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HIST4304JM Topic Studies in Pre-Modern World History: Russia: From Origins to Empire

Semester 1 (2022-2023)

Lecture TimeWednesday, 14:30 - 16:15

VenueRoom 308, Lee Shau Kee Building (LSK 308)


Lecturer James MORTON (

Teaching Assistant ZOU Ningning (

Course Description


Medieval and early modern Russia found itself between two worlds and on the edge of both. On one side lay the developing nation states of Europe; on the other, the great Mongolian empires of the steppe formed a bridge to China. Like China, modern views of Russia have been heavily shaped by the Cold War and the post-Soviet rule of Vladimir Putin: it is often seen as authoritarian, illiberal, only barely European. The country’s on-going attempt to conquer Ukraine has further reinforced this view. Yet, when we put aside the anachronisms of the modern day, was pre-modern Russia really so different from other countries of the time?

This course will provide an introductory survey of Russian history from the first appearance of the ‘Slavs’ in written history to the 18th-century reign of Peter the Great, the man who first transformed the state into an empire. It will address difficult and often misunderstood topics such as the creation of Slavic ethnicity, 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 history of medieval and early modern Russia.
  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.

Course Schedule


7 Sep

1. Introduction: Russia between Europe and Asia, Past and Present

Christian Raffensperger, ‘The Place of Rus’ in Medieval Europe’, History Compass 12.11 (2014): 853–65.

14 Sep

2. Slavic Origins

Procopius, History of the Wars, trans. H.B. Dewing (London, 1924), 7.14.

Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500–700 (Cambridge, 2001), ch. 1: ‘Slavic Ethnicity and the Ethnie of the Slavs: Concepts and Approaches’.

21 Sep

3. Kievan Rus’

‘Porphryogenitus’ Description of the Voyage down the Dnieper River’ (Source Book, no. 4).

Serhii Plokhy, The Origin of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (Cambridge, 2006), ch. 1: ‘The Origins of Rus’’.

Oleksiy P. Tolochko, ‘The Primary Chronicle’s ‘Ethnography’ Revisited: Slavs and Varangians in the Middle Dnieper Region and the Origin of the Rus’ State’, in Franks, Northmen and Slavs: Identities and State Formation in Early Medieval Europe (Turnhout, 2008), 169–88.

28 Sep

4. Christianisation

Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (trans.), The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text (Cambridge, MA, 1953), 82–7, 95–119.

John H. Lind, ‘Varangian Saints and Christlike Varangians in Early Rus’ Christianity’, in Carsten S. Jensen et al. (edd.), Saints and Sainthood around the Baltic Sea: Identity, Literacy, and Communication in the Middle Ages (Kalamazoo, 2018), 79–100.

5 Oct

5. Medieval Russian Literacy

Simon Franklin, Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c. 950–1300 (Cambridge, 2002), ch. 1: ‘The Written Remains’; ch. 8: ‘Afterword: On the Social and Cultural Dynamics of Writing’.

12 Oct

6. The Mongol Conquest

William of Rubruck, The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253–55, trans. William W. Rockhill (London, 1900), 40–52, 83–94.

Donald Ostrowski, Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304–1589 (Cambridge, 1998), ch. 1: ‘Setting the Scene’; ch. 2: ‘Administration, Political Institutions, and the Military’.

19 Oct

7. Merchants and Crusaders: Novgorod and the West

The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016–1471, trans. Robert Michell and Nevill Forbes (London, 1914), 84–98.

‘A Treaty between Novgorod and the Hanseatic League, 1270’ (Source Book, no. 20).

Janet Martin, Treasure of the Land of Darkness: The Fur Trade and its Significance for Medieval Russia (Cambridge, 2008), ch. 3: ‘Novgorod: The Squirrel Fur Trade’.

26 Oct

8. Moscow – The Third Rome?

‘The Sudebnik (Code of Law) of Ivan III, 1497’ (Source Book, no. 41).

‘Filofei’s Concept of “The Third Rome”’ (Source Book, no. 42).

Donald Ostrowski, ‘“Moscow the Third Rome” as Historical Ghost’, in Sarah T. Brooks (ed.), Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557): Perspectives on Late Byzantine Art and Culture (New Haven, 2006), 170–9.

Ivan Strenski, ‘Moscow, Third Rome, and the Uses of Ressentiment’, in Hugh Urban and Greg Johnson (edd.), Irreverance and the Sacred: Critical Studies in the History of Religions (Oxford, 2018), 42–57.

Midterm Essay Due

2 Nov

9. A Tsar Is Born: Ivan the Terrible and the Centralisation of Power

‘Moscow and the Court of Ivan the Terrible in 1553’ (Source Book, no. 46).

Michael Cherniavsky, ‘Ivan the Terrible as Renaissance Prince’, Slavic Review 27.2 (1968): 195–211.

Maureen Perrie and Andrei Pavlov, Ivan the Terrible (London, 2014), ch. 4: ‘Reformers and Reforms’.

9 Nov

10. The Time of Troubles

‘A Letter from the False Dmitrii to Boris Godunov, 1604’ (Source Book, no. 55).

Chester S.L. Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty (Philadelphia, 2004), ch. 1: ‘A Comparative Approach to the Problem of the Origins of the Civil War’.

Maureen Perrie, Pretenders and Popular Monarchism in Early Modern Russia: The False Tsars of the Time of Troubles (Cambridge, 1995), ‘Conclusion’.

16 Nov

11. Church and State in the Seventeenth Century

Nikon, Replies of the Humble Nicon, trans. William Palmer (London, 1871), 122–34: ‘Reply to the Twentieth Question’.

Ihor Ševčenko, ‘Intellectual Repercussions of the Council of Florence’, Church History 24.4 (1955): 291–323.

Maureen Perrie, ‘The Old Believers and Praying for the Tsar in Seventeenth-Century Russia’, The Slavonic and East European Review 94.2 (2016): 243–58.

23 Nov

12. Eastward Expansion

‘Russian Conquest and Exploitation of Siberia’ (Source Book, no. 53).

Brian J. Boeck, Imperial Boundaries: Cossack Communities and Empire-Building in the Age of Peter the Great (Cambridge, 2009), ch. 1: ‘Beyond Borders, between Worlds: Russian Empire and the Making of the Don Steppe Frontier’.

Valerie Kivelson, Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia (Ithaca, NY, 2006), ch. 7: ‘“Myriad, Countless Foreigners.” Siberia’s Human Geography and Muscovite Conceptions of Empire’.

30 Nov

13. Among the Great Powers: The Reforms of Peter the Great

Alexander Kamenskii, ‘The Petrine Reforms and Their Impact’, in Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives (London, 2001), 29–36.

Victor M. Zhivov, ‘Cultural Reforms in Peter I’s System of Transformations’, in Marcus C. Levitt (ed.), ‘Tsar and God’ and Other Essays in Russian Cultural Semiotics (Boston, 2012), 191–238.

14 Dec

Final Essay Due

Assessment & Assignments

Your performance in the course will be assessed on the cumulative basis of different types of assignment (described in more detail below) and your attendance. There will not be an exam or quiz component. The weighting of the assignments is as follows:

Final Essay                          40%
Midterm Essay                    20%
Reading Summaries (x10)         20%
Discussion Participation            20%

Your final letter grade will be determined by your overall course percentage. You will not be graded on a curve. Grades will be assigned according to the following set thresholds:

A      90%                     C+  65%
A-     85%                     C    60%      
B+    80%                     C-   55%
B      75%                     D    50%
B-     70%                     F     >50%

Course Readings

Each week you will be assigned approximately 60 pages of reading, comprised of both primary sources and academic literature, that will explore important aspects of that lecture’s theme. All readings will be posted on the Blackboard course website in advance; you will not need to acquire any of them yourself. Many of the primary source readings will be taken from Basil Dmytryshyn, Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 850-1700, 3rd ed. (Fort Worth, 1991), though you do not need to buy this.

If you would like a general introduction to the period and the topic, I can recommend the following (non-compulsory) readings, all of which are available online or in the CUHK library:

Bushkowitz, P. A Concise History of Russia. Cambridge, 2011.

Feldbrugge, F. Law in Medieval Russia. Leiden, 2008.

Hughes, L. Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, 1998.

Kollmann, N.S. The Russian Empire 1450–1801. Oxford, 2017.

Meyendorff, John. Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A Study of Byzantino-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth Century. Crestwood, NY, 1989.

Millar, J. ed. Encyclopedia of Russian History. New York, 2004.

Perrie, M. The Image of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Folklore. Cambridge, 2002.

Raffensperger, C. Reimagining Europe: Kievan Rus’ in the Medieval World. Cambridge, MA, 2012.

Ware, Ti. The Orthodox Church, 3rd ed. London, 1997.

Ziegler, C.E. The History of Russia, 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, CA, 2009.

Reading Summaries

After each lecture, you will complete the readings assigned for that week and then write a short summary (approx. 250–500 words) that you will submit in hard copy at the end of the next week’s lecture. The summary should describe the content of what you have read (both the primary and the secondary source readings). This is a reading comprehension exercise that will help to develop your skills in analysing and explaining texts in a short space. It will also help you remember the readings during tutorial discussions.

For the primary source readings, you should focus on summarising the general content of what is described and anything that seems particularly important. For the secondary readings, you should describe both their content (what they are about) and the authors’ central arguments. You can find sample reading summaries and a short how-to guide on Blackboard to give you a better idea of how to write them. I will only ask you to write reading summaries for ten out of the thirteen weeks. This means that you can skip three reading summaries of your choice.



I will ask you to write two papers during the course: a midterm essay (1,500–2,000 words) due on 26th June and a final essay (2,000–2,500 words) due on 14th December. I will assign the topic of the mid-term essay in week 4. For the final essay, I will provide you with a selection of five topics at the end of the lecture in week 11 (8th April). You will choose one of the five topics to write about. Both essays will require you to reflect on the major themes of the course and to use historical examples make an argument that relates to a significant debate within historical scholarship on pre-modern Russia.

The essays should be written to academic standards with a central thesis, reference to primary sources and secondary literature, and appropriate citations in footnotes. You are free to follow any accepted academic citation style such as Chicago, Harvard, or MLA. If you are not sure about how to write citations, I recommend looking at the Chicago Manual of Style quick citation guide:

New Approaches to World History Seminar

This term, the History department will be holding the second series of its ‘New Approaches to World History’ seminar. This will meet online on Zoom every Thursday from 8th September to 1st December for a lecture by a leading world historian. At the end of the lecture, members of the audience will have the chance to engage in a Q&A with the speaker. A complete schedule of events, with topics, dates, and times, will be released soon.

Since this seminar has a clear relevance to our course, I would like you to attend no fewer than three meetings of the New Approaches to World History Seminar. You should also ask at least one question during one of the Q&A sessions. Your attendance and participation in this seminar will form part of your overall participation grade for this course.

Attendance and Absences

You are expected to attend all lectures and tutorial sessions. For every class that you miss without my approval, 1% will be deducted from your final course grade. If you have a valid reason for being absent from a seminar or tutorial (such as a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or similar), please contact me as soon as possible to ask for permission.

Assignment Submission, Extensions, and Lateness Penalties

You will be expected to submit your essays by 11:59pm on the due dates by uploading them to the relevant section of the Blackboard course website along with a signed declaration of academic honesty from VeriGuide (



Active participation in class discussions is an important part of the course and your learning experience. Although the main opportunity for discussions will come during tutorial sessions, you will also have the chance to make comments and ask questions during lectures. Discussion participation in both tutorials and lectures will comprise 20% of your overall course grade.

To be clear, participating in discussions means that you will actually have to speak. Sitting in silence is not participation and will not count towards your participation score. But don’t worry! You don’t have to be an expert (or even knowledgeable) about a topic to join in the discussion. Any kind of contribution, even if it is just a simple comment or a question, will count as participation and will thus add to your course grade. 


Open-Door Hours

I make myself available in my office (KHB 123) every week from 2 to 5pm on Friday so that anyone can speak to me about anything they want. If you would like to chat with me about any aspect of the course, your university studies, career development, favourite historical books and movies, or anything else, feel free to drop in and I will be happy to see you. In the event that we are forced to move back to online teaching, I will hold my open-door hours on Zoom.

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at

With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed declaration that they are aware of these policies, regulations, guidelines and procedures.

  • In the case of group projects, all members of the group should be asked to sign the declaration, each of whom is responsible and liable to disciplinary actions, irrespective of whether he/she has signed the declaration and whether he/she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the problematic contents.
  • For assignments in the form of a computer-generated document that is principally text-based and submitted via VeriGuide, the statement, in the form of a receipt, will be issued by the system upon students’ uploading of the soft copy of the assignment.

Assignments without the properly signed declaration will not be graded by teachers.

Only the final version of the assignment should be submitted via VeriGuide.

The submission of a piece of work, or a part of a piece of work, for more than one purpose (e.g. to satisfy the requirements in two different courses) without declaration to this effect shall be regarded as having committed undeclared multiple submissions. It is common and acceptable to reuse a turn of phrase or a sentence or two from one’s own work; but wholesale reuse is problematic. In any case, agreement from the course teacher(s) concerned should be obtained prior to the submission of the piece of work.

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