Vladimir Putin is often depicted in our media as the latest in a long line of Russian autocrats, part of an unbroken tradition in Russia of authoritarian rulers oppressing their people. But is this an accurate way to understand Putin, one of today’s most consequential leaders? Does it make sense historically, or does it obscure important dimensions of Russia’s past, and lead us to misunderstand Russia’s present? This course examines the lives and times of several of the most significant rulers in Russian history—Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin—as a way of better understanding Russia today.
Most of us endured, as high school or college students, a history class that largely consisted of dates, names, and events, and required skills in memorization, but little else. In this course, we will explore the history of modern America—from the post-Civil War decade and the nation’s rise as an industrial-military power through the Great Depression, the world wars, the Cold War and its attendant proxy wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and forward. Because history isn’t just a visit to a “wax museum,” our focus will be on the ways in which people participated in and responded to the events they were experiencing. Our aim will be to explore vital themes of the nation’s past to help us think about how they are relevant to understanding America and Americans today. Anybody can learn what happened and when; it’s harder to understand why something happened. Why is the United States of 2018 the way it is? Why does the nation have the social structures, cultural diversity, economic inequality, and political divisiveness that it does? How did it get that way? Why does myth often outweigh reality? Why do policies and political rhetoric often contradict key American values? What does it mean to be an American in 1877? 1929? 1952? 2018? History is powerful. Who writes it, who controls the narrative, who interprets it, how they interpret it, and what political use they make of it is the essence of power. During our weeks together, we will discuss events and developments that you may/may not already know about or that you may/may not view as controversial, shocking, or contentious, but that are important nonetheless. The study of the past is not static, but is constantly being reshaped by new sources and perspectives. Without deep historical understanding, a society shares no common memory of how and why it developed the way it did, thereby restricting informed choices for the present and future.