Category Archives: Soviet History

Using Alternative Projects in Russian History Courses

Guest blogger John Corcoran received his PhD from Georgetown University in 2012.  His dissertation examined the political culture of local self-government in late Imperial Russia.  His current research interests include zemstvo liberalism and social welfare programs.  Since 2012, he has been a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Goucher College in Towson, MD.  

Many thanks to Karl for the opportunity to post.  Given the interesting questions raised by Gleb Tsipursky’s series of posts and responses from Alyssa DeBlasio and Karl about the sorts of skills we want to impart in our teaching, I thought it would be useful for me to discuss my experience with alternative projects in my Russian history courses at Goucher College.

As a sort of experiment during the spring 2013 semester, I offered students in my History of Medieval Russia class the opportunity to pursue a creative project in lieu of the semester paper.  I continued the option in fall 2013 with my courses on Imperial Russia and the Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union.

The project, like the paper, would involve research on a topic of their choosing, but the final product was up to them.  I specified that “creative” projects were to meet the following criteria: 1) They must have a research component; 2) They must have a defined final product; and 3) That final product must have educational value for a hypothetical future version of the course.  As with the standard research papers, students were required to submit proposals at the beginning of the project and research updates in advance of the final submission.

Muscovy Armor

Surprisingly, only a handful of students elected to do an alternative project, but those projects demonstrated a wide range of interests and types of final products.  Topics ranged from Muscovite armor to Russian Jewish cuisine (with samples) to the peoples of Siberia to the art of Marc Chagall.  Final products included a shield and mail shirt, a map, digital slide shows, and a video.

As a final summation and a prelude to this blog post, I interviewed students from each class to get their thoughts on the project.  Students were generally positive about the opportunity to do an alternative project, but also mentioned some considerations that dissuaded many of them from pursuing it to completion.  Based on those interviews and my own observations, I came up with the following list of benefits and drawbacks to consider, both for students contemplating these projects and for us as their teachers:


–Engagement: On the whole, students who did creative projects showed more enthusiasm than did their counterparts writing conventional research papers.  Even enthusiastic history majors complained of “paper fatigue.”  When the end of the semester requires dozens of pages of writing spread across multiple courses, some work on a hands-on project can feel like a welcome respite.

–Project management skills: One of the students interviewed said something along the lines of “You can’t make armor at the last minute.”  He was actually grateful that this project forced him to make a schedule, to budget, and to account for unforeseen obstacles—like college students the world over, he has written his share of papers at 3AM the night before they are due.  Given the concerns that have been raised recently about college graduates’ employability skills, this would seem to be a particular point to emphasize for students and employers both.

–Utility in future courses: The tangible final products can be of benefit as teaching aids.  Slideshows or other digital materials can of course be copied, and students might be persuaded to share their creations.  In other words, you better believe I will be wearing that shield next time I teach Medieval Russia.

Information Management: This, to me, is the aspect that students appreciated the least, so I plan to emphasize it more heavily in future semesters.  As our increasing forays into digital humanities are demonstrating, standard prose is not always the best way to convey information, and it requires a different set of skills to think through the best way to present a concept or a cluster of data.  These skills are useful in the outside world, but they also reflect on what we are trying to do in academia.  By assigning projects like this, we can press students to think differently about the learning process, and perhaps in turn we might ask ourselves some of the same questions about our teaching methods.


–Time: A number of students suggested that they had planned to do creative projects, but were daunted by the time constraints.  They suggested I begin project discussions earlier in the semester, to allow more time to plan (this past semester, project planning began about halfway through the course).  The drawback, though, is that they will be exposed to even less of the course material before making a determination about their project.

–Tools:  Students need to be able to acquire the skills–digital or otherwise–that will allow them to complete the project.  This gets at the substance of Karl’s last post, and I agree completely that we need to devote more class time to teaching students how to use these technologies.  But, the more complex programs might be beyond our ken, and we don’t necessarily want them all to use the same ones.  Long-term, we may want to work towards integrating digital skills courses into our curricula; until that happens, I intend to put a lot more effort into connecting students to the resources (on campus or online) that will teach them the skills that I cannot.

On the whole, I think the pluses definitely outweighed the minuses, and I’m looking forward to using this approach in future courses.  I’d love to hear any comments about your experiences with non-conventional project types.

Alyssa DeBlasio: Some Problems I Encountered Using Class-sourcing

Alyssa DeBlasio is Assistant Professor of Russian at Dickinson College. Before coming to Dickinson, she taught in the Philosophy Department at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). At Dickinson she teaches courses on Russian culture, literature, and the intersections between philosophy and literature. She also teaches Russian language of all levels, and has been experimenting with the use of podcasts, smart phones, blogging, and social media in the language classroom. She is currently completing a book on philosophy in Russia since 1991 called The End of Russian Philosophy?.


In the fall 2011 semester I taught a new course called “Russia and the Environment” at Dickinson College. The course was more or less a survey of Russian and Soviet reflections on the natural world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over 14 weeks we delved into works by Pushkin, Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Tolstoy, and Rasputin; secondary sources like Laura Henry’s Red to Green: Environmental Activism in Russia; and a range of films, from Grigory Alexandrov’s Spring to Alexei Popogrebsky How I Ended the Summer.

For the concluding assignment in the course, students were required to choose a topic they wanted to learn more about, research it thoroughly, and contribute an informational blog entry to our course site ( The goal of the blog was to create an on-line hub for information on Russia and the environment, on topics ranging from forestry in the Soviet Union to holistic medicine.

I have used blogs frequently and successfully (I hope!) in Russian courses for years, but this was my first time incorporating blogging into an English-language course. It was also my first time using the class-sourcing model Karl and Gleb have already posted about. Here is the truth: while I liked this model and I will probably do it again, I encountered all sorts of unanticipated difficulties along the way. Here I’ll share three such difficulties:

How Do I Write It?

At Dickinson, like probably at most colleges and universities, we (faculty) go to painstaking lengths to help our students write better. Most of these efforts are focused on the traditional research paper: writing a thesis statement, offering an original argument, incorporating sources critically, and mastering disciplinary writing. When I assigned a blog entry as a final project, thus, I had no idea the extent to which this type of “encyclopedic” writing would be foreign to my students, who were being pushed from every side to write everything as a research paper. Had I thought about this, I would have given them examples of similar articles as guides. This might have cut down on the number of questions I ended up answering about incorporating sources, authorial voice, citations, etc. Blogging is a genre very different from the research papers they are used to writing, and I made a mistake when I assumed that they knew this already.

When It’s Still No Good

What happens when you mark up numerous drafts, the student revises time and time again, and the entry is still just not good? I designed my assignment such that students had to turn in two drafts of their project before posting their final version to the blog. But there are always those students who wait until the last minute to do final research, don’t proofread their work, or simply don’t succeed at the assignment for one reason or another. As I was reading the final versions during finals week, I wondered: What would I do if there was something up here that was just not quality work? Would I remove it so that it didn’t make the broader project/other students look bad? Would I remove it myself or ask the student to do so? Or would I have to leave it up, since I hadn’t stipulated in advance that only posts meeting a certain set of expectations would be posted to the blog? I hadn’t thought this through, but I realized for the future that I should have an explicit policy about what goes on the web and what stays off. Were I to do it again, I would probably have the final (third) version due a week before the end of the term. This way I could require final corrections (typos, formatting errors, etc.) to be corrected by the students before their final grade was assigned.

Temporary Student, Permanent Blog

Most of the students in my course were seniors. Once they left campus, their interest in our blog fell from “classroom enthusiasm” to “What blog?” Within a month of graduation, their Dickinson emails were defunct and the only valid address on our site was mine. I hadn’t anticipated that I would be receiving emails from media outlets, the occasional academic, and even a South Korean logging firm to ask whether I might put them in touch with so-and-so specialist on Russian deforestation for a piece on logging accidents in the Far East. Even now, nearly 2 years later, Google searches for “Traditional Medicine in Russia” or “Siberia’s Environment” pull up our course blog as the very first hit; other searches, like “Air pollution in Russia,” list up our blog on the first page.

I think this is great, and not only because it makes classroom blogging all the more “authentic.” It shows that Russia and the environment is a sorely underrepresented topic on the web, and that my students truly chose topics that needed further research. But it also adds an additional layer of pressure to the project, particularly when I become the only person accountable for the work after the students graduate. The next time I do this, I’ll have to make one of two choices: either 1) I freeze the blog and make it clear to readers that it was a past project that is no longer functional; or 2) I set the blog up in such a way that future classes take over the work of previous classes. Of course, if the blog is a living Wiki that rolls over from semester to semester, then do future students have the right to edit the work of previous students? And if so, how do I write that into the syllabus? Will this make students less motivated to produce a finished piece of work, since they know that a semester or two from now somebody will have the right to alter everything they have done?

Since I have not used class-sourcing since, I unfortunately cannot offer definitive answers as to how I solved/would solve the problems above. For those of you who have encountered these or other issues, I would be happy to hear about the solutions that worked in your classrooms.

Class-sourcing First Step: Initial Thoughts

Courtesy of Chan Wong
Courtesy of Chan Wong

Over the past few weeks Gleb Tsipursky has introduced his idea of class-sourcing and I have provided an overview of my adaptation of it in a course this semester. With the first part of my course’s semester project complete, I thought I would provide an update.

My students have been working on amassing and annotating their initial bibliographies of books and articles. The choices of topics reflect the course’s focuses on modernity and sustainability. Students are working on aspects of nuclear power and waste disposal, tuberculosis in post-Soviet prisons, changing lives of native populations in the Taimyr Peninsula, how the formation of the Union of Composers changed classical music, and the shrinking Aral Sea and the environmental and public health consequences associated with it.

I had asked students to use Evernote as the platform for presenting their bibliographies. However, we realized that there are significant formatting issues. For example, if a student initially types the bibliography in MS Word or uses Zotero or RefWorks to generate the bibliography, Evernote creates extra lines and spaces and doesn’t recognize indenting. Because at the early stage I am concerned with students’ abilities to not only locate and evaluate sources but also to learn proper Chicago style citations (many of the students are not history majors and are more proficient in MLA), formatting issues are problematic. Students were to then use Twitter and our blog to promote their work with a link to Evernote. In the future, I will have students use DropBox, where formatting is not an issue, and share their files publicly. Gleb’s use of Delicious provides an automatic community for sharing (and gathering) information in a way that my approach does not. That said, the majority of the students have responded positively to Evernote as a good way to collect their notes in one place and sync them between their computers and iPads. As students begin to collect media to add to their projects, Evernote clipper will become a very valuable tool.

Even with all the “cons” noted above, I still think that using Evernote (and I might experiment with Diigo in the future) as a tool for organizing and teaching organizing is important. I have found over the years that students can be quite good at finding good material, but because they often lack the organizational skills that are so important for historians they fail to see patterns or how the various parts can fit together in a research paper.

I’ll return in a few weeks to update everyone about the projects’ progress. Later this week, meanwhile, my colleague, Prof. Alyssa DeBlasio in the Russian department, will share her thoughts on a class-sourcing project she used in the course “Russian and the Environment.” She will share her insights into first-time class-sourcing, the pros and cons, writing in a new medium, and the problems of making poor work public. Please check back in a few days.

We look forward to others’ insights into how they help students learn and write with new technology. I attended ThatCamp in Pittsburgh this weekend and met with the creators of Classroom Salon. I will likely use it next semester for peer editing in my History of Childhood senior seminar. Stay tuned.


Gleb Tsipursky on Class-sourcing History: Revisions and Envisioning the Future

Last week on this blog, I discussed how I started teaching students digital skills through class-sourced website assignments. There, I gave a brief introduction to class-sourcing, which involves faculty assigning students to create online projects instead of traditional papers and other assignments, and links to my website that describes the theory and practice of class-sourcing. This week, I want to discuss briefly how I adapted class-sourced website assignments over the three classes that I have taught them, as well as the broader implications of class-sourced assignments.

There are two key ways I have adapted class-sourced website assignments for my future students. First, I have thought through more consciously about the needs of those who would be using the websites in the future, and primarily students and educators at the college and high school level. I have therefore sought to adapt the assignments to fit these needs, and thus asked students creating the website to add a new section to the websites, where they would provide some examples of class activities that educators can assign to those they teach or that learners can do on their own as a way of gaining more from the website. This activity is available to any teacher who assigns a class-sourced assignment. Here is an example of one website that I have assigned in several classes and which has worked well, and here is another I intend to assign to future classes (Figure 1). Second, I have taken websites created by my students in former classes and assigned them to those in my subsequent classes. Learners thus received an opportunity to engage with class-sourced assignments as consumers before they would be the creators of similar class-sourced online projects. This activity is available to those educators who want to assign class-sourced materials made by others as supplementary materials, depending on the availability of topical class-sourced materials. Let me briefly add that I have branched out of doing only class-sourced website assignments and have done online bibliographies through, and visual analysis projects through, all available on my website,

Dissident Movement - Figure 1
Dissident Movement – Figure 1

The second big question I wanted to discuss in this blog post is a vision for the future. Drawing on my experience, I contend that class-sourced assignments produce content well suited to teaching others. In fact, these and similar classsourced artifacts have the potential to satisfy the demand among faculty and high school teachers for free class materials, especially ones available on the internet where learners spend so much of their time. Since faculty guide their creation, these products can be specifically tailored to the needs of teaching and learning, in comparison to crowdsourced sources such as Wikipedia. Moreover, since faculty check and correct their students’ assignments, class-sourced artifacts deserve more trust than crowdsourced data that lacks such evaluation. Furthermore, there can be many digital artifacts dealing with the same topic: by presenting a diversity of perspectives and interpretations, classsourced materials can offer a fuller and richer portrayal than the cohesive and unified narrative style of either Wikipedia or textbooks.

Once enough have been created and compiled together in an organized fashion, classsourced projects would serve as a valuable informational resource for the public. Such efforts to organize these artifacts can start at the level of individual faculty, as I did with my personal webpage, and grow to span departments, universities, and eventually the national and even international level. Faculty can partner with schools, museums, governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and other institutions to create digital artifacts that serve the particular needs of such external stakeholders. In this age of digital technology and tightening budgets, class-sourcing would help ensure that history stays relevant and demonstrates actively the value of academic contributions to society as a whole.

Class-sourcing on Soviet Sustainability

resourceGleb Tsipursky has introduced you to the general ideas behind class-sourcing and some of the media he uses. In this post I would like to introduce how I have adapted Gleb’s project to my Soviet history course.

Dickinson  College has long been known for fostering global education and study abroad. More recently, we have taken up the call to teach our students and ourselves to be better stewards through the study and practice of sustainability. To this end, many faculty have been creating and reworking, to varying degrees, courses so that we can highlight issues of sustainability in our fields. Given that most definitions of sustainability included not only environmental concerns, but also issues of human rights, access to political and economic power, and maintenance of cultures, the study of the Soviet Union seemed a logical course for me to begin with.

Following Gleb’s lead, I have changed my assignments in this course from a traditional research paper to a series of projects that will support students’ use of and contribution to our digitized knowledge base. In a series of steps, students will accumulate a bibliography on their topics, modify and annotate the bibliography, collect digitized sources (e.g. films, maps, timelines, photographs, etc.) that will help them tell their story, and then construct a lengthy multimedia blog post that will educate the broader public on their topics. Notes and bibliographies will be collected using Evernote so that students can easily sync their work between tablets and computers. Students will then share these Evernote assignments with classmates for peer review and with the wider world via the Twitter hashtag #h254 (the course number) and other social media. Final projects will be posted to our blog in December and will be promoted via this blog and numerous social media.

I will return every few weeks to update on the course’s progress and provide my thoughts on the pros and cons of each stage. Gleb will return tomorrow with his latest blog post.

We would appreciate your feedback.

Gleb Tsipursky’s guest post: Class-sourcing History: Teaching Students Digital Skills

We search constantly for ways to teach students better, to serve our discipline, profession, and the broader public more fully, and to stay relevant in this digital era. I would like to propose one strategy that has the potential to advance our collective capacity on all of these fronts: a new method of digital humanities-informed teaching and learning that I term class-sourcing. This concept adapts the term crowdsourcing, meaning the outsourcing of tasks to a wide group of volunteers, for instance the organization of information best exemplified by Wikipedia. A related but distinct process, class-sourcing consists of two elements, namely having students and faculty create online digital artifacts that organize knowledge, subsequently publicizing, and conglomerating these creations for the benefit of a widely diverse audience. I will discuss the first component in this blog post, and the second component next week.

Class-sourcing involves having faculty give class assignments where students make publicly-accessible online digital artifacts, such as wikis, websites, blogs, videos, podcasts, visual images, and others. These projects aim to report on class to a broad audience in a visually appealing fashion. This component of class-sourcing advances our ability to teach students about history while conveying the skills of a liberal art education. Similar to a paper, students conduct independent research on a specific topic they chose, analyze the information they find, and organize and communicate this data, which strengthens research, writing, and critical thinking, as well as historical understanding.

However, online digital artifacts provide additional benefits, as they advance our ability to teach students digital literacy skills relevant to professional and civic life in the modern digital age. A related advantage of class-sourcing comes from the capacity of digital artifacts to improve student engagement and performance, due to the novel nature of this assignment and the deployment and development of digital skills, which creates a constructive classroom dynamic and enhances comprehension of course content. Additionally, the public nature of the online projects results in improved academic performance, since as class feedback has shown, students are more committed to producing a better project if they know it will be available for a broad audience.

My proposals emerge from my own experience asking those in my classes to create websites on Soviet and imperial Russian history based on original primary source research. These students produced websites on a variety of topics, such as “The KGB,” and “Bloody Sunday, 1905” (Figure 1). From the very beginning, students expressed enthusiasm over these assignments. They have impressed me with their commitment and the quality of their final product generally exceeded my expectations. Furthermore, these digital artifacts have a clear impact, as you can see by typing “The KGB” into Google, where my students’ website currently comes up fourth in the search rankings. For in-depth directions on undertaking this activity and a list of student-created websites, see my personal webpage. After my students created the websites, I checked them for accuracy and corrected mistakes, as I would do for any assignment. Then, I assigned the best examples among these websites as supplementary readings to students in my subsequent classes.

Next week, I will discuss how I have adapted the class-sourced website assignment over the three classes that I have taught it, as well as the broader impications of class-sourced assiFigure-1-Bloody-Sunday-1905-300x178gnments. Stay tuned!

Julie deGraffenried, Teaching Childhood in High School

Integrating Childhood, Children’s, and Youth History into High School History Courses

For three years after graduation from college, I taught social studies – all of them – in a small high school in rural Texas. I remember feeling alternately overwhelmed by (“how can I cover all of this?”) and constrained by (“why can’t I teach this?”) state-mandated learning objectives. Though I now teach at the university level, I am married to a high school teacher who reminds me, especially in the spring, how much pressure there is for secondary educators to “teach the test” so that their students will perform well on state exams.

All of this is to say: I feel your pain. I have no desire to add to your burden, high school teachers of America & the World. When I ask you to consider integrating childhood, children’s and youth history into your classes, I do so in the hopes that it will be an effective way to both cover those required objectives AND get your students excited about history. While I will mention sources from Russia that you can use in American history or world history, what I’m suggesting here can be applied to all kinds of sources on childhood around the world. I’m not proposing a rewrite of your existing curriculum, just some tweaking; speaking as a university educator, I would be really happy to know that incoming students had been introduced to the idea of children’s history.

Since most states require educators to use a “variety of rich primary and secondary source material,”[1] I’ll begin by suggesting a simple way to introduce this topic to your students: find art, photographs, artifacts, or documents about or created by children that relate to a unit or lesson you already cover. If you have lesson on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, add this contemporary artwork by Lithuanian children about the gulag in conjunction with the lesson plan offered at the Gulag History site. This allows you to talk briefly about children in the gulag and children of gulag survivors, how memory/history is taught, and the fall of communism. Using visuals in your classroom activities not only helps develop primary source analysis, but also introduces the arts and media. A discussion of totalitarianism or the Cold War could utilize the Soviet poster and brief descriptor here.

The Children and Youth in History site, created by George Mason University and University of Missouri-Kansas City, is an excellent resource for students and teachers. It includes single- lesson plans called Case Studies that are written by educators and include a step-by-step guide for using a particular document or image with secondary students. For example, one of these case studies is based on the Thälmann Pioneers of East Germany. Additionally, there are fifteen Teaching Modules that provide an overview of larger topics such as “Childhood in the Slave Trade” or “Children during the Black Death,” a number of resources, teaching strategies, lesson plans, and a document-based question.

The beauty of this topic is that it can fit a variety of historical events, especially for the modern period. A study of industrialization can include child labor testimonies from Great Britain, Marx on child labor and education, and an excerpt from Boris Gorshkov’s Factory Children. A study of the Cold War could compare American and Soviet cartoons about the enemy. Any required social studies skills can be emphasized when considering images or documents by or about children.

A couple of new books are particularly well-suited to use in secondary history classes. Eugene Yelchin’s Newbery Honor Book on the Stalinist Terror, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, is a gripping read. The book has an attractive and accessible (though not particularly deep) discussion of Soviet life referenced in the book at to help students understand the story better. Advanced students might compare Yelchin’s book to Lydia Chukovskaia’s novella Sofia Petrovna (the Terror through the eyes of a mother) to discuss Soviet society and politics from two perspectives. Another notable book is Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia. The author recalls her childhood as a Polish deportee in the Soviet Union during World War II. She conveys a sense of what life was like in the USSR during the war.

My appeal to you to incorporate childhood into your history courses is threefold: 1.) Pedagogues tell us that students need “hooks” in order to connect new information with something they already know. Children’s history has an advantage here because your students will feel that “childhood” is familiar territory, even if you are talking about children or childhood in another time or place; 2.) You can hit multiple learning objectives by discussing childhood without adding burdensome work to your full plate; and 3.) your students will respond to these sources, which will help them enjoy history more than they think they do!

[1] I am in the state of Texas, so I am referencing Chapter 113 of the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for Social Studies, Subsection C., available at

Julie deGraffenried, Children in the Russian History Survey

Integrating Children, Childhood, and Youth into the Undergraduate Russian Survey

Since Jackie so ably made the case for the importance of introducing childhood and youth to history students, I’ll move on to discuss how this can be done in the undergraduate classroom. Like many of you, I teach a two-semester introductory survey, broken into “Russia to 1861” and “Russia Since 1861.”

Getting students to think about age as a useful category of analysis is both easier and harder than you might think. For whatever reasons, exercises involving children/youth are among the most popular I do in survey courses. Maybe analyzing children seems “easier” to undergraduates than probing gender or class or economics. After all, students know they have experience as children. For traditional college students, their childhoods are still quite near. The idea that age (both chronological and developmental) is a key factor in how people experience, interpret, and engage the world around them makes sense to them. Students often express that they find sources about or by children relatable, and their collective reactions – often passionate and empathetic – affirm this engagement.

The flipside of this enthusiasm is that students tend to think they “get” childhood and youth because they ARE (or were) children and youth – in the same way that American college students think they “know” American history simply because they are American. Without some prodding, their analysis can be limited in depth or sophistication, or limited by their own childhood experiences. There is a tendency to overpersonalize and underanalyze – i.e., “If I were in this situation, I would …” or “This was not a normal childhood because …” – which is not necessarily the point of the exercise. The trick, then, is to draw students in with the accessibility and interest that sources about children seem to generate, while continually pushing them to think like a historian.

There is a wealth of resources available for and relevant to childhood and youth in Russian history, though most are applicable to the second half or a twentieth-century survey. In addition to those listed by Jackie in her previous post, here are some of my favorite primary sources.

Russia to 1861Domostroi is a great way to introduce the concept of childhood, and to questions about parent-child relationships, gender and childhood, definitions of childhood, upbringing, Orthodoxy and childhood, and, as an elite document, class and childhood. Students can use Carolyn Pouncy’s edition or excerpts like these. Another kind of childhood can be explored using either A Life Under Russian Serfdom: The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii by Savva Purlevskii, translated and edited by Boris B. Gorshkov, or Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824 by Aleksandr Nikitenko, translated by Helen Jacobson. With these, childhood can be related to serfdom, society, material culture, family, and transitions to youth and adulthood. A comparison of Nikitenko’s memoir with Leo Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical Childhood could be productive. Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life helps to illuminate the position and options of girls in elite imperial society, while Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is the quintessential generations novel.

Russia Since 1861 – Tian-Shaanskaia’s Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, edited by David Ransel, leads to excellent discussions about “modern” childhood. Memoirs about childhood include S. I. Kanatchikov’s From the Story of My Life, Nina Lugovskaya’s I Want to Live, Anatole Konstantin’s A Red Boyhood, Ella Fonyakova’s That Winter’s Bread: A Child’s View of the Leningrad Siege (fiction, but autobiographical), or Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs. Don Raleigh’s recent oral history project, Soviet Baby Boomers, provides another way to explore Soviet childhood and youth. The website Seventeen Moments has a wealth of resources: for example, the 1921 subheading “Homeless Children” includes an essay by Lewis Siegelbaum, 8 images, a musical selection (with lyrics translated into English), and two videos. Children feature prominently in Soviet posters, and good collections can be found in the Swarthmore Peace Collection and, where you can create a customized collection based on date or topic. Young Pioneer music can be found here. Film excerpts – i.e., Eisenstein’s Odessa steps scene or the Teutonic Knights burning children in “Aleksandr Nevskii” –  provoke discussion about the constructs and uses of childhood/children in the arts and propaganda, as can whole films such as “Ivan’s Childhood,” made available with English subtitles by MosFilm, and Soviet animation such as “Pioneer Violin” or “The Millionaire.” Material culture and questions of place and space can be explored at the excellent virtual museum at “Communal Living in Russia” where students can create their own tours utilizing the site’s essays, photographs, videos, and documents.

Incorporating childhood and children’s history into your Russian survey courses has several benefits. For most of your students, children offer a “new” historical voice they have never considered. Talking about children or the construction of childhood will complicate their perceptions of the family, education, and culture in Russian history. It will certainly enrich your discussions about Soviet society, generational change, and memory: because the creation of the New Soviet Man so depended on the state’s success (real or imagined) in bringing up children properly, children were critical symbols of Soviet achievement. Pedagogically, the topic adapts easily to primary source, media, or image analysis, writing assignments, or book discussions. Perhaps most importantly, you will provide your students with a set of questions and an approach that can be used productively in their other history courses or future research.


Jacqueline Olich: Why Teach Childhood? Part I
"Street Scene" (1930) Frank Whitson Fetter Papers, Duke University

Everyone has a childhood.  Therefore, the history of childhood is accessible to students of history and intrinsically compelling.  It creates spaces for students to question implicit assumptions about both history and childhood. More history courses, I argue, should include a reading or project relating its contents to the burgeoning field of childhood studies. While the history of childhood is a young field (pun intended), it is a dynamic and growing one.  Inspired by discussions with Karl Qualls, Julie deGraffenried and other participants in the recent Russian Children’s History Workshop about the field of childhood studies, here I will share what I have done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Part I) and suggest some ideas and resources (Part II).

Part I: Case Study: RUES 699 Kids, Communists and Capitalists: Twentieth-century Childhood in Comparative Perspective

It would be hard to imagine a subject more difficult to teach—or more rewarding—than the history of childhood.  Truly interdisciplinary, the history of childhood must necessarily draw upon anthropology, art history, biology, demography, developmental psychology, law, literature, philosophy, and sociology, among other disciplines.  Unlike courses that can be organized in a purely chronological fashion, the history of childhood’s multidisciplinary character means that courses must combine chronology with topical approaches–including such topics children’s culture, diversity and inequality, children and war, friendship and peer relationships, and biological realities and cultural variation– and ongoing debates, such as how much childhood has changed over time and how extensively children’s developmental stages have varied.

Steven Mintz, “Teaching the History of Childhood

I not only accept Steven Mintz’s challenge, but add an additional layer: I teach the comparative history of childhood.  “Over the course of the twentieth century,” I write, “Russian children—like their American counterparts—grappled with far-reaching changes, with each decade or era characterized by diverse childhood experiences. Russia’s children played, attended school, ate sweets, acted in plays, and learned to ballroom dance. But, for many of them, the twentieth century was an extraordinarily brutal one. Like adults, children faced family disruption, starvation, arrest, disease, and death.”[1] By offering a unique side-by-side consideration of Soviet and American childhood and children’s culture over the “long twentieth century,” my course examines how adults sought to control children’s lives (this theme resonates with students) as well as how children experienced historic and quotidian moments.

 Ultimately, I seek to make the familiar (for most of my students, childhood in America) strange and the strange (the history of Russian childhood) familiar.  Students enrolled in my seminar engage in a comparative and interdisciplinary dialogue about children and youth.  Together, we study children in the context of historic upheavals–the Great Depression, the Gulag, and the Great Patriotic War or World War II.  We explore coming of age on the two sides of the Cold War; the centrality of school in children’s lives; the growth of consumerism and material culture in the second half of the twentieth century; state and market efforts to shape children’s leisure activities; and inequality and the diversity of minority experiences.

Here are some of the “big questions” that we consider: What was it like to grow up in the Soviet Union?  Was it intrinsically different from growing up in the United States?  In what ways do geography, class, gender and historical era shape childhood?  Who gets to define childhood?  What counts as a “good” or normal childhood?  How did the understanding and experience of childhood shift from decade to decade?

So who takes this course?  Given its institutional home in the Curriculum in Russian and East European Studies and my affiliation with the Department of History, once would expect graduate and undergraduate students affiliated with the Curriculum in Russian and East European Studies, Department of History, and Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures to enroll and they do.  In addition, students from the following campus units also took the course: Curriculum in Global Studies; Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense; the Department of Public Policy; Gillings School of Global Public Health; and the School of Education, including the School Administration program.  One student, a native of Russia who emigrated at an early age, expressed a desire to “better understand her parents and grandparents.”  The diverse backgrounds of the students not only makes for lively class discussions; it also attests to the broad interest in and appeal for interdisciplinary studies of childhood and the history of childhood.

My course strives to prepare global citizens who are adept at thinking in a comparative framework.  Importantly, students cultivate an understanding of young people’s complicated roles and relationships in the development of modern societies and cultures as they gain familiarity with some of the scholarly research and writing on children and childhood.

[1] Jacqueline Olich, “The Russianists Love Their Children, Too,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and YouthVolume 1, Number 3, Fall 2008 
pp. 445.

Wilson Bell: The Gulag Seminar

“Gulag Studies” has progressed enough, at this point, that it is possible to teach a
seminar course on the Gulag. Steve’s excellent posts on images and primary sources show some of the amazing resources out there. In terms of historiography, we now have a developed (or developing) literature on memoir analysis, oral history, forced labor and economics, official camp culture, resistance, release, women in the camps, sexuality, local studies, special settlements, the post-Stalin era, and life for prisoners after the camps, and more. There is even an annual, peer-reviewed journal titled Gulag Studies, published by the small publishing firm of Charles Schlacks Jr. Indeed, the problem for the instructor, at this point, is not one of finding and locating enough material for a course, but making difficult decisions about what to exclude. In this post, I’d like to suggest possible topics and (taking up Steve’s challenge) secondary sources for a Gulag seminar course.

Steve has already pointed to two of the best on-line resources for students and instructors, his own and the excellent “Mapping the Gulag” ( There are other amazing English-language electronic resources, too, including the sound archive, “European Memories of the Gulag” ( – in multiple languages).

The Gulag as a seminar topic lends itself well to the use of Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom. The use of wikis and blogs can be an especially powerful way to reach students, who are comfortable with the on-line format and with expressing opinions “electronically.” If public, moreover, blogs are a way to break down the ivory tower. My 2011 course blog, “Communism and the Environment,” for example, had over 1200 unique visitors during the semester, from all over the world. The blog has continued to generate hits, with over 3000 unique visitors since it went live. But even a private wiki or blog would work well for a Gulag course. Students would have the opportunity to discuss issues and problems before coming to class; the class would thus be an in-person extension of what is already an active discussion. Because the Gulag is a topic that deals with issues of trauma and intense suffering and a topic that raises theoretical questions pertaining to state power and the nature of totalitarianism, an on-line discussion forum—whether private or public—could be extremely beneficial.

Structurally, I believe that a thematic approach would work best. If one wishes to assign a general overview of the camps, the abridged version of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago could work. Applebaum’s Gulag: A History basically follows Solzhenitsyn’s general argument and structure, and is more accessible. We now also have Steve Barnes’ Death and Redemption, which offers a scholarly analysis and, crucially, integrates the history of the Gulag with the history of Soviet state building and the Soviet ideological project. Both Gulag: A History and Death and Redemption contain chapters dealing with many of the main thematic topics for a Gulag history course.

Below I’ve outlined a possible 14-week seminar course on the Gulag, with some suggested readings (by no means an exhaustive list). The suggested readings will mostly be familiar to specialists, but hopefully readers find my arrangement and suggestions helpful. The order of these topics could easily be shuffled around. For more sources, see the two-part bibliography that I compiled with Marc Elie: “Selected Bibliography of Historical Works on the Gulag,” Gulag Studies 1 (2008); and “A Supplement to the Selected Bibliography of Historical Works on the Gulag,” Gulag Studies 4 (2011).

Week One: Precedents

This week one could examine the fascinating work by Andrew Gentes and/or Abby Schrader on the Tsarist-era penal and exile systems. Gentes is particularly sensitive to some of the similarities and differences between the Tsarist and Soviet systems, and thus provides a nice balance to Solzhenitsyn, who dismisses any comparison.

Another option would be to examine the origins of the concentration camp as precedent for the Gulag. There are some fascinating avenues for exploration with the Spanish reconcentrado camps set up in Cuba; the British-run camps in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War; and the German-run internment camps in South-West Africa during the war with the Herero. That all three of these early examples appeared in colonial contexts is not coincidental, and, for an advanced seminar course, it may be worth examining the extent to which the Gulag itself was part of a Soviet “colonization” process, as scholars such as Lynne Viola have begun to do.

Week Two: Understanding Soviet Criminal Justice

On the other hand, the Gulag was also the Soviet Union’s penal system, and thus some understanding of Soviet criminal justice is necessary for a full analysis of the camp system. Peter Solomon’s Soviet Criminal Justice Under Stalin remains the key monograph for this topic, but I also highly recommend work by Kragh (“Stalinist Labour Coercion During World War II”) and Kowalsky (Deviant Women).

One could focus on the Soviet police, and recent works by David Shearer (Policing Stalin’s Socialism) and/or Paul Hagenloh (Stalin’s Police) are quite useful. Shearer’s article in the Journal of Modern History, for example, raises a number of key questions about the growth of repression via the state’s desire to keep track of its citizens/subjects.

Week Three: Explanations

The historiography has developed to the point where there are now a variety of explanations for the Gulag. The main area of contention is whether or not the Gulag was primarily an economic institution of forced labor, or a political institution of repression. For a nice contrast that should raise considerable discussion, I highly recommend assigning the introduction to Paul Gregory’s The Economics of Forced Labor, the introduction to Barnes’ Death and Redemption, and the introduction to Applebaum’s Gulag: A History.

Week Four: The Peasant Archipelago

Stalinist repression of the peasants was key to the expansion of the Gulag camps and the “other archipelago” of the special settlements. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the Gulag through a focus solely on the intellectuals in the camps, incarcerated under Article 58 of the criminal code (counter-revolutionary crimes). The state’s antagonistic relationship to the peasants was a crucial factor for the Gulag’s growth. I recommend Scherer and Jakobson’s article, “The Collectivisation of Agriculture and the Soviet Prison Camp System,” as well as the many articles by Lynne Viola on the special settlements, or her excellent book, The Unknown Gulag, which adroitly places the history of the settlements within the history of the camp system. Nicholas Werth’s Cannibal Island, while not directly about peasant exile, is a fascinating narrative account of an exile settlement in Western Siberia that is highly readable for an undergraduate audience, and also provides considerable information about the inefficiencies of the Gulag and center-periphery relations.

Week Five: Gulag Official Culture

Perhaps surprisingly, each camp within the Gulag maintained a Cultural-Educational Department, nominally in charge of re-educating criminals into productive Soviet citizens. There is a growing body of literature on the subject of official culture in the camps, although mostly still in article format. Yet the topic of re-education is a thread that runs through Barnes’ book, and is also dealt with in some depth in Ruder’s Making History for Stalin. For article-length studies, see my own “One Day in the Life of Educator Khrushchev,” Barnes’ “‘All for the Front, All for Victory!’,” and Drasckozy’s (hyperlink is a .pdf) “The Put’ of Perekovka.”

Week Six: Unofficial Gulag Culture

The best resource for this topic remains the memoir literature. Steve made some good suggestions in his post. I’d also recommend Margarete Buber-Nuemann’s Under Two Dictators, as she has great descriptions of life in the camps and also provides fascinating points for comparison between the Gulag camps and the Nazi camp of Ravensbrück. Steve’s website, has excellent resources on this topic, too. Major research libraries may carry the Memorial Society’s Museum Catalogue, Art and Life in the Gulag. Some of this material is available on-line in English at

Week Seven: The Gulag Memoir

I recommend at least one or two full weeks devoted to Gulag memoirs. Again, Steve has suggested some of the more accessible and interesting first-hand accounts. For a short but powerful memoir, I highly recommend Hava Volovich’s “My Past,” in the memoir collection, Till My Tale Is Told. Unlike most memoirists, Volovich was not in the camps under Article 58. Other memoir collections in translation include Remembering the Darkness and Gulag Voices: An Anthology. There is a growing body of scholarship that analyzes memoirs from the perspective of literary criticism, and Leona Toker’s pioneering work on this subject is an excellent choice.

Week Eight: The Gulag in Fiction

As Steve suggested, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are both excellent, and raise many issues for discussion. Russian television has also made mini-series versions of Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. I’m not sure when or if these will be available with English subtitles, but they are both high quality productions, and one can find clips on YouTube (here and here, for example). Although I have not yet watched the television version of Kolyma Tales, the version of First Circle is quite well done.

Week Nine: Oral History and the Gulag

Continuing with several weeks focused on the prisoner experience, Jehanne Gheith’s Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile provides considerable material for class discussion, not only for what the ex-prisoners say, but how they say it, and what they leave out or do not discuss. Indeed, issues of memory and trauma can be discussed in some depth in relation to this text. Another possibility is Stephen Cohen’s oral history, The Victims Return.

Week Ten: Local Studies

Recent scholarship on specific camps is, I think, especially strong at pointing out the economic aspects of the Stalinist camp system. Articles on Norilsk in the aforementioned The Economics of Forced Labor, for example, show that central authorities could focus considerable resources and effort on camps that were viewed as high priorities, economically. Judith Pallot’s remarkable “Forced Labour for Forestry” examines the interaction between free and forced labor in Perm’ province. Alan Barenberg’s work on Vorkuta, Nick Baron’s on Karelia, David Nordlander’s on Kolyma, and others also provide students with an interesting picture of how the Gulag functioned in various locales.

 Week Eleven: Women in the Camps

Cathy Frierson’s English adaptation and re-working of Simeon Vilensky’s Deti GULAGa (published in English as Children of the Gulag) contains information and primary material about issues specific to women and children in the camps. The memoir literature is, of course, rich with material from women memoirists. There are two anthologies specifically devoted to women’s experiences (Till My Tale Is Told and Remembering the Darkness, mentioned above), as well as Ginzburg’s key two-volume Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, and more. Golfo Alexopoulos’ work on release from the camps sheds light on how the administration viewed women prisoners.

It may soon be possible to conduct a separate class session on sexuality and gender in the camps, as Adi Kuntsman has begun to examine this topic.

Week Twelve: Camp Personnel

Unfortunately, we still have little scholarly analysis of camp personnel. Mochulsky’s memoir, Gulag Boss, provides considerable room for analysis, and could be excellent for undergraduates, as the book raises interesting questions about what Mochulsky chose to include and what he chose to omit. There is a lengthy section on the guards in Galina Ivanova’s Labor Camp Socialism, and Nordlander has published an article-length analysis of the Dalstroi bosses, but much more work remains to be done. Recent conference papers (link is a .pdf) related to the topic show that more studies are likely forthcoming.

Week Thirteen: Resistance

Resistance is one of the few topics that has garnered considerable scholarly attention, mostly focused on the strikes and rebellions of the post-Stalin period. During the Stalin era there were also strikes and other acts of resistance (including everyday forms of resistance such as foot-dragging, data falsification, and other informal practices), but these have received less attention. Steve’s article on the Kengir uprising is very well done, and one can also look to earlier work of Graziosi (“The Great Strikes of 1953”) or Craveri (in the book, Free and Unfree Labour).

Week Fourteen: The Gulag after Stalin

Finally, several scholars have focused on the issue of what happens to the Gulag and its prisoners after Stalin. Miriam Dobson’s Khrushchev’s Cold Summer is the place to start, but articles by Jeff Hardy in the Russian Review and Kritika also point to new developments in this field. Both Dobson and Hardy’s work highlight some of the ambivalence surrounding the camps and Khrushchev’s “thaw,” but with a different focus and a somewhat different take. Alan Barenberg’s forthcoming monograph on Vorkuta, which traces Vorkuta’s development from prison camp to mining town, sheds light on the transition between the Stalin and post-Stalin era camps. Nanci Adler continues to research the ways in which ex-prisoners adapted to life after the camps, and work by Kathleen Smith looks at the issue of the memory of the Gulag and the collapse of the Soviet system. Some of the electronic resources, such as, cover the entire post-Stalin period, too.