Russia as Multi-Ethnic Empire


The Russian/Soviet empire  -- or “Eurasia” as it has often been called -- at the height of its power occupied one-sixth of the world’s land mass and contained a stunning variety of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.  Until recently, however, this diversity was largely overlooked in the study and teaching of Russian history in the U.S.  This survey of the multi-cultural complexion of Russia from the 16th century to the present will provide students with both an understanding of the many peoples of Eurasia and the history of relations among these peoples.  We will begin with the history of Russian imperial conquests and the development of the Russians as an ethno-national entity, and then proceed by particular regions and minority communities, describing the experiences and evolving consciousness of each in the tsarist period.  When we get to the 20th century we will shift to a wider lens in discussing fluctuations in official administrative approaches to empire, the role of ethnic diversity in the dissolution of the USSR, and emergent identity issues both within the present-day Russian Federation and the broader former empire.  The course will have an interdisciplinary flavor, reflecting recent schoarship not only of historians but also of literary scholars, anthropologists, political scientists, journalists, and others. 


Topics of lecture and readings will include:   the Polish independence movement; Russian orientalism and policies toward Muslims; anti-Semitism, the Pale of Jewish Settlement, and pogroms; the question of Ukrainian distinctiveness; the role of Germans in Russia and the backlash against them during World War I; the “civilizing mission” and unveiling of Muslim women in Central Asia; Soviet “affirmative action” policies; the ethnic Russian diaspora in the “near abroad”; wars in the Caucasus (Chechnya and Georgia-Ossetia) in both the 19th century and the present; and racial attitudes in present-day Russia.  An array of primary sources -- memoirs, government documents, poetry, stories, films, and ethnographies – will give students access to the voices and experiences of Russians as well as minority groups.


There will be two 75-minute classes per week, combining lecture and discussion.  A few weeks into the semester, each student will be assigned a particular ethnic group or region to research and represent in greater depth.  This will generate three graded exercises:  an in-class roll-playing exercise; an ethnographic report; and a portfolio of recommended resources on the group that will take the place of a final exam.  Grades will also include two non-cumulative take-home midterms. 


Assigned secondary readings will include Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, The Golden Age Shtetl:  A New History of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe; and Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union.  Basic knowledge of European, Russian, or Asian history is helpful but by no means 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
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