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Unit information: Life and Death with Stalin in 2020/21

Unit name Life and Death with Stalin
Unit code RUSS30079
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Knight
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Russian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit will be taught by Dr Claire Knight

In March 1953, dozens of Soviet citizens were stampeded to death as overwrought crowds flooded the resting place of the coffin of Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin. He had overseen the construction of the world’s first socialist state but had built it on the bones of millions of his own people. He had served as inspiration in the epic battle to defeat Nazism but used this reputation after the war to inaugurate the most intensive phase of regulation and censorship in Russia’s long history of centralized control. He had induced industrialization seemingly out of thin air, modernizing a nation dogged with “backwardness”, but did so through terror, even weaponising famine. And when he died, the people mourned. It took several years for his successors to acknowledge officially the violence and abuse of Stalin’s leadership, and several more for them to do so publicly. When they did, the Soviet Union experienced a “Thaw” or loosening of censorship and tentative rapprochement in the Cold War. Yet most Soviets were cautious in their celebration, aware of Stalin’s spectre haunting the USSR.

This unit will examine Soviet life under Stalin and afterwards, under Khrushchev’s Thaw. It will focus in particular on the processes of Stalinization and de-Stalinization which were rooted in cultural history, but held deep implications for political, economic and social history as well. Each class, students will engage with a key primary source text (in Russian with translation), or a central scholarly debate concerning such themes as the nature of Stalinism, the origins and extent of Stalin’s power, and the limits of the Thaw and de-Stalinization.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, a student will be able to:

1) demonstrate a high degree of understanding of texts and images from the Soviet period and articulate this orally and in writing;

2) use an appropriate range of cultural and historical criticism through which to interpret such material;

3) articulate an advanced understanding, appropriate to Level H/6, of the history and historiography of the Soviet period;

4) understand the methodological issues around researching and interpreting Soviet texts, history and historiography;

5) demonstrate an appropriate level of analytical skills in researching and interpreting a historical topic.

Teaching details

Teaching will be delivered through a combination of synchronous sessions and asynchronous activities, including seminars, lectures, and collaborative as well as self-directed learning opportunities supported by tutor consultation.

Assessment Details

1 x 1500-word essay (40%), testing ILOs 1-5

1 x 3500-word essay (60%), testing ILOs 1-5

Reading and References

• Davies, Sarah, and James Harris, eds., Stalin: A New History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

• Dobson, Miriam, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011)

• Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

• Jones, Polly, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-70 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

• Jones, Polly, The Dilemmas of de-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era, BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies ; 23 (London: Routledge, 2006), xxiii

• Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)

• Kozlov, Denis, and Eleonory Gilburd, The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013)

• Zubkova, Elena, Russia After the War: Hopes, Illusions, and Disappointments, 1945-1957 (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1998)