Hands-On Russian History

hands on russian history

We took a couple of fun rabbit trails – one artistic, one linguistic – when we learned about early Russian history.


How Russia got its name

Russia (the land of the Rus) derives its name from Rurik, a Viking explorer.  Rurik and his warrior tribe settled to rule over the native Slavs in an area north of the Black Sea which became known as the Kievan Rus.

Ivan the Great

The various Rus tribes were ruled separately by different warrior princes – and latterly, the Mongols – for about six hundred years, until they were brought together by a prince named Ivan.

This prince – a descendant of Rurik –  also freed Russia from Mongol rule. Ivan ruled Russia for many years, and is remembered as Ivan the Great.

Ivan the Terrible

By the time Ivan the Great’s grandson – remembered as Ivan the Terrible – came to power, the Russians had begun referring to their city “the Third Rome” (after Constantinople).

Ivan the Terrible called himself “Tsar”/”Czar”, meaning “Caesar”. After the death of his wife, Ivan the Terrible suffered bouts of paranoid madness, terrorising his people with a vast and vicious network of secret police. Ivan the Terrible even killed his own son – terrible, indeed!

The death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 marked the end of Rurik’s dynasty.


Ivan the Great ruled the newly unified Russia from Moscow. There he built beautiful cathedrals inside the ancient fortress known as the Kremlin.

St Basils’s Cathedral, with its colourful onion-shaped domes, is so much fun to draw. We worked from one of the many beautiful photographs of St Basil’s.

hands on russian history
We coloured in our pictures of St Basil’s Cathedral with watercolour crayons

Russian Writing

How the Cyrillic alphabet was created

Back in the 9th century, the Byzantine Emperor commissioned two monks to bring Christianity to Eastern Europe. To do this, the monks had to transcribe the Bible into Slavic – a daunting task since the Slavs had no written language, and their spoken tongue contained many sounds not found in other languages.

One of the monks, Cyril, came up with the idea of creating a Slavic alphabet from a hotchpotch of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. In this clever way, St Cyril’s alphabet – the “Cyrillic alphabet” – was able to represent every Russian sound.

The Cyrillic script is now used by more than 70 languages.

Writing in Russian

We used this fabulous free booklet You Already Know a Little Russian to familiarise ourselves with Cyrillic letters.

hands on russian history

I also printed out the Greek alphabet (which we’ve looked at before) so we could compare the Greek and Russian letters. If you have older kids, you might also look at the Hebrew alphabet.

hands on russian history

We used an online transliteration tool to convert our names into Russian, then wrote them out.

And I transliterated a short “secret message” to each of the kids which they enjoyed decoding. (I can’t remember what I used to convert the script, but you can use the transliteration tool then cut and paste into a document.)

hands on russian history

I know I have at least one lovely Russian reader so I apologise for any inaccuracies I’ve made in my attempts to summarise. {Please feel free to correct any glaring mistakes!}

In my next history and geography post I’ll share the fun project we did when we studied medieval Turkey. It even overlapped with maths!


The Story of the World Volume 2: The Middle Ages

Russia, the Kievan Rus, and the Mongols: Crash Course World History #20

I’m appreciatively linking up here:

1. Entertaining and Educational

2. Collage Friday

3. Weekly Wrap-Up

4. Hip Homeschool Hop

5. Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop

6. History and Geography Meme #97

7. Adventures in Mommydom

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32 thoughts on “Hands-On Russian History

  1. Fun! Russia is a country I’ve wanted to delve into for years (unfortunately I let the girls choose a few times – threw me off 🙂 – I really like your alphabet comparisons, and the cathedral drawings look beautiful!
    I get such a kick out of John Green’s crash courses.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes Russia is a fascinating country isn’t it? So big, and diverse … and unknown! (to me at least) I for one would be delighted if you choose Russia next time! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Phyllis. We love doing language studies as part of history and geography. I think it’s such a fun and easy way to introduce the children to other scripts and languages.

  2. Wow, thanks for the research! The history of the Cyrillic letters is absolutely fascinating. I love your drawings of the cathedral — they’re very well done! I know so little about Russia, and now your post has inspired me to learn more about it.

  3. This looks like a great study. It’s interesting that the Vikings played a significant role in Russian history as they did in British, and French history as well. I’m booking marking this because the language activity looks fantastic.

    1. Thank you, Julie. Yes I had no idea the Vikings had got so far either. I think historians debate exactly how many Vikings came, since Russian sounds much more Slavic than Scandinavian, but it is certainly a strong theory. Perhaps when my kids are older we will come back and look into the subject more deeply.

  4. Oh what lovely drawings! Make me feel so proud to be Russian). I am so glad you enjoyed learning about Russia. There are so many misconceptions about the country nowadays which really upsets me sometimes… Just a few words about C and J’s attempt to transliterate their names. It’s not easy actually even for the Russians as we’ve got a few approaches to names translation. Яспер is actually a Russian equivalent of the name Jasper which we normally use translating the names of historical figures and in literature. In other cases we transliterate – Джаспер. It is difficult to say why, just a tradition I guess. So, Jason for example will be Ясон if we are talking about the Greek mythology and Джейсон if we are talking about a guy we met on holiday). Also, C’s short name will be Корди. “Корделия” is spot on, well done! Sorry, couldn’t help it (I am a Russian teacher after all)))…

    1. I was really hoping you’d stop by, Elena – thank you!
      How fascinating about the translation of historical and classical names. J(8) will enjoy looking at his name again in the light of what you say.
      I studied a bit of Russian history for A level (Peter and Catherine the Great, mainly) but I would love to know more. You have such an interesting country. If you can recommend any good books either for adults or kids about Russia and its history I would be really interested.

  5. You are an expert at integrating languages into whatever country you are studying! It is so much a weakness of mine. When I went to Paris, I didn’t speak one word of French even though I have GCSE French. How pathetic is that?!
    Love your children’s pictures too!

    1. To be fair, I’m not sure how much GCSE French prepares one for actual conversation with real French people! There’s a big difference between exams and real life, as we know 😉
      I think I might be a bit addicted to languages, actually. The other evening I was feeling slightly out of sorts and ten minutes doing Duolingo German cheered me right up! Still, there are probably worse addictions!

    1. Thank you, Rebecca! It’s a fascinating country, isn’t it? I think we’re going to be doing some deeper reading, too. Did you enjoy any particular books?

  6. I am glad you found my comment useful. Can I recommend a book… Where shall I start!!?)))
    Why don’t you have a look at Leo Tolstoy’s short stories for children
    Although be careful with the title story as it can be quite emotional…
    I found that most Europeans know Leo Tolstoy as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but he was also an educator and quite an innovator as well! “At the age of twenty-one, he started a school for peasant children on his family’s estate, and after returning from a stint in the military, he founded another, experimental school with the motto, “Come when you like, leave when you like.”
    Here is another collection of short stories
    Apart from Russian culture oozing from his stories they sound quite up-to-date even today and unlike other stories written at that time – non patronizing (children would always appreciate this:-).
    This is the favorite in our house (but in Russian). The illustrations are fantastic! This might make a great unusual present for a 4-5 year old.
    As for the reading for adults I quite enjoyed reading Nicolas and Alexandra myself.
    This is about the last Russian Czar and his family. Although written by an American writer, there is a thorough research behind it, interestingly enough, inspired by the the fact that the author’s son had the same disease as Nicolas’s only son. Maybe that is why he was so passionate about it.
    The book is very detailed history-wise, but also very personal and I really liked the balance.
    Sorry once again for the length of this)). Just understandably get carried away as it is about my home country I love and miss… Good luck with your studies!

    1. Thank you so much, Elena! What an excellent selection of resources. It’s so valuable having recommendations from a native – you know you’re getting an authentic flavour of a country. I’ll let you know how we get on with the books.

      I love the idea of Leo Tolstoy’s school. He’s now up there on my unschooling heroes list!

  7. Happy homeschooling to you! We love homeschooling. Thanks for stopping by and thank you for the comment on my daughter’s cute crocheting projects. I too think they are really nice!! That’s a wonderful unit study on Russia. We are actually studying about Russia too, but we are now in high school levels of homeschooling so it doesn’t look quite as fun as your present studies.

    1. I was so impressed by her crocheting!
      I’m looking forward to coming back to study Russia again later. I think what you miss in hands-on projects with teenagers, you probably make up for in satisfaction of being able to cover a topic in greater depth.

    1. Thank you, Carol! I know what you mean, I think I saw this on someone’s blog a couple of years ago and I finally found the moment for us to do it!

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