Spring 2019

PLEASE NOTE: No lecture April 9

Click for Handouts: Wk 1, Wk 2, Wk 3, Wk 4,


The Russian Century 1917-2017:

Revolutions without End

One can argue that no country has been more prominent in the 20th century than Russia.  It was at the heart of World War I, the original Communist Revolution of 1917, the Stalinist revolution, the Ukrainian famine, World War II, the Cold War, the extraordinary Gorbachev revolution, the Soviet disintegration and the rise of Vladimir Putin.  Those associated with that history, from Nicholas II to Lenin to Trotsky to Stalin to Khrushchev to Gorbachev are among the most (in)famous names worldwide in our century.

This course introduces the main events and characters of that remarkable century.  It will pay close attention to Russian popular culture and the connection (or lack thereof) between Soviet society (people like you and me) and the Soviet state.  In particular, the course questions whether depictions of a totalitarian Soviet police state and a terrorized and brutalized society are helpful when it comes to understanding that remarkable part of the world.  Lastly, this course will stress the endurance of a truly remarkable Russian culture over time, one that the mightiest of rulers could not fully control.

Don’t think that this will all be “book learning”.  The instructor has deep roots in Russia and Ukraine, and has been there many times over the years.  He understands everyday life there because he has lived it.

March 19      1917:  A Year of Revolutions

  • Where did Lenin come from, and what difference did he make in 1917?

  • Was the Russian revolution inevitable? If not, where did it come from?

  • Did Lenin’s supporters highjack the revolution after the Tsar abdicated, or were they a popular option? What is the average Russian thinking in 1917?

  • Why did Russia not develop a western style “liberal” democracy in 1917?

March 26     The Stalinist Revolution (1930s)

  • Why did Stalin go overwhelmingly with Collectivization, Industrialization and the Purges in the 1930s?

  • What were “average” Russians thinking in the 1930s?

  • What’s the difference between a Stalin-centered Revolution and a Stalinist one?

  • What can we say about the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1932-33?

April 2     From Horrid World War to Cold War

  • Why did Hitler and Stalin suddenly make a deal in 1939?

  • What does World War II tell us about how popular Stalin and the Soviet Union were at that time?

  • Can you connect the dots between World War Two and the start of the Cold War? Who is to blame?


April 16      Poland as A Case Study of Soviet Cold War Politics from Stalin to Brezhnev


  • What was Poland's position in the Soviet Bloc from the 1950s through to the 1980s, and how was it similar to or different from other Bloc countries?

  • Why did it matter so much that a Polish cardinal was elected Pope in 1978?

  • How and why did striking shipyard workers in Gdansk set off an anti-Communist movement called "Solidarity”?

April 23     The Gorbachev Revolution

  • Where on earth did Gorbachev come from, and what did he want to accomplish?

  • What crises were facing Soviet society by the 1980s?

  • Was Gorbachev a spectacular success or a despised failure?

  • How much did its citizens hate the Soviet Union by Gorbachev’s time?

April 30      Life after Soviet Collapse

  • Where on earth did Yeltsin come from?

  • Is Putin a new tsar, a new Stalin, or neither?

  • What of the past and present relationship between Russia and Ukraine?

  • What are three things that we should take seriously when it comes to dealing with Russia today?

Leonard Friesen

Leonard Friesen has been engaged with Russia since he was born in 1956 within an immigrant/refugee community from the Soviet Union.  He completed his doctorate in Russian history from the University of Toronto in 1989 and has been a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University since 1994, where he also founded the first undergraduate Global Studies program in Canada.  He has published broadly in Russian and Ukrainian history, most recently on “Dostoevsky and the Search for a Global Ethic” (U of Notre Dame Press, 2016) and “Minority Report:  Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered” (U. of Toronto Press, 2017).  Friesen lived with his wife, Mary, and young children in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era, and has travelled to Russia and Ukraine more than 20 times since then.  He now lives in Waterloo though a chunk of his heart is still in Ukraine and Russia, and more recently even on the Bruce Peninsula near Lion’s Head.  Len and Mary have three children, two “in-laws” and five grandchildren.  He welcomes the opportunity to lecture to people rich in life experiences, even if they are barely older than he is, if at all!

Eva Plach

Eva Plach has been in the History Department at Wilfrid Laurier University since the early 2000s. She teaches 20th-century European history, and has a particular interest in the history of modern Poland. She also runs an undergraduate travel course to Poland on the subject of the Holocaust. Dr Plach has written a book on political conflicts in interwar Poland – The Clash of Moral Nations: Cultural Politics in Pilsudski’s Poland – as well as articles on different aspects of Polish-Jewish history and on the history of animals and animal welfare activism in Poland.