What is a Russian Studies Degree?

Russia, officially known as the Russian Federation, is the world’s largest country and one of its most dynamic and fascinating geopolitical regions.

Majors in Russian studies learn the Russian language and examine the history, economics, politics, and culture of Russia and its people. They gain the skills necessary to understand the complexities of this European and Asiatic, mythically old and proudly new, democratic and autocratic, mysterious and mystifying land.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Russian Studies – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, students of Russian studies begin to explore the language, literature, culture, history, and politics of the Russian-speaking countries of Eurasia. Russian language courses are central to the undergrad curriculum, as they lay the foundation for the program’s interdisciplinary approach. Most schools encourage at least a year of study abroad, typically in Moscow or Saint Petersburg.

Here is a snapshot of a bachelor’s degree program in Russian studies:

  • First-Term Russian – an introduction to the Russian language; development of speaking skills in real-life situations
  • Second-Term Russian – continued development of skills in spoken and written Russian
  • Third-Term Russian – further development of conversation and composition skills, with an emphasis on contemporary topics
  • Fourth-Term Russian – introduction to the language of popular culture, including contemporary film and music
  • Readings in 19th Century Russian Literature – reading in Russian and English of literary works from the 19th century to the present day; introduction to the problems of translation
  • Advanced Russian – examination of works of literature and culture in their historical and social context, with emphasis on translation questions
  • Murder, Civil War, and Opera – exploration of the relationships between history, art, and the national identity of Russia; the economic collapse and mass hunger in Russia following Ivan the Terrible’s murder of his heir; Modest Mussorgsky’s opera ‘Boris Godunov’
  • Theories of International Relations – surveys of competing approaches to the study of international politics; realism, transnationalism, and analysis of various regimes; the problem of transforming international systems; research methods
  • Introduction to Russia: Russians and their Relationship to Authority – introduction to Russian civilization through an examination of how Russians view and respond to authority; use of biographies, historical accounts, film, and fiction to examine the lives of key leaders as well as important societal figures that have commanded respect in Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet life
  • Revolution of the Living World: Popular Music, Mass Film, Performance, and New Media in Russia – survey of twentieth-century and twenty-first-century Russian culture; focus on popular forms like music and mass film and experimental forms like performance, conceptualist art, and new media
  • Dreams, Visions, and Nightmares: Introduction to Russian Film – survey of Russian film from its beginnings through the Soviet period to the present; introduction to Russian culture and to the basic language of film analysis
  • Beyond Totalitarianism: Becoming Oneself in Stalin’s Soviet Union – exploration of a variety of cultural artifacts (literature, film, song, visual art, and architecture), personal documents (diaries and letters), and secondary literature which speak to the real, subjective experience of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin
  • Politics in Russia – examination of political processes in Russia after the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union; explaining the rise of multi-party democracy in the 1990s and the subsequent consolidation of authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin; topics covered include the creation of political parties, the state’s use of propaganda and the media, the problem of corruption, and the prospects for democracy in the future
  • Early Russian History from Rurik to Alexander II – a survey of Russian history from Kievan Rus’* to the Great Reforms of Alexander II; emphasis on the development of Russia from scattered principalities to empire, and the struggle for an identity between Europe and Asia
    (*a loose federation of East Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic peoples in Eastern and Northern Europe from the late ninth to the mid-13th century, under the reign of the Rurik dynasty, founded by the Varangian prince Rurik)
  • Modern Russian History – an overview of Russian history from the emancipation of the serfs to the collapse of the Soviet Union; how Russia and the USSR dealt with their sense of ‘backwardness’ compared to Europe; the multi-national and multi-religious nature of this vast Eurasian state, and the meanings of ‘modernity’
  • Madness, Murder, and Mayhem: 19th Century Russian Literature – Readings of representative works with emphasis on major literary movements, cultural history, and basic literary devices; primary texts by Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy
  • Literature and Revolution: 20th and 21st Century Russian and Soviet Fiction – a survey of 20th century and 21st century Russian and Soviet fiction, focusing on the literature that defined this transformative period in Russia’s modern history
  • Russia and the World – examination of Russia’s relations with both its immediate neighbors and the West from the Tsarist era to the present; topics include the formation of the Russian Empire, the Cold War, the ‘Gorbachev revolution in Soviet foreign policy’ that ended the Cold War, the evolution of Russian-American relations since the collapse of communism, and the reasons behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; evolution of Russian national identity, especially as it relates to Russia’s status as an empire and its relationship with the West
  • Transitions to Democracy – examination of the origins and durability of transitions to democratic forms of governance in authoritarian states; the roles in democratization played by leadership, ethnic diversity, political institutions, and geography; case studies from the countries of the former Soviet Union and East-Central Europe
  • Russia’s Destiny: Political Thought from Peter to Putin – study of Russian political philosophy with an emphasis on the meaning of history; a starting point for discussion: Russian thinkers have long been tormented about where they belong in the world; imperial Russia wanted to be a great European power, but the Slavophiles argued that Russia had a unique destiny that was neither European nor Asian; the Soviet Union suppressed but never destroyed these ideas, and Putin uses them to legitimize his government
  • Topics in Survey Research – introduction to the basics of survey research, focusing on measuring political, economic, and foreign policy attitudes
  • The Soviet Union as a Multinational State – exploration of the concepts of nation, empire, and modernization in the Soviet context; a starting point for discussion: the USSR claimed to be a revolutionary political form, a state based on the voluntary union of workers from over 100 different nationalities; the Bolsheviks intended to lead Russian peasants, Kyrgyz nomads, and Chechen mountaineers together into the bright communist future; what they actually achieved is another question
  • Senior Seminar – independent work consisting of the preparation and presentation of a research paper, translation, or other project designed by the student; requires research using Russian language sources

Master’s Degree in Russian Studies – Two Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Russian Studies – Five to Six Year Duration
Graduate studies programs in Russian studies generally require fluency in the Russian language. At this level, students are commonly required to take some compulsory core modules before selecting optional modules, based on their area of specialization. A study abroad component may be part of some programs. Master’s students must complete a thesis and doctoral students must defend a dissertation to graduate.

Sample Compulsory Modules

  • Literary and Cultural Theory
  • Historical Methods and Approaches
  • Political Analysis and Political Sociology

Sample Optional Modules

  • Advanced Qualitative Methods
  • The Reflecting Screen: Russian and Soviet Cinema in its Cultural Context, 1896 to the Present
  • The 19th Century Russian Novel
  • Causes, Consequences, and Control: Corruption and Governance
  • Crossroads of Culture: The Literatures of Ukraine from Crimea to the Shtetl
  • How to Read and Interpret Texts: Introduction to Hermeneutics (the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts)
  • Informal Practices in Post-Communist Societies
  • Russian Foreign Policy
  • Russian Monarchy: Court Ritual and Political Ideas, 1498-1917
  • Advanced Russian Language Module
  • Russian and Slavic Linguistics
  • Introduction to Discourse Analysis
  • Russian Politics
  • Understanding and Analyzing Data
  • Qualitative Methods
  • Cities in Eastern Europe
  • Literatures of Rupture: Modernism in Russia and Eastern Europe
  • All Quiet on the Eastern Front: Culture, Politics, and Everyday Life in Central and Eastern Europe
  • The Making of the Modern Ukraine
  • Gender and Sexuality in Russian Culture

Certificate in Russian Studies – Varying Durations
Certificate programs in Russian studies are designed for undergrad or graduate students majoring in a related discipline such as another Slavic language, international business, international relations, political science, or history.

The objective of the certificate curriculum is to allow students to expand the Russian perspective in their own course of study. Some may wish to explore a specific area of Russian studies, while others may pursue the certificate for employment or employment advancement purposes.

Here are some possible areas of study and sample courses:

Language, Linguistics, and Literature

  • Beginning Russian
  • Intermediate Russian
  • Russian Language and Culture through Film
  • 19th Century Russian Literature
  • 20th Century Russian Literature

History, Politics, and Culture

  • History of Imperial Russia
  • History of the Soviet Union
  • Russian Civilization
  • Women in the Soviet Union

Degrees Similar to Russian Studies

Area Studies
Students of this discipline usually focus on a specific area or region of the world and study its histories, politics, economics, languages, and cultures. Area studies programs have names like African Studies or Asian Studies, while ethnic studies programs have names like African American Studies or Asian American Studies.

Art History
Students of art history study the history and development of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, filmmaking, and architecture.

Ethnic Studies
Ethnic studies explores ethnicity and race from the interrelated perspectives of history, politics, economics, religion, and social and cultural realities. The field considers and examines the experiences of underrepresented minorities in the United States. It questions the origin and continuity of racism within the general context of American society and institutions. And ultimately, it seeks to provide its students with a critical understanding of contemporary society and a catalyst for social change and social justice.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic / international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.

International Business
Students of international business study business from a global perspective. They learn how to work cross-culturally, how to manage multinational businesses, and how to turn local and national companies into international corporations. Coursework often includes some foreign language studies, as well.

International Relations
Degree programs in international relations are concerned with looking at how states / governments relate to one another. These relations include trade, cooperation, disputes, conflicts, and war. The principles of diplomacy and foreign policy, international law, and organizations like the United Nations are also studied.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups. Its primary sub-areas are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.

Political Science
Political science degree programs focus on the theory and practice of government and politics. ‘Poli sci’ students learn about the structures of politics and government and issues like the nature of political power, the causes of conflict, and globalization.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to an in-depth knowledge of Russian cultural, historical, societal, and political contexts, students of Russian Studies come away from their education in the field with the following very transferable skills:

  • Ability to communicate evidence and analysis orally
  • Ability to integrate knowledge from several disciplinary perspectives
  • Ability to synthesize independent research findings in a written format
  • Ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity and avoidance of cultural stereotyping
  • Global / intercultural perspective
  • Strong analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Understanding of diversity, equity, and justice
  • Understanding of the relationship between the present and the future with the past

What Can You Do with a Russian Studies Degree?

A degree in Russian studies can pave the way for a broad range of careers, since many employers value foreign language skills, all-round communication skills, and intercultural awareness. Some roles in the arenas listed below may require further education and/or on-the-job training.

  • Advertising and Marketing
  • Anti-Corruption Investigation
  • Business, Finance, and Industry
  • Civil Service
  • Cyber Security
  • Defense
  • Education / Academia
  • Foreign Service / Diplomacy
  • Human Rights Advocacy
  • Intelligence and National Security
  • Journalism / Media
  • Law / International Law
  • Law Enforcement
  • Multinational Oil, Gas, and Mining Companies
  • Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Relief Organizations
  • Policy Analysis
  • Public Relations
  • Publishing
  • The Arts
  • Think Tanks
  • Translation / Interpretation
  • Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality


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