Russia Unit Study: Week 1

Privet! (Привет!) Welcome to Russia! This week, we will be visiting the largest country in the world. Besides learning a ton of geography, we will learn the history of Russia and get a little math practice in. We will find out why Catherine the Great was so great and why Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballets in the world. We will also do some awesome experiments, learn about lots of cool science (including viruses and what our blood is made of) and prepare an ancient recipe—blinis! Davayte nachnem! (Let’s begin!) Click here to download your skills tracker for the week.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional chapter book:

Optional additional book:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

Note: We break down our supply list so you can choose what you need based on which lessons you plan to do with your child.

Russian map activity:

Russian flag activity:

Yaranga model:

Virus model:

  • playdough, LEGO, or Minecraft, OR scrap cardboard, cardstock, and yarn (see activity for details)

Blood model:

Fruit caviar:

Blini recipe:

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Lesson 1:

Russia is such a large country that it takes up two continents: Europe and Asia. (You can see this map to see the division.) Especially when exploring a big country like Russia, it’s important to be able to read a map. Let’s spend some time learning about the types of maps and identifying important parts so we can read one properly.

Activity 1: First, watch this video that breaks down reading maps for kids.

Next, let’s discuss some of the most common types of maps: political maps, physical maps, thematic maps, topographical maps, nautical maps, and roadmaps. Print these different versions of maps of Russia to show your child the various types (or, if you’re conserving printer ink, pull them up on your computer or tablet to show them).

  • A political map can show countries, country boundaries, cities, seas and oceans. They usually don’t show physical features.
  • Physical maps show the physical features of an area such as major rivers and lakes, relief (shape) of the land, deserts and landforms, such as volcanoes.
  • A thematic map is a map that is designed to show information about a single topic e.g. climate zones or populations. It does not usually show political or physical features.
  • Topographical maps show the shape of the land. Contour lines show the height of land. Where the lines are close together, the relief of the land is very steep.
  • Nautical maps are sometimes called navigation maps and are used by ships to safely navigate through natural and man-made obstacles above and below the seas.
  • Road maps come in many different forms and show the layout of roads and motorways so that people can plan driving routes. Paper-based road maps are less popular now that many people use satellite navigation devices. (We have also included a road map of Moscow in our printable for a more detailed reference.) (source)

An example of a thematic map is a climate map. Let’s learn about the earth’s climate zones. Read Earth’s Climate, available here on OpenLibrary (or read Climate and Earth if you decide to borrow or purchase a book). As you read, look for the answers to: What is climate? What causes the climate to change from place to place? What are the different climate zones that exist in Russia?

Next, print out page 6 of this printable  map of Russia and draw and color in the climate zones using this climate map as your guide. Label your map, using the information from the book to identify each zone. (Note to parents: There are several categories and subcategories of climate zones, such as the one here. We are using a simplified version appropriate for this age group.)

Activity 2: Do some internet research and learn about the locations listed on the map on page 37 of Honest History:

  • St. Petersburg (We’ll learn more about this city in Week 4)
  • Kazan
  • Moscow
  • Novosibirsk
  • Yekaterinburg (translates into ElizabethTown)
  • Samara
  • Rostov-on Don
  • Nizhny Novgorod
  • Chelyabinsk
  • Omsk

Mark each location on your map once you have learned about them. 

Activity 3: Math application. The flag of Russia is made up of three colors and three rectangles. Print these pages to see the flag. We will use the second page of the print-out to do a geometry lesson involving perimeter and area. Before you start, watch this video to learn about perimeter and this video to learn about area. (You can stop the second video at 5:00 because we will not be focusing on finding the area of a triangle in this lesson.)

Lesson 2:

As we learn about Russian history today, refer to the history timeline on page 66-67 of Honest History.

Activity 1: History of Russia. Watch this short video that summarizes Russian history. As we see in this history timeline, Russia’s early inhabitants were the Slavs and the Vikings who organized their governance into City-States (much like most ancient civilizations). You can read more about Rusik history in Honest History magazine on pages 14-17.

Activity 2: Discover the first tsar. Ivan IV transformed Russia from a medieval state to a great empire by expanding Russia’s borders and economy through trade. He named himself the first tsar, or emperor, of Russia at the age of 16! He became known in history as Ivan the Terrible, Ivan the Formidable, and Ivan the Fearsome. His actual title was the Grand Prince of Moscow, and he ruled from 1533 to 1547. (source) Read this post to learn more about his life and his rule. Watch this video for more.

Let’s pretend that Ivan the Terrible wants to hear from his people and hands out “comment cards.” Write a short paragraph with your opinions about his rule. First, decide who you will be: a noble, a court member, or a serf. Will you write an honest review of his rule…or try to garner favor with your ruler?

Activity 3: Indigenous people of Russia – Nenets and Chukcki. The Nenets lost their independence during the 16th century when their land was conquered by the Russian Empire. Today there are 44,640 Nenets in the Russian Federation. (source)

The Chukchi are a separate indigenous group who call themselves the Lygoravetlat, which means “genuine people.” In 1729, Russia launched a series of vigorous military campaigns against the Chukchi. By the 1760s, the Russian government decided that the cost of getting rid of the Chukchi was too high in terms of money and troops. They ended the war on the condition that the Chukchi stop attacking Russian settlers and start paying the yearly tax that native Siberians paid in furs. Today, there are only about 15,000 Chukchi people in the Russian Federation. (source) Read about them in the Honest History magazine on pages 54-58.

Visit this website to see pictures of the Chukchi people and their homes, also called a yaranga. Next, let’s build a model of a yaranga. This STEM activity will challenge your child to build a triangular structure using limited resources. You can refer to these pictures to learn how the Chukchi people build them. 

Start by covering your cardboard or card stock with moss (or cotton if you are doing a winter scene). Next, tie a rubber band around the top of a few sticks or skewers. (This should create the beginning of your cone shape.) Glue the bottoms of the sticks to create the structure.

Continue to add sticks and secure them with hot glue and possibly twine. 

Cut brown paper into two sections, curving off the top pieces. Wrinkle up the paper and dip it into the Mod Podge and water mixture (or a mixture of glue and water).

Drape brown paper bag over your sticks and secure with twine. Allow to dry completely.

Optional: Paint the structure with brown paint. Paint or decorate the surface around the yaranga with more greenery or leaves for the summer months, or with more cotton balls to mimic snow in the winter months.

Lesson 3:

Today, we’ll learn more about the Russian monarchy. The first monarchy of Russia was the Romanov Dynasty. Read pages 18-27 of Honest History magazine to learn about this famous Russian family.

Activity 1: One of the famous Romanovs was Peter the Great. Read about him on page 12 of Honest History magazine (or you can read this page). As you read, look at a map and identify the Baltic, Black, and Caspian Seas described. Expanding from the Pacific Ocean to these seas was important in an effort to make Russia a powerful maritime state. Peter the Great also adapted the Julian Calendar (which we learned about in our Ancient Rome Unit – Week 3 Lesson 1 Activity 1) so years were counted from the birth of Christ. He adapted many European traditions and also abolished many Russian traditions, like arranged marriages for nobility. (source)
(+) Read more about Peter the Great here.

Activity 2: Read about another famous Russian ruler, Catherine the Great, on page 12 of Honest History. For more on the fascinating story of the monarch, how she married at 15 years old and eventually took power from her husband, and the changes she made (and didn’t make) in Russia, read the short chapter book, A Wicked History: Catherine the Great Empress of Russia.

During her reign, Catherine fought two wars with the Ottoman Empire. Even though she didn’t defeat the Ottoman Empire, she did win parts of the northern Black Sea with navigation rights in the waters of Turkey. This gave Russia more trade and military power. Over time, she began to earn her title, Catherine the Great, as she expanded the total land of Russia by more than 200,000 square miles. (source)

Catherine the Great had a great interest in modernization. One of her interests was in helping her people, especially children, survive one of the deadliest diseases of her time, smallpox. Smallpox was a highly infectious disease that became an endemic around the world. The disease begins with a fever and a red rash that spreads all over the body. After a few days, the rash turns into opaque pustules that form scabs. The scabs then fall off, often leaving deeply pock-marked skin.

In about 5–10% of cases (72% among children), a malignant form of smallpox was fatal. This is why people were so willing to inoculate their children when immunizations became available. (source)

 “Every year, smallpox killed thousands of Russian children, and traditional medicine could do nothing to stop the disease. Catherine thought that modern science had the answer—and she was willing to bet her life on it. 

She had read a British book on a new treatment known as vaccination. Few people believed it would work. How could putting germs in your body fight off a disease? Ignoring the doubters, Catherine invited the author of the book, Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, to Russia. Dimsdale injected the empress with pus from a smallpox victim. The court waited nervously as Catherine developed pustules and a sore throat. But the disease went no further—the experiment was a success. In a brave attempt to modernize Russia, Catherine had risked her life.” (Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia page 86. Read more of this chapter book for a complete understanding of her impact on Russian history.)

The risk paid off. She helped save thousands of her people when she decreed that they too should be vaccinated. Below is a letter dated April 20, 1787, where the Russian empress instructs a governor-general to make immunizing the public a priority and says that “such inoculation should be common everywhere.” 

Unlike modern vaccines, which are safe, variolation (the deliberate inoculation of an uninfected person with the smallpox virus by contact with pustular matter) had a death rate of about 2 percent—which was better than the 30 to 40 percent death rate typical in smallpox outbreaks, but still risky. (source)

Side Note: Inoculation was also practiced in Asia and parts of Africa by this time. It reached Europe and America in the 1700s, where it was also called variolation, after the Latin name for smallpox—variola. (source)

Critical thinking activity: Watch this video to learn about the smallpox virus vaccine. Discuss the progress of smallpox vaccine development. What issues does it raise to test out vaccines on humans? Would you volunteer to test out a vaccine?

(+) Read about modern smallpox vaccines here

Activity 3: Smallpox is a virus. A virus is a very tiny organism that lives and reproduces inside another living cell. The cell the virus invades is called the host cell. The virus basically turns the cell into a factory to make more viruses, which then invade more cells. Viruses come in a variety of shapes and sizes—you can see some of the most common shapes in this article and the image below. 

Viruses have a few key features in common. These include:

  • A protective protein shell, or capsid
  • A nucleic acid genome made of DNA or RNA, tucked inside of the capsid
  • Some, but not all, viruses also have a layer of membrane called the envelope (source)
  • A viral enzyme helps to produce the virus’ DNA

Next, build your own model of a virus using playdough, LEGO, or Minecraft. Print out this picture and use it as your template guide. Children who enjoy drawing can also trace and color it in. 

Alternatively, you can build a cardboard version. This is a video demonstration of how to build your cell using cardboard, colored cardstock, and yarn. 

For kids who enjoy coloring pages, word searches, and scramblers, download the My Vaccine Activity Book on this website.

***Are you homeschooling multiple ages? Utilize the virus model printable in our Level 2+ Germs, Viruses + Fungi unit (Lesson 4, Activity 1) to work with younger students.

Lesson 4:

Let’s spend the day learning about some famous Russians.

Activity 1: Read pages 42-46 in Honest History magazine to learn about Tchaikovsky and the Russian Ballet. (Or you can read this page to learn more about him.) Tchaikovsky was a talented man responsible for three of the world’s famous ballets: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty. After reading about him, watch this video of Swan Lake

Dancers tell a story with their bodies. The way a dancer moves could express happy, sad, or even love. Using pages 11-12 of this Swan Lake Study Guide, learn how dancers express these emotions through movement. Then build the sentences on page 13 using dance moves. 

***Homeschooling younger students? Look for activities in our Level 2+ Russia Unit, Lesson 3 for more ballet inspired activities.

Field trip idea: Look in your area for a presentation of one of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. Many local companies and schools put on these performances. Before visiting a performance in person, review the last page of the study guide PDF to learn how to be a good audience member.

Activity 2: The Rasputin. Read about him on Honest History pages 30-33. Then watch this video for more. 

Activity 3: As we learned in the previous activity, Prince Alexei (of the Romanov Dynasty) suffered from a genetic blood disorder called hemophilia. Hemophilia is a rare disease that prevents blood from clotting as it should. It happens because the body doesn’t make enough of a protein. Clotting helps stop bleeding after a cut or injury. If clotting doesn’t happen, someone can bleed easily and continue to bleed longer than normal. (source)

Let’s learn about blood. Our blood is made up of several parts that each have different jobs:

  • Red blood cells are shaped like flattened disks and contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen. Your blood is red because of the oxygen the hemoglobin picks up in the lungs. As your blood moves through the body, the hemoglobin releases oxygen to feed different parts of the body. Your red blood cells are made in your bones (a part called the bone marrow) and live about 4 months each.
  • White blood cells are an important part of the immune system that helps your body defend itself against infection and diseases by fighting germs, bacteria, and viruses. Some of these are made in the bone marrow, and some are made in other parts of the body, such as your spleen and lymph nodes. Typically you have far fewer white blood cells than red blood cells, but your body can make more when fighting infections.
  • Platelets are tiny oval cells that help our blood clot. Basically, if you start bleeding or a blood vessel breaks, platelets start huddling together in the area and seal off the leak. They control bleeding inside our bodies and on our skin. Platelets only live about 9 days and are constantly being replaced by new ones made in our bone marrow.
  • Plasma is the fluid that carries the blood components throughout the body.

Watch this video to learn how blood clots when we fall and scrape our skin. As the video explains, the seal made by platelets isn’t strong enough on its own. Fibrins must also move to the cut to reinforce the clot. People with hemophilia don’t have enough of certain clotting factors. Because of this, the fibrin clot is not made or is so thin that the bleeding isn’t stopped. (source)

Let’s make a blood model using corn syrup (or substitute with vegetable oil), white beans (or white candy), long grain rice, and red candy to see how the four parts of blood come together to make the most important liquid in our bodies.

Begin with an empty jar. The red candies will represent your red blood cells. Your blood is 40% of red blood cells so fill just under 1/2 of your jar with red hot candies.

The white beans represent your white blood cells. There is one white blood cell for every 600 red blood cells so figure out how many to use based on container size/amount or red hots.

Platelets will be represented by rice. There are 40 platelets for every 600 red blood cells.

Next, add a few pinches of cut up pieces of black pipe cleaner to your blood solutions to represent the fibrins.

Plasma represented by the corn syrup makes up 55% of our blood. So fill the rest of the container with corn syrup. Seal the jar with a lid and give it a shake! Is your child surprised by just how much is happening in our blood?

(+) Want to learn more about blood and the human body? We suggest the book Why is Blood Red?

***Homeschooling a younger student? Be sure to look for activities that match this topic in Me! The Body Unit.

Lesson 5:

We’ll end our week with some Russian food history!

Activity 1: Blini are a traditional, ancient dish of Russian descent. In Russia, blinis are usually pan-sized, thinner pancakes made from unleavened batter, similar to crepes. (source) Due to their round shape, blini were considered to be a symbol of the sun in pre-Christian times. The East Slavic people would cook and eat blini at the end of winter to mark the return of the sun (otherwise known as Butter Week or Pancake Week). This tradition is still practiced today. (source)

Blini can be prepared and served in a number of different ways, depending on the recipe used. Some variations in blini include:

  • adding ingredients to the blini batter, including apple, raisins, or even grated potato—such types of blini are more common in Eastern Europe than in Russia
  • blini served with butter, sour cream, fruit preserve (varenie), jam, honey, or caviar
  • blini folded or rolled into a tube, then filled with different fillings like jam, fruit, minced meat, chicken, salmon, boiled eggs, or mushrooms
  • blini is sometimes made by frying chopped vegetables and pouring the batter over them

Learn more about the history of blini here.

Activity 2: One popular topping for blini is sour cream and caviar. Have you ever had caviar? Watch these kids try caviar for the first time – it will probably make you laugh!

Caviar is a term used to describe fish eggs (roe) of sturgeon, a kind of fish. The world’s best caviar is made from the unfertilized eggs—or “berries” as they are sometimes called—of the female beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. Caviar is a staple of Russian cuisine and is traditionally enjoyed on New Year’s Eve. Historically, caviar was a staple not a luxury. Engravings from the early 18th century even depict caviar sellers on street corners! Today, it is a huge industry and countries all over the world (including the United States) have fish farms that produce caviar. Today, no caviar in the U.S. comes from Russia because of government sanctions. (source and source)

All sturgeon are migratory, typically spending most of their adult lives in estuaries. They migrate upstream in large freshwater rivers to spawn in cool, deep, swift flowing rivers over gravel and cobble bottoms. Sturgeon do not die after spawning like Pacific salmon, and species are capable of repeated migrations every 2-6 years. (source

You might be wondering how the caviar (the eggs) are taken from the sturgeon fish. Almost all caviar is harvested from dead fish once they are caught. Fishermen on the Caspian wait until the mature female sturgeon (which are at least 10 years old) are ready to migrate upstream and lay their eggs. Once caught, the sturgeon will be transferred to a large boat, where workers slit the fish open and remove the eggs. The caviar is cleaned to prevent spoilage and then packed up; the rest of the fish is sold for meat. Fish farmers who raise sturgeon for caviar sometimes use a surgical procedure to remove eggs from a female without killing her. (source)

Real caviar is pricey, so let’s make this fun edible science experiment: fruit caviar! Be sure to read the last section to learn the science behind the activity.

Activity 3: Prepare this delicious recipe for blinis! We suggest berries and whipped cream for your toppings.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.