NEH Institute at Ferris State University

Co-Directors Christian Peterson and Tracy Busch welcome prospective applicants to apply for a spot in our institute “War, Revolution, and Empire: U.S.-Russian/Soviet Relations, 1776-present.” During his nine years of teaching at the college level, Christian has taught courses in areas as diverse as U.S. foreign policy, East Asian history, Colonial America, and the Renaissance. He has also written two books that elucidate how Soviet dissenters and other transnational forces have shaped Soviet and U.S. foreign policy. Working as a podcast host for the well-regarded online forum “New Books in World Affairs,” Christian interviews authors about their new books in fields as diverse as U.S-Russian/Soviet relations and the recent U.S. wars in the Middle East.

Tracy’s interest in the former Soviet-space goes back to the Cold War era itself when, in 1990, she went to Moscow as a part of a semester abroad program and witnessed national liberation movements in Estonia, Latvia, and Georgia. She comes to the institute with over 10 years of teaching experience and, prior to that, 12 years of fostering civil society and partnerships between the U.S. and Russian road sectors through the U.S. Department of Transportation and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Her recent scholarship focuses on the way automobile and road technology was “domesticated” to match Soviet ideological norms.


The subject of U.S.-Russian relations should concern every educator in the United States. The steps that Americans and Russians have taken to create prosperous domestic orders and influence the conduct of “foreign” peoples have had a profound impact on global history, especially during the past one hundred years. Addressing the question of what actions Americans and Russians can take in the future to improve the relationship between their two countries may seem like a quixotic undertaking in light of the recent strains in U.S.-Russian relations. Unfortunately, the wide array of problems that the world now faces makes such a task more relevant than ever. As the twenty-first century unfolds, this planet would become a safer place if the United States and Russia could overcome their mutual suspicions and find ways of working together to find lasting solutions to international problems as diverse as the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, climate change, and the future of Ukraine.

This institute has been structured in an interdisciplinary manner to facilitate “deep” historical learning. During the seminar sessions, we will discuss a wide array of primary documents and fundamental works that cover important aspects of U.S.-Russian/Soviet relations. The eight guest scholars participating in this institute will share their knowledge of Russian/Soviet history and/or extensive experience working with Russians. They will also take the time to answer whatever questions the participants might have. To help the participants gain a better feel for how Russians and Ukrainians have lived and experienced history, we will participate in a wide variety of cultural activities such as the viewing of movies, a Russian folk artist workshop, and a field trip to Chicago.

With so much potential material to cover, this institute will employ the framework of “War, Revolution, and Empire” to make better sense of how U.S.-Russian/Soviet relations have evolved. By emphasizing the idea of “Empire,” we will see how the Russian state ruled by the Tsars, and then the Soviet Union, while it lasted, existed as multinational, multiethnic empires. Even today, the Russian Federation exists as a multinational state that includes Russians, Chechens, Tatars, and many others groups. The use of the theme “Empire” will allow us to see how geography has shaped the evolution of Russian history. Though Russians have suffered numerous foreign invasions by groups like the Mongols, they have also expanded at the expense of different peoples in regions as diverse as the Baltic, Central Asian Steppes, Caucasus, and Siberia.

This institute will also use the idea of “Empire” to gain a deeper understanding of U.S. history and how Americans have interacted with foreign peoples, including Russians. As we go through the material, we will explore how Americans managed to reconcile the idea of their nation as an “empire of liberty” with territorial expansion in North America during the nineteenth century and the carrying out of foreign interventions since then. Because we will start from the assumption that the term “empire” can apply to situations beyond formal political control, we will discuss the degree to which ideals such as “Wilsonianism” represented a form of U.S. empire building; we will also examine how Americans have used their economic and cultural power (i.e., “soft” power) to shape the behavior of other peoples. In the case of the Cold War, we will debate just how much the collapse of the USSR in 1991 represented a victory of the U.S. Empire over its Soviet counterpart.

Paying attention to the theme of “Revolutions” will contribute to our knowledge of how U.S.-Russian/Soviet relations have evolved over time. In the case of the United States, we will examine how the American Revolution has shaped Americans’ understanding of their place in the world. We will also address the question of why Americans have had such an ambivalent relationship with “foreign” peoples’ nationalist aspirations and revolutions, especially those of the “socialist” variety. At the same time, we will learn about the successes and failures of Russian/Soviet Revolutions as diverse as the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the October Revolution of 1917, and the Stalinist Revolution of 1928 to 1932. The concept of “Revolutions” will allow us to investigate the ambivalent relationship Russia has had with the West throughout its history.

The use of the theme “War” will illuminate how conflicts such as the Spanish-American War and World War I contributed to the idea of American “exceptionalism” and the goal of remaking the world in the image of the United States. In the case of Russian/Soviet history, we will examine how World War I contributed to the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty, the October Revolution, and the waging of a Russian Civil War (1918-1921) that killed as many as ten million people. An examination of these topics will put us in a strong position to evaluate just how Woodrow Wilson’s policies represented a form of “warfare” against the Bolsheviks as they worked to vanquish their Civil War enemies and create a communist society. The use of the theme of “War” will also reinforce just how much the Soviet experience during World War II on the Eastern Front continues to shape Russian history. Suffering destruction and famine on a level that most Americans cannot even begin to fathom, the USSR lost between 20-25 million civilians and soldiers in the process of doing the bulk of the fighting against and killing of Nazi soldiers.

The steps that the teachers take to better understand the evolution of U.S.-Russian/Soviet relations in this institute will pay dividends when they return to the classroom. Consistent with the growing emphasis placed on teaching U.S. history in a global context, they will be better prepared to conduct classes on subjects such as the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s without a narrow focus on events in the United States. Teachers will also be in a much stronger position to incorporate Russian/Soviet history into their World and/or Western civilization surveys. Furthermore, the structure of the institute will help teachers meet the growing expectation that they use primary sources in their own classrooms to stimulate historical learning.

Once they return to the classroom, all of the participants can use the empathy and knowledge that they gain in this institute to help their students address the question of what steps Americans and Russians can take in the coming years to improve the relationship of their two nations.