Monasteries, Mass-Murderers, and the Mafia: What is and Why is Russia?

I. Course Description

What do Orthodox monasteries, Joseph Stalin, and the Russian Mafia have in common?  You’ll have to sign up to find out.  This course will focus on the founding myths of Russian culture, which will in turn inform our understanding of today’s world.  We will study and discuss films, short stories, visual art, music, and social behaviors to see how Russians view themselves, and also how we view them.  For the latter, we will occasionally collaborate with the “Wild, Wild West” class.

II. Instructor:  Karl Qualls

Ph.D. Russian and East European History (Georgetown University, 1998)

III. Rationale for inclusion in a program for gifted students
  • To teach students what aspects of culture are important to understanding a society
  • To allow students to understand that culture is created, is based in a historical context, and is ever changing
IV. Major topics covered
  • 988 AD Christianization of Russia
  • The Great Schism
  • Old Believers
  • Peter the Great’s importation of Western culture and the subsequent split in “national character”
  • 19th intellectual movements
  • Bolshevik revolution
  • Cold War
  • Contemporary Popular Culture
V. Prerequisite knowledge


VI. Learning Objectives:
  • To acquaint students with a foreign culture that has been, and likely will be, central to our discussions of who we are as Americans
  • To consider what has created Russian society, culture, and “national psychology” in its present form
  • To use our knowledge of the first two points to understand the current problems facing Russia and Russians and why their “solutions” differ from what we might expect as Americans
  • To provide students, through occasional interaction with the American class, with the tools to analyze cultures and societies on their own terms, without bias and preconceived notions
VII. Primary source material

Ranges from 10th century Russian chronicles to examples of contemporary
popular culture

VIII. Supplementary source material

My personal accounts, photographs, etc. from various trips to the former Soviet Union.

IX. Computing and the Internet

“Open-end” projects starting at various megasites like, Slavophilia, Russophilia, etc.

  • Small group discussion on what they think it means to be “Russian” and what “Russia” is and was
  • Small group discussions on what “culture” is, how it is manifested, and how (if at all) it is “created”
  • Full-class discussion of the concept of “founding myths” and cultural creation
  • Use samples of literature, music, and the visual arts to explain Russia’s founding myths and how they are transmitted through culture to each generation
  • Use the cultural artifacts in point 4 to show continuity and change of the cultural myth over time, and how Russians adapt their common cultural language to fit contemporary conditions
  • With examples from contemporary pop culture, we will see if the cultural myths are still present and if so in what form (have they been transformed?)