BA Group 3 module, taught by Johanna Conterio and Orlando Figes

This course covers the tumultuous history of the Soviet Union (1917-1991). Through reading English-language primary sources, the seminar introduces students to historical debates about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, with particular attention and texts dedicated to mass mobilization, political violence, socialist internationalism, Stalin’s personal dictatorship, social mobility, cultural revolution, popular belief and ideology, nationality and empire, health and the rise of the welfare state. We will read official Soviet historical works, autobiographies, the Soviet national anthem, archival documents, newspapers, memoirs and diaries, and also use non-traditional source materials such as posters and other visual sources, music, and film, all available in English translation or with English subtitles. Throughout this course we will pay particular attention to the way that the authors of these texts attempted to mobilize or stabilize the polity by offering distinctive points of view, on the past, current events and the future.

Our discussions will address some of the following themes: the relationship between state and society, forces of change and continuity in political, intellectual and cultural life, the relationship between center and periphery, revolutionary class (mass) politics, radicalization through War, the role of agriculture in Stalinist politics, the “re-launch” of the Soviet project after World War II, the “Thaw” under Khrushchev, the “golden age” of Soviet culture under Brezhnev, and the end of communism.

The course is divided into two terms. The first term is dedicated to the history of the Soviet Union from the revolution to the death of Stalin (1917-1953). The second term is dedicated to the history of the Soviet Union After Stalin (1953-1991).


  1. Introduction: Who Believed in the Soviet Project?
  2. Total War and Radicalization
  3. The October Revolution in International Context
  4. NEP: A Strategic Retreat
  5. Stalinism 1: Agriculture
  6. Stalinism 2: Mass Mobilization & Industrialization
  7. [Reading week]
  8. Stalinism 3: Nationalities Policy
  9. Stalinism 4: Popular Belief and Political Terror
  10. Stalinism 5: Socialist Realism
  11. Conclusion: WWII and the Relaunch of the Soviet Project
  12. Khrushchev’s Thaw
  13. Luxury and Rationalization: The Mass Housing Campaign
  14. A Staggering Success: Soviet Public Health and Life Expectancy, c. 1965
  15. Consumer Culture and the East Bloc
  16. Tourism
  17. The Development of the Person and Socialist Ideology under Brezhnev
  18. Reading Week
  19. The Space Race and the Golden Age of Soviet Culture Under Brezhnev
  20. Something New in the East: Reformist Movements in Eastern Europe
  21. The End of Communism
  22. Conclusion