History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev

Course No. 8380
Professor Mark Steinberg, Ph.D.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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Course No. 8380
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Course Overview

It’s difficult to imagine a nation with a history more compelling for Americans than Russia. Yet many Americans have never had the opportunity to study Russia in depth, and to see how the forces of history came together to shape a future so different from the dreams of most ordinary Russian people, eager to see their nation embrace Western values of progress, human rights, and justice.

This course focuses on 300 years of Russian history from Peter the Great to Gorbachev by examining the lives of the men and women who, in fact, were Russia. This is history told through biography.

Now a much-honored teacher has created a series of 36 lectures designed to give you one of the deepest glimpses into Russia you’ve ever had—a vivid journey through 300 years of Russian history as seen through the eyes of her own people.

In this course, you'll examine key individuals and groups, the contexts in which they thought and acted, and their driving ideas.

Topics include:

  • the revolution of Peter the Great,
  • Catherine the Great,
  • the Decembrist Uprising,
  • Belinskii and the early years of Russian Socialism,
  • Alexander II,
  • Nicholas II,
  • Stalin, Gorbachev, and Communism, among others.

Discover historical themes made clear not by discussing treaties, war declarations, or economic statistics —but by examining the lives and ideas of the men and women who were Russia: tsars, emperors, Communist Party leaders, writers, artists, peasants, and factory workers.

Grasp what Russian life was like as Professor Steinberg analyzes ideas of power not only from the viewpoint of its rulers, but also from that of the ruled; the theme of happiness and its pursuit that resonates throughout Russian history, and ideas of morality and ethics as wielded by both the Russian state and its critics.

Professor Steinberg draws on his own years of experience as an author, a student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and, more recently, as a world-class historian granted access to once-secret government archives. Listen as he brings alive the vibrant Russian imagination—so willing to visualize a different kind of life for its people, yet so burdened by its darker sides of doubt and pessimism that those visions were rejected.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Understanding the Russian Past
    This lecture introduces the course's focus on human experience, ideas, and values as manifested in the lives of Russian people, and discusses why Russia's own history is significant as both a shaper of world history and a story of human experience. x
  • 2
    The Russia of Peter the Great's Childhood
    Did Peter the Great single-handedly make Russia a part of the West, or did he further a transformation already underway? This lecture explores the Russia into which Peter was born, efforts to modernize the state and its laws, the Westernization of everyday life, and how all this affected Peter. x
  • 3
    Peter the Great's Revolution
    Who was Peter and what did he accomplish? This lecture examines the possibilities he inherited as Russia's tsar, his contradictory personality, and the major reforms he instituted, as well as the vision of progress that motivated them. x
  • 4
    The Age of Empresses—Catherine the Great
    After Peter died in 1725, Russia was ruled by women—Peter's daughter, Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great—for most of the rest of the century. This lecture discusses their efforts to continue Westernizing reforms and the ethos of power in each of their reigns. x
  • 5
    Social Rebellion—The Purgachev Uprising
    This lecture examines the conditions that led to the serf uprising led by Emelian Pugachev during the reign of Catherine the Great, as well as the ideas and language of the uprising's leaders and the groups that followed them. x
  • 6
    Moral Rebellion—Nikolai Novikov
    The development of secular higher education for Russia's elites and the emergence of an educated public and even an intelligentsia paved the way for the first critiques of autocratic despotism in Russia. This lecture focuses on one of the most influential of those critics. x
  • 7
    Alexander I—Imagining Reform
    A complex ruler—variously called a "sphinx," an "enigma," and even a "crowned Hamlet"—Alexander I exhibited many contradictions, including his ideas about power and order and their role in ensuring happiness; his sincere embrace of Enlightenment values; his love of military culture; his limited conception of constitutionalism, and his eventual retreat into mysticism and doubt. x
  • 8
    The Decembrist Rebellion
    This lecture provides a look at a remarkable event in Russian history: the unsuccessful armed uprising against autocracy in December 1825 by groups of educated nobles belonging to secret societies. x
  • 9
    Nicholas I—Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality
    The image of Nicholas I is that of one of the most reactionary rulers in modern Russian history. This lecture examines that image and the personality, ideas, and beliefs that helped create it, as well as the official ideology he created for the Russian state and how its tenets help us understand Russian state politics in the 19th century and beyond. x
  • 10
    Alexander Pushkin, Russia's National Poet
    This lecture looks at the life and powerful myth of Alexander Pushkin, Russia's most beloved writer, and the meaning of Pushkin as a symbol of the Russian nation. x
  • 11
    The Birth of the Intelligentsia
    This lecture examines the emergence of one of the most important social and cultural groups in Russian history—the intelligentsia—and the characteristics that united them, with special emphasis on the arguments of a single individual, Petr Chaadaev, whose ideas about Russia's past and future both shocked and inspired many educated Russians. x
  • 12
    Westernizers—Vissarion Belinskii
    The life and ideas of a single exemplary Westernizer intelligent spotlights the passion with which he and other Russian intelligenty struggled to find the meaning of life. This lecture explores Belinskii's ideas about the dignity and rights of the individual and how these ideas were used to critique serfdom, autocracy, and social injustice, and concludes with a comparison of how Westernizers and their rivals, the Slavophiles, viewed the individual. x
  • 13
    Alexander II and the Great Reforms
    Made painfully aware by the Crimean War of Russia's backwardness, the new tsar embarked on a series of reforms, including the abolition of serfdom and the reform of major institutions, that reflected his persistent desire to balance progress with power and change with order. This lecture looks at Alexander's political personality, its role in those reforms, and the crisis that marked the end of his reign, when he was assassinated . x
  • 14
    "Nihilists"
    This lecture looks at the continued growth of dissent by educated Russians, this time an organized student movement in the 1860s and the appearance of a new kind of intelligent, the "Nihilists" whose criticisms of tradition seemed so uncompromising as to be a rejection of everything. x
  • 15
    Populists and Marxists
    Two major intellectual and political movements emerged in the final decades of the 19th century, spurred by populist ideas such as those of Petr Lavrov, and the "to the people" propaganda movement of the summer of 1874. These were the rise of terrorism as a political and social strategy, and the reasons for the emergence of Marxism in Russia. x
  • 16
    Paths to Revolution—Lenin and Martov
    This lecture examines the two most influential Marxists—Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and his rival, Menshevik leader Iulii Martov—and the implications of their differing views on democracy, consciousness, and violence. x
  • 17
    Lev Tolstoy
    One of the most remarkable men in modern Russian history, Tolstoy was notable as both a famous writer and a public voice of morality and conscience. This lecture considers the widely varying stages of his life: aristocrat, novelist, and religious and moral prophet. x
  • 18
    The Reign of Alexander III
    The reign of Alexander III has often been described as an "era of reaction." This lecture examines the beliefs and influences that led to his efforts to limit civic liberalization, his turn to the past for inspiration, and the deep pessimism that colored the views of his closest advisers. x
  • 19
    Nicholas II, The Last Tsar
    Notwithstanding the widespread belief that Nicholas II had no interest in governance or ideas about rulership, this lecture explores the essential political beliefs of Russia's last monarch, including his embrace of autocratic authoritarianism, his ideal of the tsar as the loving ruler of his people, his deep religious belief that God acted through him, and his relationship with Rasputin. x
  • 20
    The Revolution of 1905
    The strikes, demonstrations, and public demands that the tsarist government accept civil rights and democratic rule became a signpost moment in the nation's history. This lecture explores the forces that brought it about, the revolution itself, and the shape and meaning of the reforms in its aftermath. x
  • 21
    Peasant Life and Culture
    This lecture considers the lives of Russian peasants who formed the vast majority of the population in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including traditions of community and the role of religion; "land hunger," and signs of cultural changes such as the growth of literacy and the impact of migration to the cities. x
  • 22
    The Modern City and Its Discontents
    This lecture looks at the changes in urban life from the 1890s to the eve of World War I: a flourishing public sphere that included a growing press, voluntary associations, and public entertainment counterbalanced by growing anxieties about the dangers and harm of modern life, including hooliganism, murder, suicide, disease, and industrial exploitation. x
  • 23
    Fin-de-Siècle Culture—Decadence and Iconoclasm
    Was Russia heading toward crisis and even revolution on the eve of World War I? This lecture explores that still-debated question by examining two major cultural trends that surfaced between the 1905 revolution and the war: decadence, as evidenced by new attitudes in literature, art and entertainment; and futurism, with its willingness to "shock the philistine" in style and art, its attraction to primitivism and abstraction, and its embrace of modernity. x
  • 24
    Fin-de-Siècle Culture—The Religious Renaissance
    The decades before the war saw a widespread religious revival. This lecture looks at the nature of Russian Orthodoxy, the ideas of religious philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev, and new spiritual movements such as mysticism and the occult. x
  • 25
    War and Revolution
    This lecture looks at the Russian experience in World War I and the coming of revolution, including growing disenchantment with the war, terrible conditions at the front and at home, and the growing disorder that culminated in the collapse of the monarchy and the ascension of a liberal democratic government. x
  • 26
    Democratic Russia—1917
    This is a close look at why the new government failed, from the fall of the monarchy in February to the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in October of 1917. In particular, the lecture explores four central ideas of the time: the love of freedom; the need for a strong and progressive state; distrust of the rich and powerful, and the centrality of moral feeling and ethical judgment. x
  • 27
    Bolsheviks in Power
    Focusing on the first months of Soviet power, this lecture considers the actions and motivating ideas of the new Communist rulers, including their thoughts on both democratic emancipation and participation, authoritarianism, repression, and violence. x
  • 28
    Civil War
    The Bolshevik victory over an impressive array of opponents in the Civil War of 1918-1920 shocked many people and both shaped and revealed the role of Communist rule. This lecture explores why and how the Bolsheviks managed to win and examines both the growing centralization and militarization of Bolshevik rule and the persistence and intensification of emancipatory and utopian idealism. x
  • 29
    Paths to Socialism—the 1920s
    In the 1920s the Soviet Union still faced enormous issues of backwardness. This lecture focuses on the debates of that time that offered socialism as a remedy, with emphasis on the New Economic Policy (NEP), troubling social conditions, and the conflicting arguments of Lev Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. x
  • 30
    Joseph Stalin
    This lecture examines the roots and political development of the man who would dominate Soviet life for more than a quarter-century, including his attraction to the Bolshevik ideology, his rise to power in an increasingly centralized Communist party, and his discontent with the NEP, which he would eventually cast aside. x
  • 31
    Stalin's Revolution
    The Soviet Union's first five-year plan (1928-1932) marked an era of radical industrialization and social transformation. This lecture considers why Stalin chose this course, the military atmosphere of the campaign and the politicization of economics, forced collectivization of the peasantry, and the social radicalism known as the "cultural revolution." x
  • 32
    Joy and Terror—Society and Culture in the 1930s
    Political, cultural, and social life during the years of high Stalinism may well be the most enigmatic period in Soviet history, with overwhelming authoritarian power and the death of millions sharing the stage with a public face of glittering night clubs, new public spaces, and Stalin's new guiding slogan that "Life has become more joyful." This lecture explores how both these histories could co-exist. x
  • 33
    The "Great Patriotic War"
    This lecture examines the Soviet experience in World War II, beginning with expectations and fears in the years prior. Discussions include the USSR's lack of preparedness for war, Stalin's relationship with his military experts, and the national resources and values around which resistance to the Nazis could be rallied and eventual victory achieved—helped in no small part by the Nazis' own practices. x
  • 34
    The Soviet Union After Stalin
    This is a look at the politics and experiences of Soviet people during the decades after the war and before Gorbachev's reforms, beginning with Stalin's return to the harsh order of the past (including what many saw as a new purge and terror prevented only by his death in 1953) and continuing through an examination of his successors, most notably Leonid Brezhnev, and the major changes in everyday society. x
  • 35
    Private and Public Dissidence
    This lecture covers the alienation from and resistance to the Soviet system during the years before Gorbachev, examining both conformity to the system and the many ways in which demand for change was made apparent. x
  • 36
    Mikhail Gorbachev—Perestroika and Glasnost
    The course concludes with a look at Mikhail Gorbachev's recognition of the many problems of the system and his efforts to make Communism work. It focuses on his notions of democracy and authority and his preoccupations with moral order, examines why he failed, and concludes with a consideration of the situation now left after Communism's collapse. x

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  • 224-page printed course guidebook
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Mark Steinberg

About Your Professor

Mark Steinberg, Ph.D.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Dr. Mark Steinberg is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the Director of the Russian and East European Center, designated as a national resource center by the Department of Education. Professor Steinberg completed his undergraduate work at the University of California, Santa Cruz and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to taking his post at the...
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