Jan 11: From Nicholas II to Lenin: Russia and the Revolutionary Year of 1917

There is no year like 1917 in all of Russian history as we shift from Tsar Nicholas II to Kerensky to Lenin in a matter of months. But who was Lenin, and was Imperial Russia’s collapse inevitable? We explore these questions and consider the nature of Russian communism at the outset. Where did it come from and what did it promise? We will also consider the stereotypes that so many Canadians bring to any study of Russia and Russians.

Jan 18: Triumph and Devastation: The Stalinist Revolution of the 1930s.

Today we focus on a series of cataclysmic events which profoundly transformed the Soviet Union: collectivization, the terror-famine (mainly in Ukraine), mass industrialization and the great purges. Were these all the work of a mad dictator, the evil Stalin, or was there a popular demand to bring about changes that would leave millions dead? Amazingly, we will consider how there were winners in this decade as well as losers.

Jan 25: Horrific World War, Avoidable (?) Cold War, 1939-1949

No country suffered more during the events of World War II than the Soviet Union. Today we explore the roots of that conflict, the path of destruction it left, and how exactly the Soviet Union survived. Stalin’s role and how ordinary citizens responded to the Nazi invasion will be front and centre. Lastly, we will connect the dots, and see how a tragic World War was transformed into the Cold War. Who was responsible for that turn of events, and why?

Feb 1: From Khrushchev to Brezhnev: The Soviet Union after Stalin, but before Collapse, 1953 – 1985.

This session considers what the last years of Stalin’s rule were like, and what accounts for the immense grief that exploded at his death. We will also describe the major personalities that followed Stalin – Khrushchev and Brezhnev – and how they tried to govern in Stalin’s shadow. Was the Soviet Union in slow motion collapse after Stalin or were these the best of times, or was it a bit of both? Even Dr. Zhivago will make an appearance in this lecture!

Feb 8: The Gorbachev Revolution: From Perestroika to Glasnost to Stunning Collapse, 1985-1991.

Today, decades after the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev remains an extremely unpopular figure in Russia. But why? Who was he, what did he try to accomplish, and why did he fail so miserably (by his own reckoning)? We tackle these difficult questions as we consider both Gorbachev’s personal story and the nature of Soviet society in the 1980s. A good portion of this class will consist of my personal recollections, having lived in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) at the time with my wife and young family. We’ll talk about high politics, but also how people shopped in local stores and what Soviet kindergartens looked like.

Feb 15: Russian Resurgence: Yeltsin, Putin, and Life after Soviet Collapse, 1991-2017.

We cover today the Russia of today, or at least almost-today. In particular we examine the truly polarizing figures of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Where on earth did they come from? But more than high society, we also outline the difficult challenges that Russia and Ukraine have faced since the Soviet collapse, set alongside the emergence of Russia’s mega-rich plutocrats. Is there a link between these forces and the nostalgia many still feel for Soviet times? We end our series by considering what the west might want to consider in dealing with Russia today.

Leonard G. Friesen is Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University and the author of several books on Russian history. He has been to Russia (and Ukraine) more than 25 times, and lived there with his family during the Gorbachev years. He recently led a Guelph Third Age Learning post-lecture tour to Moscow and St. Petersburg in October of 2017. The child of Soviet refugees, Friesen’s own family history is intimately connected to the topics we will be discussing in this series.