Understanding Russia

A Cultural History
Narrated by: Lynne Ann Hartnett
Length: 12 hrs and 56 mins
Categories: History, Europe
4.5 out of 5 stars (321 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From the earliest recorded history of the Russian state, its people have sought to define their place in the world. And while many of us look to make sense of Russia through its political history, in many ways a real grasp of this awe-inspiring country comes from looking closely at its cultural achievements. 

The 24 lectures of Understanding Russia: A Cultural History survey hundreds of years of Russian culture, from the world of Ivan the Terrible to the dawn of the Soviet Union to the post-war tensions of Putin’s Russia. Blending history with cultural studies, they are designed to bring you closer than ever before to the Russian people - not just the authoritarian rulers like Peter the Great, the Romanovs, and Stalin but the everyday men and women who sought their own meaning in the poetry of Pushkin, the comfort of early folk tales, the faith of medieval iconography, the avant-garde films of Eisenstein, and more. 

You’ll discover surprising insights into centuries of cultural history, including peasant superstitions, such as avoiding whistling indoors, and the culture of queuing for goods and services that defined everyday life for ordinary Soviets. You’ll also spend time in the company of novelists, painters, poets, filmmakers, impresarios, composers, revolutionaries, and intellectuals who shaped Russia in myriad ways, including The Five, a group of composers who created a distinctly national sound based in part on Russian folk music; and Sergei Eisenstein, the filmmaker whose Battleship Potemkin revolutionized the language of cinema. 

In a time when the eyes of the Western world are constantly drawn to Russia, it’s amazing how little we really know about its culture. These lectures will help you finally understand that complex, thrilling, and undeniably fascinating spirit. 

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.  

©2018 The Great Courses (P)2018 The Teaching Company, LLC
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Good American overview of Russia

Professor Hartnett does a good job of going through much of Russia’s long history. She hits all of the most important points and brings in some interesting points too.

The one weakness in her approach is her almost exclusive reliance on modern American academics for interpretation of Russian events. I get that she publishes in American journals and so she both wants to cite to cite the American academic colleagues she knows and quote them to advance her own career (it’s academia, that’s how it works), but it gets to be a bit jarring that after quoting a Russian novel, poem or speech, she turns to an American academic to put the work in context. Didn’t RUSSIANS have anything to say about their history? Quoting modern scholars from USC, Villanova, or the Library of Congress gives the whole affair a “modern American” interpretation, rather than hearing how Russians (contemporary or modern) view their own history and culture. A stronger approach would use less (perhaps none?) academic commentary and more first hand accounts (both Russian and non-Russian) of how actions and decisions affected them.

80 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Good overview/info with increasingly annoying delivery

Enjoyable enough material covering wide range of topics and broad timeline. The course was easy enough to listen to several hours at a time with varying levels of attention without feeling lost. Narrator wasn’t terrible (at first) but was neither a joy to listen to. I like it when narrators don’t sound like they are reading every word from a script (this one does) and have a more natural and engaging delivery. At around the midpoint of the course, the vocal repetitive habit of putting emPHAsis (and raising pitch in addition to volume) on random sylLAbles got VERY annoying (as did the overuse of emphasis for no reason, sounded very unnatural). Bizarre use (and overuse) of the term, “elites.” No/few interesting tidbits, a pretty straightforward history review.

11 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Just alright

I chose this course because I am very interested in better understanding the history of Russia and particularly its people. While I learned a lot I was disappointed because I thought the materials were not well organized and a bit disjointed. As another reviewer noted there is a fair amount of redundancy. While I would expect some second mentioning of events or persons to refresh the listener's recollection of materials covered earlier in the course, repetition in this course was more than one would expect and at times seemed like a retelling of entire portions previously discussed. That contributed to my sense that the materials could be better organized and streamlined without the loss of a listener's understanding.

3 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars

US centric but good a survey of Russian history

Difficult to tell any history without a political bias, but good ones are self aware. This falls somewhere in the middle of empathetic and blithely chauvinistic.
There are statements in here to show Putin’s audacity and authoritarianism to the effect of “Russia now considers it OK to use its power even beyond its territorial borders to protect its interests”. This is made without irony given that Putin came to power not long before the US invasion of Iraq; such behavior by Russian politicians is also often juxtaposed with what one would expect of “liberal democrats” (read, enlightened westerners). I find this grating and perhaps a relic of the 20th century us-vs-them mindset that the author was raised in. I don’t know.
None of this is to say the USSR wasn’t an oppressive dictatorship of the worst kind, just that her arguments are rather hurt by this unnecessary contrast with the west and its uncritical superiority. The denunciation of authoritarianism stands on its own—you don’t need to make the US an implicit higher moral ground. (Anywhere that doesn’t have gulags already is.)
That said, the survey of literature, music and the arts is very well done. The author clearly loves Russian culture in an intimate way and is able to string together nearly a thousand years of history studded with elements of its varied culture and literature.
I would recommend if you’re at all interested in Russian history with the aforementioned caveat if that sort of thing bothers you.

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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informative, but repetitive

An informative, interesting read, but the professor repeats a lot of information in every lecture

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

So Russia is bad?

I think there could be more information about positive achievements of Russia. I don't know the history, but I think American historians are biased.

6 people found this helpful

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Fascinating

Hartnett's lecture series was a real treat, covering Russia from its origins to the rise of Putin. She is an engaging, informative lecturer and I really enjoyed learning more about Russian culture from her!

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    4 out of 5 stars

Stay with it...I'm glad I did

I have to say that the instructor and narrator, Professor Hartnett, had a style with which I wasn't immediately comfortable. Nothing wrong with the content, but you can feel the passion she has for the subject matter and it was a little high energy for me, in the early stages. With that said, I came into this with a higher than average understanding of Russian history (for an American) and learned a lot, by staying with the course. There is so much to hit and so many highs (and mostly, unfortunately) lows to hit over the course of the Russian experience that I commend Professor Hartnett in weaving in human touches, here and there, to keep the story alive and relevant. I was never bored and when you're listening to nearly 13 hours of lectures, it's a huge win.

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Great introduction to Russian history and culture

I enjoyed how it focused on historical periods and then would dive into social and cultural topics. The historical context made the art more meaningful and gave a strong impression of the Russian culture.

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    4 out of 5 stars

Very good info overall, felt disjointed at times

I wavered between 4 and 5 stars on this because I did think the lecture series was high quality. I learned a lot, professor Hartnett! You clearly know your stuff, and it was an enjoyable series.

With that being said, it feels almost as though each individual lecture was made to be presented as a standalone entry. So there often wasn't the feeling of getting a coherent narrative that flowed from one lecture to the next. I also found myself pausing more frequently than I'd like and thinking, "Didn't she cover this already? Did I accidentally skip back?" in a new lecture when information covered in some previous lecture was presented again (to give context for the new stuff). If I was being introduced to these lectures one at a time and there was a gap of potentially weeks between them, this may be a helpful approach. But in a continuous listen, it can feel a bit jarring at times and takes away from the feel of this as a coherent lecture series vs a series of standalone discussions on Russian topics. I'd still recommend it highly though!

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  • Felixstones
  • 01-31-19

Not a great Great Course

I will admit it upfront - I am judging this on only the first seven chapters. But that's because I have handed it back after enduring only the first seven. Its the 8th Great Course that I have taken. Six were brilliant and I reviewed them positively. One was acceptable, but I am not a fan of the first seven chapters of this course. I have two main reasons for giving it a poor review. Firstly, while it provides a linear narrative of what happens when, it is very light on how and why, which is, in my view, what is really important. There is little analysis or opinion. Secondly, it is delivered as a reading it a way that I find quite disengaging; a bit sing-song, a bit over dramatic. A teacher at the front of the class reading from a textbook rather than engaging with the audience and the material.

6 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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  • Mr. Douglas Macintyre
  • 08-10-19

Not worthy of The Great Courses brand name.

Superficial, fast sweeping content. Omission of facts such as transient name changes, and completely silly inserts of dramatic music. It is competently read, but no reader could overcome the superficiality of the script.

I've listened to a great many Great Courses series and this is the only one so far to dissapoint me.


There is another course on the history of russia here:

https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/A-History-of-Russia-From-Peter-the-Great-to-Gorbachev-Audiobook/B00DCAGNLK?pf_rd_p=763a8d97-e086-4e41-a6d0-a33e3bcf3c97&pf_rd_r=8YD0BZJCYWJCEQJA74SW&ref=a_lib_c4_libItem_B00DCAGNLK

Which I have now started and which is immediately, obviously better, and more in keeping with the kind of content that you expect from the brand.

1 person found this helpful