Discussion Questions

Select lectures have accompanying discussion questions which can be seen in the table below.



Peter the Great and the Petrine Reforms

What can you say about Peter’s reforms? Is there a pattern to his reforms that you can see? What do you think of the Table of Ranks in particular? Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman is considered one of the great pieces of Russian literature of all time. What does it tell you about views of both Peter and his imperial city Petersburg?


From Peter the Great to Catherine the Great

Why did royal succession become a thorny problem in the 18th century? What was the relationship between the tsar and nobility? One historian refers to the 18th century the “empire of the nobility.” Why might this have been the case? Why was the Constitutional Crisis of 1730 such a key event? Why do you think Peter III chose to “emancipate” the nobles in 1762? What effect do you think this might have had on the social structure of the country? What can we learn about the economy and culture of the nobility from Shcherbatov’s lament “on the corruption of morals”?


Catherine the Great as Woman and Ruler

Catherine II staged a coup against her husband Peter III in 1762 with the help of her guardsmen, especially the Orlov brothers. What can we learn about imperial power from this coup and how it was carried out? Catherine prided herself on having a number of “enlightened” ideas about how Russia should be run as shown in her “Instruction” to the Legislative Commission and her Charter to the Nobility. How did she instruct the Legislative Commission? What was her vision and what were her key ideas? What difference do you think it made (or failed to make) that she was a woman and a foreigner?


Alexander II and the Great Reforms

What were some of the dilemmas of reform in Russia? Why do you think the reforms took the form they did? What patterns can you see in the ways they were implemented? What can you tell about the language Alexander II uses in announcing the serfs’ emancipation? How have geopolitical questions played out in different ways at different times in Russian history?


Alexander III and the CounterReforms

How did peasant life change and not change following the Great Reforms? What seem to have been their chief complaints? What were the complaints of other estates? What does Saltykov-Shchedrin seem to think of generals and peasants? What did the revolutionaries want? Why do you think the radicals ultimately resorted to violence?


Late 19th Century Tensions

What were some of the consequences of the government’s failure to modernize the law? What can you say about conservative sentiment in late Tsarist Russia? Why do you think it was so pervasive? Did the revolutionaries do themselves a favor when they assassinated the tsar? Why did Constantine Pobedonostsev abhor democracy? How are his views relevant today?


Anti-Semitism and Pogroms

Why do you think anti-Semitism was so virulent? How does Urusov explain the pogroms? Who does he find most culpable? What do his comments tell us about the way the Empire was run? Make a list of the causes he saw as contributing to the pogrom.


Nicholas II, Industrialization, and Radicalization

What were Sergei Witte’s prescriptions for industrializing Russia? What were some of the pros and cons of his position? How well do you think Witte’s and Nicholas II’s ideals worked together?

Discussion questions for Von Laue, Theodore H. “First Crisis, 1900-1905.” Chapter 3 in Why Lenin? Why Stalin? A Reappraisal of the Russian Revolution, 1900–1930. 2nd ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1971. ISBN: 9780397472000.

  • Why does Von Laue open with “the riddle of backwardness”? What can you learn in this chapter about what was considered “backwards” in Russia?
  • Why might Sergei Witte have been rather similar to an MIT student? How might he have been different?
  • What were Witte’s top priorities? How do these compare with other countries’ efforts to modernize their economies? What did industrialization and modernization entail for Russia?
  • What were the responses in Russia to Witte’s initiatives?
  • Why do nobles fear and distrust Witte? What did government ministers think of him? How did Witte work with them?
  • Why did Witte want to reform or abolish the peasant commune?
  • Why was Nicholas II a problem for those who sought to modernize Russia? Why does Von Laue say that the autocrat’s job was the problem?
  • Why might this kind of non-consultative government have been good for Witte?
  • What does Von Laue see as the two main choices and why was this a genuine dilemma? What might you have done?
  • How do reality and propaganda square at this time?
  • What does the general population want? What can we learn about the changing social structure at this time?
  • Why is the state itself the object of a long list of grievances? See if you can make a list of some the most important.


The 1905 Revolution

Why did the spark of revolution catch fire in 1905 when it had not in previous decades? How did the tsar and his ministers respond? How do you think Russia was changed after this revolution?


The Constitutional Monarchy and World War I

How well do you think the constitutional monarchy worked? What were some of its strengths and weaknesses? What were some of the causes and consequences of WWI for Russia? Why was Durnovo so afraid of the war? Why was he desperately concerned that it would lead to revolution for both Germany and Russia? What does the Council of Ministers meeting tell you about how the Russian government at this point in time? The same question can be asked about the army headquarters and the correspondence between Nicholas and Alexandra.


The February Revolution of 1917

How did the February 1917 revolution compare to the 1905 revolution? What were the principal issues? What do you think about Trotsky’s comment that the old regime “fell like rotten fruit”?


The October Revolution

The October Revolution brought about the definitive end of tsarist Russia. Why? Could autocratic Russia have continued in tsarist form?

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2019
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments