Teaching the 1648 Moscow Uprising in 2020

by E. Thomas Ewing, Virginia Tech

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of NewsNet.

In the summer of 2020, I faced two challenges as I prepared to teach my course on Russian history to Peter the Great in the fall semester: first, the need to transform a course normally taught in a classroom into a virtual format during Covid-19, and second, the need to respond to growing protests about racial injustice during summer 2020. My solution was to structure my course on early Russian history around the 1648 Moscow uprising as a case study of how popular unrest responds to, yet also shapes critical moments in history.

In responding to the first challenge, I drew on my experience with the emergency pivot to online teaching in March 2020, when Virginia Tech, like many other universities, suspended all classroom instruction and shifted to virtual teaching. From my experience in the spring, I knew that the Zoom format was not suited to my usual pedagogical approach, which combines some lectures with extensive discussion and classroom activities such as structured debates or role playing. I decided that my class would take advantage of the flexibility of the virtual platform for collaborative projects, in which students could work on shared documents while communicating with each other in breakout rooms.

Next, I had to choose a focus and format for the collaborative projects. A course which covers almost a millennium of Russian history—from the legendary founding of Rus’ in the ninth century to Peter I’s declaration of the empire at the start of the eighteenth century— provides little opportunity for students to pursue the usual form of research paper. I also needed a topic that fit chronologically and thematically with other parts of the course. The solution to this dilemma came to me as I also struggled with the urgent need to respond to protests for racial justice in summer 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. While it seemed wrong to plan a course that did not acknowledge these issues, I was not sure how to address these topics in a course seemingly so remote both chronologically and geographically from the United States and the twenty-first century. As I thought about the content of this Russian history course, however, I identified the common theme of exploring efforts to expand public participation in the political process through protests, demonstrations, and uprisings.

The June 1648 Moscow uprising thus became the focal point in the course by structuring opportunities for students to work collaboratively while also highlighting broad questions about how protests begin, who sustains popular movements, how governments respond, and what the end of protests mean for participants and society more generally. The Moscow uprising began on June 1, 1648, when a peaceful attempt to present a petition to Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich was thwarted, leading to almost two weeks of protests, violent suppression, the outbreak of numerous fires, and ultimately the deaths of hundreds of people, including several leading members of the ruling elite. From a teaching perspective, the Moscow uprising is one of the few topics covered in a Pre-Petrine Russian history course where students have access to translated primary sources necessary to examine competing perspectives, reconstruct narratives, and interpret historical significance. The historiographical debates about the 1648 uprising engage broader themes in Russian history, including the formation of communities, the leadership of individuals, the role of women, Russia’s position in Eurasia, and the development of political culture.

I introduced this topic at the beginning of the course by assigning Professor Valerie A. Kivelson’s article, “The Devil Stole His Mind: The Tsar and the 1648 Moscow Uprising.” Assigning this article in the first week required a substantial jump in chronology, as we moved abruptly from Kievan Rus’ in the ninth century to the Romanov dynasty in the seventeenth century. After reading this article, students met separately in their breakout groups to identify important turning points and relevant connections to current protests. In the discussion that followed, I guided students through Kivelson’s argument about political culture as a “complex of beliefs, expectations, and practices” which “set the limits of what was politically conceivable” in Muscovite Russia. When Professor Kivelson visited the class via Zoom later in the semester, she elaborated on this interpretation of political culture, while also reflecting on how the study of riots, protests, and uprising have changed in recent decades.

Students completed four collaborative projects, which accounted for nearly one-half of their graded work. For the first project, each group read several primary sources about the 1648 uprising and then created a timeline, identified key participants, and wrote a short analysis. This project was designed to guide students to recognize that primary sources often have competing perspectives and offer incomplete accounts of a single event. The challenge of historical analysis, therefore, is to weave together a narrative that incorporates differences while also explaining who did what when, where, and why.

The question of competing interpretations was also central to a class discussion of the most famous illustration of the 1648 uprising, a painting displayed in 1938 by Soviet artist Ernest Lissner. In a lecture, I described how the painting incorporated key moments from primary sources while also developing its own interpretation of this event. I explained why Soviet artists in the late 1930s turned to earlier stages of Russian history to provide legitimacy to the emerging Stalinist system of state power (a point further illustrated when the class watched the Stalinist-era films, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible). We also discussed why the painting is not a primary source (given that it was created almost three centuries after the event) yet still provides a useful way to understand historical significance. Finally, I referenced the two different titles for this painting, “Salt Riot” (Solianoi bunt) or “Uprising in Moscow” (Vosstanie v Moskve) to explore the implications of calling an event a “riot” or an “uprising.”


The second project challenged students to think about the ways Russian historians have interpreted this event at different stages, from the late imperial period through the contemporary era. Readings included excerpts by leading historians Kliuchevsky, Platonov, and Vernadsky, a chapter from a Stalinist-era textbook, and recent online publications by Russian historians aimed at popular audiences. Each group prepared a presentation that examined the interpretations of the 1648 uprising in the contexts in which they were written. Professor Kivelson’s virtual visit to the class was timed to observe the presentations and comment on changing interpretations of the 1648 rebellion.

The third project asked students to think comparatively about the meaning of protests, uprising, and demonstrations in historical contexts different from Muscovite Russia. This assignment returned to my goal of connecting protests for racial justice with the content of the course. I assigned readings that took a more theoretical, comparative, and political approach to explaining a disparate range of incidents: food riots in eighteenth-century England and France, the Boston tea party, street protests in the Russian Revolution, and the urban uprising in Detroit in the 1960s. Each group wrote a short analytical essay that explored a three-way comparison between Moscow in 1648, the event examined in their assigned essay, and protests for racial justice.

Teaching Russian history in fall 2020 made possible an unexpected connection with the pro-democracy protests in Belarus, which emerged in late summer and generated international attention just as the semester started. I began many classes by connecting news from Belarus with themes from Russian history. On August 31, 2020, for example, the lecture began with an image of men and women on a public square in Minsk. I pointed out that two obvious signs of the current historical context (a man taking a selfie while also wearing a mask against Covid) were juxtaposed with a legacy of the Soviet era (a building dominated by a massive designation: “Minsk— City of Heroes”). Two weeks later, on September 14, a photograph of protestors facing a line of armored security forces illustrated the escalating force used to respond to the growing protests, which allowed for effective comparisons to the timeline of the 1648 Moscow uprising. During the final week of the semester, I presented excerpts from a Washington Post essay by protest leader Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, appealing to the world to support democratic movements. During the last class, I told students that the slogan of the Belarus protests: “We believe! We can! We will win!” struck me as an affirmation of hope in an otherwise bleak year.

This approach to connecting historical and contemporary examples also made it possible to explore more specific themes. One presentation featured the remarkable photograph of an unarmed woman, draped in the red and white colors of Belarus, kneeling in front of heavily armed security forces. I used this image to remind the class of similar moments during the American and global protests for racial justice in summer 2020, as unarmed protestors knelt in front of armed security forces. Referencing the earlier discussion of how Lissner’s painting connected Stalinist art to Muscovite protests centuries earlier, I showed the class the stunning image created by artist Anna Redko which depicted protest leader Maria Kolesnikova holding the passport she had torn up rather than face deportation. My presentation included two graphic arts side by side: Redko’s depiction of Kolesnikova and the 1941 poster mobilizing the Soviet people to fight the German invaders. The text on Redko’s poster included a very slight change with significant implications: “The motherland calls you” (Rodina-mat’ zovet) in 1941 became “The motherland calls you, Maria” (Rodina, Mash, zovet) in 2020. Given that the class had already discussed the mythical figure of Princess Olga, women’s roles in Russian law codes, and the symbolic presence of women in heroic tales, these protest images illustrated themes of women’s leadership and sacrifice across multiple stages of Russian history, connecting the tenth century to the present.

The final project was a mid-course adjustment to changing circumstances. I had originally planned to assign a critical analysis of how historians are re-assessing the 1648 rebellion as part of a broader debate about politics, identity, and society. As the semester progressed, however, and I observed the cumulative effects of the epidemic, remote learning and living, and a remarkably stressful election year, I decided the final project had to be something more fun. The assignment for each group was to make a short film, no more than six minutes, that explored any dimension of the 1648 rebellion. Given this latitude, the results were creative, entertaining, and scholarly, across a wide range of genres: a comedy skit, a news report, an animated cartoon, an epic poem, and a mock trial. The video that the class selected as the best overall featured a student (working solo) who performed an original folk song about the uprising.

How did students respond to this approach? The evidence from student evaluations was mixed. Some students commented positively on opportunities to work collaboratively and connect historical content to contemporary issues; others complained that too much time was devoted to one event and they did not learn as much about other periods of history. As I reflected on this course, I found the self-assessments submitted following each collaborative assignment to provide a better sense of what was working (these comments were not anonymous, as they were part of graded work). In response to the question, “What will you remember about studying the 1648 rebellion during the Covid year of 2020?” students commented on the relevance of this topic in a year in which the American social fabric seemed to fray, the vital lesson for leaders to pay attention to the grievances of their subjects, the value of collaborating with diverse teams in a virtual work environment, and the importance of critical thinking and empathetic understanding when studying the past.

On January 6, 2021, I watched with shock, horror, and deep concern as a rally for the defeated president turned into an organized storming of the US Capitol with the goal of disrupting the certification of electoral college votes by Congress. On that day, and over the coming days as more shocking video was released, I thought frequently of Lissner’s painting of a violent uprising at the gates of the Kremlin. If this event had occurred while I was teaching this class, I would have emphasized the important contrast between a protest designed to pressure an authoritarian state to recognize the wishes of a marginalized population (1648) and an assault intended to disrupt a constitutionally-mandated step in a democratic process by supporters of an authoritarian leader who had been defeated in a fair election (2021).

My memory of teaching pre-Petrine Russia in fall 2020 will always be associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the storming of the US Capitol. One specific moment from the final week will, I hope, also be part of this memory. As mentioned above, one video featured a student singing an original composition about the 1648 rebellion in the style of Bob Dylan. As I watched the performance with the class, I saw a light shining in one of the Zoom boxes, which I thought was a technical malfunction. As I looked more closely, however, I realized that a student was holding up a cell phone with the flashlight illuminated, recreating the concert experience when audience members used to hold up lighters. This spontaneous moment, emulating a twentieth-century tribute using a twenty-first century technology about a seventeenth-century uprising, is certainly an appropriate way to remember this pedagogical experiment conducted in a most remarkable year.