Introductory Seminar in Post-1700 European History

Russian History through Film

In this introductory seminar, first- and second-year students will become familiar with some of the major events, eras, and personalities in the history of Russia and its empire through detailed analysis of some of the most important films produced in and about Russia in the past century.  Besides being an introduction to Russian history and culture, the seminar aims to get students thinking about the fundamental problems historians grapple with as they reconstruct and represent the past.   

We will be asking two different sets of questions about the interaction between history and film in Russia.  1) First, how can films serve as secondary historical sources, i.e. to portray historical reality and disseminate it to a broad public (not only within Russia but internationally)?  What are the principal challenges of making and interpreting films about past eras and major historical events?  Is there a discernible line between the educational and propagandistic uses of historical films?  2) Second, how can films (not only “historical” films but more broadly) be used as primary sources for understanding Russia’s 20th- and 21st-century history?  What exactly can they tell us about Russian/Soviet society that other sources cannot, or not as effectively?  

The films we focus most closely on will include several of the following titles, many of which are considered masterpieces of world cinema:  Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovskii, 1966); Ivan the Terrible (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944-1945); Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Dziga Vertov, 1930); War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967); The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925); Agony/Rasputin (Aleksey Petrenko, 1975); Bed and Sofa (Abram Room, 1927); Circus (Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1936); Chapaev (The Vasiliev Brothers, 1934); The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolotozov, 1957); Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovskii, 1962); Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994); Siberiade (Andrei Konchalovskii, 1979); Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Vladimir Menshov, 1979); Repentance (Tengiz Abuladze, 1987); Taxi Blues  (Pavel Lungin, 1987); Brother (Aleksei Balabanov, 1997); and Leviathan (Andrei Zviagintsev, 2014); A Rider Called Death (Karen Shakhnazarov, 2008); Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (Mikhalkov, 1977).

For historical context, we will be using Gregory L. Freeze, ed., A History of Russia (Oxford). 

The class fulfills the Second Writing Requirement.  Students will write graded essays both on assigned films and films of their own choice, and will be expected to engage in seminar discussion.  No exams will be given.  No previous knowledge of Russian history, culture, or language is required.  

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
Department Contacts