiaga instigated the fur trade, in which hunters would travel to Siberia to obtain the valuable animal furs. Interestingly in this fashion, Siberia was colonized from the north, and Russians expanded across the Bering Strait into Alaska, and even to California!

Overland travel is mostly efficient during the winter across frozen land by sleigh.


Varangians to the Greeks: the route they took river routes from Scandinavia to the Byzantine empire for trading reasons. In fact, thanks to the very geography of Russia, they Vikings established trading outposts, or settlements in which they eventually became the ruling class of the early Kievan Rus.

Rivers are also important as barriers


The geography of Russia made communication and very difficult. In particular central government had a hard time when it came to ruling over lands so far away.

Ex: Vologda, and Ustyug are both in the same province, yet are an hour and half away by jet, or a day and a night away by train, and these times are with modern modes of travel. It can only be imagined what a difficult time the central authority had in governing over regions so far away.

The geography of Russia also effectively determined the system of agriculture that would be implemented. Shared labor is an integral aspect. The geography also created isolated settlements which further created a sense of self-sufficiency among the Russian people, for any peasant that be self-sufficient would starve during the long winters. This also bred a culture of resistance to new agricultural methods, since there was very little margin of error in experimentation with new methods, when it could easily mean life or death. Interestingly, this saved Russia during the potato famine that otherwise ravaged Europe.

Russia was also geographically blessed with a plethora of lakes and rivers, in which fish could be caught year-round.

Canada is the country most geographically similar to Russia, and it has almost no population at the latitude of Moscow and central Russia.



  1. Trace the history of East Slavic expansion (and contraction, if appropriate) from the homeland of the Slavs to the territory where Russia is today. What forces drove this expansion?

Russian explorers later found lateral river routes to Sibera (including portages) which were easy to travel since rivers flow south to north. These routes instigated further expansion to the east – Siberia. Also the trackless and cold tiaga instigated the fur trade, in which hunters would travel to Siberia to obtain the valuable animal furs. Interestingly in this fashion, Siberia was colonized from the north, and Russians expanded across the Bering Strait into Alaska, and even to California!


attack on Constantinople by Askold and Dir in 860.

Unification of Kiev with Novgorod by Oleg – 882.

Mid 960s Svyatoslav sacked the Khazars’ cities and destroyed their power forever. Svyatoslav also attacked the Bulgaria, but lost it within several years.


The Tatar invasion meant a rapid contraction of independent East Slav territory, as it joined the Tatar yoke. Noteworthy exception was Alexander Nevsky defeating the Swedish settlers on the Baltic, and the German Teutonic knights.


Despite the Mongol occupation of east Slavic lands, the Orthodoxy was not taxed, and the monastic movement spread – the founding of numerous monasteries and hermitages in ever-remoter parts of Northern forests.

-         instigated by Sergius of Radonezh, who came from a family of Boyars) – he soon attracted other hermits. The monks at Sergius’ Monastery kept founding even remoter ones, and colonizing peasants followed.

Ivan III finally ended the occupation of the Tatars in Russia, but without any real battle. He also attacked Novgorod, and effectively captured all of it’s lands.


Ivan IV conquered Kazan and Astrakhan in 1552 and 1556, opening up the doors to Siberia : “laid the basis for the colonization and annexation of Siberia, begun by the Cossack Yermak in 1581” (according to The Columbia Encyclopedia).

Ivan IV in 1558-1563 was victorious against the Germans, but 20 years later Russia had to give up its gains.

  1. Pre-modern (that is 17th century) Russian culture produced important architectural monuments, which, in their locations, style, workmanship, and social and cultural functions, reflect the societies in which they were created. Discuss in detail a few important examples, comparing and contrasting them appropriately.


architecture in forest zones  - izba – a cell or series of cells of horizontally laid logs, carefully matched for diameter, trimmed by the axe, the corners neatly lapped or dovetailed.

In the south the house was called akhata


wooden palace at Kolomenskoye, only the scale model exists. It had 200 rooms total.

None of it survives today.


1714 – Church of the Transfiguration on the island of Kizhi in Lake Onega.  – built by Nestor, has 22 decorative domes. Kizhi was an important trade parish, trade, and administrative center. This church was all built out of wood!


St. Sophia – Kiev, 1037 – based on the Byzantine Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) – exterior is in the baroque style, while inside there are many frescoes and mosaics, with a “cross-in-square” ground plan.


St. Sophia – Novgorod, 1043

St. Sophia – Polatsk, 1043

Monastery of St. Panteleimon – fortress like monastery, where books were translated and copied, icons painted, ideas exchanged.


St. Demetrius Cathedral in Vladimir 1194 – exterior human carvings of unknown origin, inside has many frescoes.


Moscow Kremlin – built with Italian influence, thanks to Ivan III’s wife being raised in Italy.


The Trinity Monastery of St Sergius – metropolis of art and literature, center of culture, and it’s massive walls even withstood anarchy from the time of troubles.


  1. Medieval Russians used a variety of materials for writing. What were the most important materials? In what ways did the kinds of writing they were used for differ? Were they used by different groups of writers? Give examples, naming important works (or groups or types of works) you know of, and describing them as fully as you can.

Strips of birchbark (incised with a stylus) Since WWII, many thousands of birchbark have been uncovered. The birchbark documents were personal letters or notes, most often concerning money transactions, debts, legal claims, landholdings and family matters.  These texts show that literacy was widespread (predated Christianity), and even taken for granted.


Parchment – sheep skin, which was what the Primary Chronicle was made out of.

After the religious conversion of Rus in 988, the religious element predominates.

Sermon on the Law and the Grace – by first Russian metropolitan of Kiev – Hilarion (mid 11th century)

Instruction – by Vladimir Monomakh, autobiographical book to his children

Lives – About princes Boris and Gleb (first martyrs).

Supplication of Daniel the Captive – more secular than religious work

Tale of the Armament of Igor (1187) – powerful vehicle for contemporary political messages.

Epic poems known as byliny.

Russian primary Chronicle – Tale of Bygone Years – compiled on the basis of many previous chronicles. Usually the result of a special commission. Monasteries were the center of chronicle writing actives. Chronicles would recount from biblical times up to the current times. Purpose is to uncover Russia’s identity and historical destiny. 


Texts were also incised into walls.

Yaroslav the Wise – legal code: Russkaya Pravda

Testament – Vladimir II Monomakh – autobiography and good advice directed to his sons

Tale of the Ruin of the Russian Land – lamented the Tatar conquest of Russia

Life – inspired by grand price Dmitriy Donskoy of Moscow

Zadonshchina – Celebrates the victory at kulikovo and adapts the Igor Tale

Life of Serguis, Life of Stephen – Epiphanios the wise – poetical, like verbal icons



  1. Some analysts have suggested that the mobility of power centers among the early East Slavs was related to the personal nature of power in early East Slavic society: the center of power was where the dominant ruler chose to locate it. Do you agree with this idea? Consider the history of the following centers: Kiev, Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal, Moscow, Pereyaslavets.


969, The dominant ruler of Kiev – Svyatoslav decided to shift his capital from Kiev to Pereyaslavets on the lower Danube. He is quoted saying “since that is the center of my realm and all merchandise is brought there”. Judging by the wording, in particular “my”, it is easy to see that it is a personal power, and that the dominant ruler can locate the power wherever he chooses. The Byzantine emperor forced Svyatoslav to leave Pereyaslavets only several years later.

Svyatoslav’s son Vladimir shifted his power center back to Kiev, and established Kiev as one of the great European cities.


Princes frequently shifted their power centers over large distances. There was a hierarchy of cities, and a succession system from brother to brother.


Vladimir – founded by Vladimir II Monomakh – city on the river Klyazma (in the Vladimir Suzdal principality). This was the beginning of a demographic shift that would have lasting consequences.


Andrey Bogolyubsky announced that Vladimir would be his capital, but he kept the title “grand prince of Kiev” and he sacked the city in 1169.

© 2006 Philosophy Paradise