“Understanding Russia” Shows Centuries of Global Influence, Imperialism

series spans five centuries of russian history, culture

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Media accounts of Russian imperialism as “new” are a misnomer. The large, populous nation has exerted its influence on the global stage for several centuries. Wondrium’s Understanding Russia: A Cultural History sets the record straight.

Russia on vintage map
Russia essentially became an empire under Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century and grew to be a central player on the global stage. Photo by Vladi333 / Shutterstock

For those unfamiliar with Russian history, some of the nation’s more aggressive policies during the era of the Soviet Union and under the rule of President Vladimir Putin may seem like a shock. However, Russia essentially became an empire under Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century and has long since exhibited the characteristics that come with it.

In Wondrium’s Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett, Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, helps unravel the nation’s history. In an exclusive interview, she spoke about what the series covers and what she hopes viewers will take away from it.

On Russian Identity

Russia has been in the news every day for the last several months due to President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but according to Dr. Hartnett, few people understand the Russian identity.

“Russia is an enormous country with a large population and has been a player on the global stage for a few centuries,” Dr. Hartnett said. “There’s been a lot of uncertainty about Russia; there’s always been this idea that it’s an enigma, but I don’t think it’s so indiscernible. I think the secret lies in exploring its history and trying to follow how the Russians make sense of what it means to be Russian—and how their history applies to their understanding of themselves and their country in the world.”

This lack of understanding has led many in the public, especially the media, to the misconception that Russian imperialism is a recent phenomenon. In reality, it became an empire during the days of Ivan the Terrible, who declared himself tsar of all Russia from 1547 to 1584.

“I make the case from the beginning that Russia was an imperial state from the get-go, that the concept of empire-building and expansion and conquest were essential to what it meant to be Russia,” Dr. Hartnett said. “Russia was an empire from at least the 16th century, and so ideas that you hear in the media today about this ‘new imperial project of the Russians’ is a fallacy. It’s been there from the beginning.”

The Importance of History

Covering the subject of Russian history is important to Dr. Hartnett. She’s taught it for more than 20 years, and doing a Wondrium series about it caused her to shift gears. Instead of teaching bits and pieces from Russian history like she does in specific courses at Villanova University, she had to look at the entire trajectory of the nation’s history to instruct Understanding Russia: A Cultural History.

“I think that actually gave me new insights, or at least brought insights to the fore that I didn’t realize were there,” she said. “I could see these ideas of continuity and change in a much more intense way than I ever have, and I frankly think that has made my subsequent classes at Villanova even stronger.”

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

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily