Who are the Russians?

I. Course description:

For half-a-century we waged a “Cold War” with them, which cost trillions and totally dominated our foreign policy. Yet we never really knew what the Russians were about. Meet these fascinating people through the wonderful cultural artifacts they have created. Scholars will experience outstanding examples of Russian music and literature, film and performing arts. They will also be introduced to the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language, and “visit” landmarks such as the Stalin grad War Memorial and The Hermitage Art Museum. Discussion will focus on how these cultural exchanges can help us know the Russians, and understand why we know so little about yesterday’s “Evil Empire.” Hopefully this encounter will shed light on the present international crisis.

II. Instructor’s educational preparation and current:

Employment: Kirsten Borg is presently a Counselor at Braymer (MO) High School, where she also teaches an Honors Seminar, coaches the Academic Team, and advises the NHS. She began her career as a History teacher at Evanston (Illinois) High School. In between, she taught several subjects at various colleges and universities, including Kubanski State University in Krasnodar, Russia. She has several degrees, mostly in History: B.A. from Augustana College, M.A. from Cornell University, PhD from University of Illinois-Chicago, and – recently – M.S.E. from Drake University in Counseling. She is a musician and writer, loves to travel and study foreign languages. Russian History has been a lifelong passion, about which she has written two novels.

III. Rationale for inclusion in a program for gifted students:

Although Russia has largely disappeared from the headlines, it is still the world’s largest landmass, inhabited by millions of strong, well-educated people. For today’s high school students the “Evil Empire” is a fading memory, so the time is ripe for them to make some new friends – or at least to understand some old enemies. The techniques learned could be very useful in coping intelligently with the present international crisis. Russian history is an engaging topic, which (like mummies and dinosaurs) never fails to fascinate. The cultural artifacts presented are intrinsically worth studying, and provide an excellent jumping-off point for exploration of ideas in many directions.

IV. Major topics covered:
  • Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language
  • The Hermitage Art Museum
  • World War II Memorials (Battle of Stalin grad, Siege of Leningrad)
  • Russian literature: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn
  • Russian music: Tchaikovsky, Moussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich
  • Russian cinema
  • Russian ballet and other dance forms
  • Russian Orthodox Church
V. Pre-requisite knowledge:


VI. Learning objectives:
  • To acquaint scholars with uniquely Russian cultural artifacts
  • To broaden and deepen their understanding of the Russian people
  • To reflect on how ignorance of other cultures affects American relations with other countries
  • To encourage scholars to use cultural artifacts to cut through distorted media coverage and illuminate inadequate sources of information
VII. Primary source materials:


  • Fodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
  • Ilya Repin, Paintings
  • Kirsten Borg, Articles and novels


  • Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein’s classic)
  • Burnt by the Sun
  • Enemy at the Gates
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Reds
  • Boris Godunov (Bolshoi Opera)
  • Other Videos
    • “The Hermitage”
    • “Moiseyev Dance Company”
    • “Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble”
    • “My Sergei”
    • “The Magic of the Bolshoi Ballet”
    • “Baryshnikov Dances Twyla Tharp”
    • “Fantasiav”
    • 2002 Olympic Figure Skating


  • Stravinsky: Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring
  • Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake, “1812 Overture”, Eugene Onegin, Symphonies #5 & #6
  • Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Shostakovich: Symphony #5, Symphony #7 (“Leningrad”)
  • Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, Piano Concerto #2
  • Rachmaninov: Vespers
  • Russian folk music
  • Russian orthodox liturgical music
VIII. Supplementary source materials:

Matryoshka dolls, lacquer boxes, icons, Cyrillic blocks, Russian card games, tarot cards, and fairy tales, personal photographs

IX. Computing and the Internet

Virtual tours of The Hermitage Art Museum in St. Petersburg (www.hermitage.ru) and the Stalin grad War Memorial (www.stalingrad.com.ru)

X. Typical classroom strategies:
  • Experiencing the cultural artifacts listed above
  • Providing geographical and historical context
  • Writing and discussing what these artifacts tell us about the Russian people
  • Encouraging students to use this method to understand other peoples – especially those considered “enemies”