“Understanding Russia” Presenter Wants History to Create Empathy

likening other people to ourselves is vital, professor says

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

History can do more than teach us about rulers and revolutions. Historical figures, from peasants to emperors, were people like us with full lives who faced hard choices. Lynne Ann Hartnett hopes we can use history to teach us empathy.

Lynne Ann-Hartnett on The Great Courses set
After seeing the common humanity of people throughout Russian history and people today, as presented in her new Wondrium series, Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett hopes people will learn empathy for others. Photo by Wondrium

Without a good educator at the helm, history can fall into the kind of study that’s derided as “memorizing dates” and reducing the past to a matter of who was in charge at which times—and how many people died to make it that way. It’s easy to forget that famous historical figures and everyday citizens of the time were normal people like us, who had families and jobs, who fell in love, who argued over current events, and who had distinct personalities.

In Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett, Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, shows through five centuries of Russian history how people then and people now have humanity in common. In an exclusive interview, she said she hopes this understanding can teach us empathy for those around us today.

History: Handle with Care

Putting the human touch on the stories of people who lived 500 years ago is no easy task. However, Dr. Hartnett said her passion for the subject often informs how she teaches it.

“I love this topic, I love this subject; I think history, in itself, is this incredibly important thing for us as humanity,” she said. “I had a colleague once who said that if history wasn’t about people, he didn’t know what it was about. That’s what I try to bring to Understanding Russia: A Cultural History—to make sure that the people who populate my series are three-dimensional and vibrant, that they seem alive.”

And it works. Dr. Hartnett said that one of the most frequent comments she gets, from students and those who have viewed her series, is that it’s apparent how much she cares about the subject and the people it involves. She said that people have even given her unpublished memoirs by family members who had lived in Russia in hopes that the memoirs can further Dr. Hartnett’s studies.

“It’s important to me that people look at the historical actors as living human beings who were faced with similar choices as we are today,” she said. “By doing so, I think that we can gain an empathy—not just for people of the past but for people who live in much different circumstances than our own. If I’m successful in achieving that, that’s the greatest thing I can do in any of my series.”

Go Big Or Go Home

Dr. Hartnett has had a lifelong fascination with Russia. She said people often see Russian history as an impenetrable subject, but that she has found that to be far from the truth.

“Everything about Russia and Russian history is big and bold and dramatic and consequential,” she said. “I think that by looking at Russia, we can see the best and the worst of humanity and history playing out in front of our eyes.”

Dr. Hartnett acknowledged that during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’re seeing an ugly side of Russia’s five-century imperialism. On the other hand, she said, we’re also seeing the resilience, perseverance, and pride that both Russia’s and Ukraine’s citizens are showing by challenging the invasion. Regardless of which time period of Russian history and culture she explores, Dr. Hartnett finds those elements there.

Understanding Russia: A Cultural History is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily