Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vikings, Cossacks, and Old Believers

I took two undergraduate classes in Russian history plus a shallow course on Soviet-American relations. The first was a two semester survey course. I took it only insofar as it counted as both an “Eastern history” and a “Western history” course. This was in 1990. I didn’t really retain any interest in Russia until recently but I can only suppose that these classes were in fact good and therefore stayed with me.

I can remember a few of the books even after two decades. We read Riazonvsky as a survey text of Medieval Russia as well as the Time of Troubles, and the play, Boris Godunov. We read Pushkin’s history of the Cossack rebellion, the Magnetic Mountain, and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s history of the Revolution.

I don’t remember much about the course but even after all these years I remember being impressed by ta few seemingly bizarre occurrences in Russian history. Wasn’t it odd, for example, that Vikings had played a role in the foundation of the Russian state? How strange that the Mongol rulers had occupied the Russian state for so long (Genghis Khan’s ancestor was still occupying the Crimean until Catherine the Great finally incorporated the Crimea into the Russian Empire). Did Poland really conquer Moscow during the Time of Troubles? Were Cossack rebels really able to come close to defeating the authorities by pretending to be resurrected dead czars, or czars who had magically survived murders? Did the Old Believers really go into permanent exile in part because they wanted to make the sign of the cross differently than the government and official church said they should? Did Peter the Great really murder his own son? Did Ivan the Terrible really set up a state within a state that terrorized the populace? Did Gogol actually go insane and throw his final novel into the fire? Although I didn’t recognize the fact for nearly two decades, I guess I was hooked. I’m interested to know about your earliest or most intense exposure to Russian history, culture, or literature?

1 comment:

  1. When I was in my 4th year of Architecture school in 1980, I took a seminar with the Dean. He'd assign each of us a subject, we'd report on that and the group would discuss. At some point he gave me a topic I didn't care for. I asked if I might instead do something on the Viking trade route from the Baltic to Constantinople. he said sure- virtually nobody knew a thing about it. I made a vivid presentation which was quite the success. A few months later he recommended me for gradschool based on my breadth and depth of knowledge and curiosity.