Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: A student view

This month, I invited one of my students to write about her experiences in the “Russia from Lenin to Putin” course. She chose to write about how different types of readings worked together in the course. The author is Nicole Harry, who is a History major and a Russian and East European Studies minor with interests in the study of Soviet history and of society and politics in the post-Soviet states. Here’s Nicole:

Both works of syntheses and works of literature can be extremely useful in the teaching of Russian history. Synthetic works provide a strong foundation of information for the student reader; they allow for recent research to be integrated with primary material in order to create a comprehensive work on a broad subject. The use of objective, chronological works of synthesis, such as S.A. Smith’s publication Russia in Revolution, are even more effective when complemented by works of literature such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog. Between the factual chronology of synthesis and the ability to connect and visualize with literature, students are able to fully develop an understanding of themes throughout a time period, as well as what events caused them to occur.

Smith’s work Russia in Revolution provided a synoptic account of Russia’s history through its revolution and civil war. He effectively employs an extensive source base in order to develop a cohesive timeline of Russia from 1890-1928. As a student, especially one in a course focusing specifically on Russia throughout the 20th century, this format provided a strong introduction to the subject material. The chronological structure provides a clear progression of these events and social climate through the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It situated the reader within the context of Bolshevik ideologies.

Through his work of synthesis, Smith effectively drew on the research and analysis of other historians in the field. For example, though his work reads as a cohesive narrative, Smith cites four different secondary sources on page 218 in order to provide the necessary context for his chapter on war communism. From these four different sources, Smith cites the work of A.A. Il’iukhov five times alone, relying on Il’iukhov’s statistical research to prepare readers for the conditions of the Soviet Union which necessitated war communism, including the fact that “[n]ationally, almost one baby in three died before the age of one. By 1920, life expectancy had fallen to 19.5 for men and 21.5 for women.” (Smith, p 218) In this way, Smith was able to express the suffering of the population and help develop student’s understandings about the quality (and length) of life. This can be tied into the political ideologies and themes of the time, such as war communism, because these conditions of life in society were deemed necessary sacrifices in the name of a strong communist future. Therefore students with little previous exposure to the subject are able to follow main themes such as that of making sacrifices for socialism. This allows students to grasp the underlying currents and ideologies of the time period and creates a storyline which connects the many dates and names of the Russian Revolution.

In addition to the use of syntheses and academic texts in the classroom, works of literature are also extremely helpful to students. With many works of synthesis, information is often presented to inform, rather than to be felt. Works of literature, such as Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, are able to complement these more objective texts by contextualizing the themes of a moment in history in a way relatable to a student reader. Students are able to connect with the information by seeing ideas interact and develop in the context of plot and characters. In addition, literature from the time period being studied, in this case early Soviet Russia, acts as a primary source as well, revealing what themes and conflicts were relevant enough to society at the time to be written about.

Both Smith and Bulgakov address the movement against counter-revolutionaries promoted by the Bolsheviks in order to allow them to maintain their single-party rule established after the October revolution. Smith provides a thorough account of the actions taken, as he states that “On 7 December 1917 the Council of People’s Commissars set up an emergency commission to ‘liquidate all attempts and acts of counter-revolution and sabotage.’… Of the 9,641 shot – a considerable underestimate of the true figure – 7,068 were found guilty of counter-revolution.” (Smith, pg 197-198) He expresses both the ideological reasoning of counter-revolutionary concerns, as well as the actions taken to alleviate these concerns. But what impact did this actually have, and how can a student relate to it? Through the literary writings of Bulgakov, effectively assigned to complement Smith’s work. Bulgakov writes “’You’re saying counterrevolutionary things, Philip Philippovich,’ the nipped one remarked jocularly. ‘Heaven forbid anyone should hear you.’ ‘Nothing dangerous at all,’ Phillip Philippovich countered heatedly. ‘Nothing counterrevolutionary. And that’s another word I can’t endure. Its absolutely impossible to tell what it covers!.. and so I say: there isn’t any of this counter revolution in my words. There is only common sense and good advice based on practical experience.” (Bulgakov, p 38) In this passage by Bulgakov, the public concern surrounding the possibility of being labeled “counter-revolutionary” is clear, as is the idea that not everything labeled “counter-revolutionary” truly is. Therefore, Bulgakov’s novel, which stands alone as an enjoyable piece of satire itself, can also be used effectively within the classroom to provide students with an example of the social effects caused by the political decisions covered in more traditional academic texts.

In addition to providing supplemental contextualization to academic texts, literature also acts as a primary source itself for the time period it was written in. Heart of a Dog was originally published in 1925 and is therefore a reflection of the social discourses and tensions of the time. Bulgakov, in his writing of a satirical novel, does this even more so. He writes: “’you are on the lowest rung of development,’ Philip Philippovich shouted still more loudly. “You are a creature just in the process of formation, with a feeble intellect. All your actions are the actions of an animal. Yet you permit yourself to speak with utterly insufferable impudence in the presence of two people with a university education.” (Bulgakov, p 91) In this way, Heart of a Dog is again able to contextualize the more objective themes taught in lectures and academic works. Familiar with the idea of conflict between the working class and the intelligentsia, students are able to read this tension as written by an individual of the time, therefore seeing its modern relevance.

Not all members of the Soviet Union were fully supportive of the state’s actions, and Bulgakov’s wit and criticism makes this clear. As a student, Heart of a Dog and other works of literature are both enjoyable to read for a social contextualization of history, but also as a reflection of ideas (in this case tensions and criticisms) prioritized by the author’s present day. In this way, the literary text by Bulgakov complements Smith’s work of detailed synthesis in order to create a truly comprehensive image of Russian society in the 1920s.


By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

One reply on “Anatomy of a Course: A student view”

Brava, Nicole! This essay gives a lot of hope for the new generation of historians.
I was also curious about other readings you assigned in this class over the years.

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