The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Russia: From Origins to Empire

(2019-20 Term2)

Instructor:Prof. James MORTON
Office and Time:Fung King Hey Building, Office 221B(Friday 2–5pm )


Time:Wednesday 2:30–4:15pm

Location: Lee Shau Kee Building, Room 306

Language of Instruction: English



Sitting astride the Ural Mountains, medieval and early modern Russia found itself between two worlds and peripheral to both: the developing nation states of Europe on the one hand, and the great Mongolian empires of the steppe on the other, bridging the gap between China and the West. Modern views of Russia’s past, like that of China, have been heavily shaped by twentieth-century assumptions about a despotic ‘East’ and liberal ‘West’ formed in the Cold War era: it has often been seen as authoritarian, illiberal, only barely European. Yet when we put aside the anachronisms of the Communist period, we see in early modern Russia an emerging state that was not so different from its counterparts elsewhere.

This course will provide a chronological and thematic survey of Russian history from the first appearance of the ‘Slavs’ in written history to the reign of Peter the Great, who is widely credited with bringing Russia into the ranks of the world’s great imperial powers. It will address difficult and often misunderstood topics such as the creation of Slavic ethnic identity, Russia’s relationship with Byzantium and medieval Europe, the ‘Mongol Yoke’, and the vexed issues of ‘Westernization’ and modernity. We shall look at the emergence of the modern Russian state in a comparative perspective with early modern state-building in Europe and China to ask the question: was Russia truly such a unique case, and if so, how?


Learning Goals 

The course has three main learning goals:

1. To introduce you to the key events, peoples, and individuals in the emergence of the Russian state and Russian cultural identity in the medieval and early modern periods.

2. To explore how and why historians have constructed narratives around the creation and character of the early modern Russian state and society.

3. To help you develop the skillset and sensibility of a historian: how to understand primary sources, how to think critically about historical questions, and how to effectively communicate your analysis to others.


Need Help? 

It’s ok to ask for it! I understand that you may not have studied this subject before. If you have any difficulties with the readings, assignments, lectures, or any other aspects of the course, let me know and I will be happy to help you – that is what I am here for. You should feel free to email me or come to my office hours and I will answer any questions that you have. Also, if you have a question during a lecture or tutorial section, go ahead and ask me there and then; other students in the class may have the same question and you might be helping them too!


Office Hours and Contact 

I will hold office hours from 2 to 5pm every Friday in my office (Fung King Hey Building 221B). During this time, my door will be open and anyone is free to come in and talk to me about any aspect of the course or other matters that you wish to raise. If you cannot make it to my office hours, please let me know and we can arrange a more convenient time to meet. Alternatively, if you have a shorter question then you can email me at any time and I will get back to you as soon as possible.