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The Great Struggle in the East: Total war, revolution and the making of modern Russia 1914-1922


Admission requirements

Not applicable.


In 1914 the Russian empire seemed a monolithic autocracy, bristling with activity to get into the modern age. The Russian army was the first to mobilize and plunge into war. A spiral of chaotic change and violence erupted, continuing to reign the warlands throughout years of revolution and apocalyptic civil war. Russia’s first world war didn’t end when Europe laid down its weapons on 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918. The utter destruction of modern warfare and the strains of total war continued and shaped what came out of the remnants of old Russia, mortgaged by violence.
The existence of a relationship between war, revolution and a civil war is long recognized, but has only recently started to be investigated in detail. The Great War in Russia was usually seen as a ‘forgotten war’ by both western and Russian/Soviet historians and portrayed as a mere prelude to the Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-1921. Russia has largely fallen out of the story of the First World War. Yet, inserting the Russian experience is crucial for understanding the Great War in general.
This course investigates the interactions between seminal points in Russian history, trying to establish the connections that form Russia’s continuum of crisis during these years. We will try to reconstruct the direct linkages between the internal fronts and battlefronts of total war and the violence and brutalization of revolution and civil war. What was the impact of enduring traditions, such as the style of rule, the absence of consensus between heterogeneous communities and the disposition of violence among masses of peasants, workers, soldiers and revolutionaries? And how were these traditions continued, transferred, transformed and radicalized? How did they contribute to the making of modern Russia?

N.B. This course will start with an entry test (several short essay questions), see reading list below for the compulsory literature.

Course objectives

General learning objectives
The student has acquired:

    1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
    1. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
    1. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
    1. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
    1. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
    1. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
    1. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
    1. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
    1. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

    1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following:
    • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;
    1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture;

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar
The student has aquired:

    1. Knowledge of political and military institutions, political and social change and national-cultural identities in Russian and early Soviet history
    1. Insight into the historiographical innovations and controversies in this field, understanding of the key-concepts of total war, revolution and multi-nationality civil war in an international perspective
    1. Research abilities with (translated) primary and secondary sources, abilities of presentation and discussion of results in an expert peer group, writing an extensive scholarly research report

Extra course objectives for Res Master Students *15. The ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources *16. The ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates and/or new directions for future research *17. Knowledge of the interdisciplinary aspects of the specialisation


See Timetable and deadlines History

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load: 10 EC x 28 hrs = 280 hours

  • class attendance: 24 hours

  • preparing assigments (entry test, oral presentations, discussion paper, reading assigments): 76 hours

  • writing a paper: 180 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 10-14 (ResMA also: 9, 15-17)

  • Entry test
    Measured learning objectives: 3-4, 10-11, 12-13

  • Oral presentations (two for each student)
    Measured learning objectives: 3-7

  • Short discussion paper
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 12-14 (ResMA also: 9, 15-17)

Written paper (of ca. 7500 words): 65 %
Entry test: 10 %
2 oral presentations: 10 %
1 short discussion paper: 15 %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.

Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline

Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.


Blackboard is used in this course for: *Dissemination of information *Sharing and discussing research results

Reading list

For the entry test:

  • Christopher Read, War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922 (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2013) ISBN 978-0-230-23986-9

  • Addittional titles for the remainder of the course are to be announced.


via uSis

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


dhr. Drs. H.A.T. Wilbrink
Instituut voor Geschiedenis
Huizingagebouw, kamer 0.18c