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Unit information: The Soviet Union from Beginning to End in 2018/19

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Unit name The Soviet Union from Beginning to End
Unit code RUSS20061
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Connor Doak
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of Russian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit will be taught by Dr Claire Knight

The spectre of the Soviet Union has, in recent years, returned to haunt Western perceptions of Russia in sources as diverse as the news media—with the perennial comparisons between Putin and Stalin—to Hollywood blockbusters, where Russian master-criminals sport hammer and sickle prison tattoos. The implicit claim is that the Soviet legacy, more than that of any other period, has shaped Russia as we know it today. This unit will explore the first part of this claim by leading students through the Soviet period—from October 1917 to December 1991—and the revolutionary ‘experiment’ to reshape political structures, economic relations, society and human nature itself.

Students will be introduced to both the history and the historiography of the period, engaging with key primary source texts (in Russian with translation) and tracing how historians have interpreted and debated topics such as the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Stalin, the push to construct socialism, the Terror, the (inescapable?) legacy of Stalin and the ‘Thaw’, the Cold War, the reforms of perestroika and glasnost, and the dissolution of the USSR. This unit will assess the achievements and costs of this epic undertaking from a variety of perspectives: from the central leadership who achieved a position of authority rivalling that of history’s most powerful dictators, to the ‘enemies of the people’ who paid with their freedom and lives for Soviet Great Power status; from the Stalin-era peasants who were educated and promoted through the ranks of the nomenklatura, to the Brezhnev-era apparatchiki who got on with life thanks to access to black markets and deals on the side. By the end of the unit, students will be equipped to engage critically with the ‘new Cold War’ discourse that posits the Russia of today as simply the Soviet Union in disguise.

Intended learning outcomes

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

1) demonstrate a high degree of understanding of texts 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) demonstrate an appropriate level of analytical skills in reading primary texts

4) articulate an advanced understanding, appropriate to Level I/5, of the history and historiography of the Soviet period

5) understand the methodological issues around researching and interpreting Soviet texts & history

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

Teaching details

1 x 2 hour weekly seminar

Assessment Details

1 x 2000 word coursework essay (50%) testing ILO 1-6

1 x 2 hr exam (50%) consisting of: a) essay on a primary source; b) essay on a historical topic, and testing: a) ILO 1-3, 5; b) ILO 4-6

Reading and References

General texts:

• Kenez, Peter, A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

• Lovell, Stephen, The Shadow of War: Russia and the USSR, 1941 to the Present (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

• Suny, Ronald Grigor, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Focused reading:

• Acton, Edward, Rethinking the Russian Revolution, Second Edition (London: Edward Arnold, 1990)

• Edele, Mark, Stalinist Society: 1928-1953 (Oxford: OUP, 2011)

• Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Stalinism: New Directions (Taylor & Francis, 2000)

• Kotkin, Stephen, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)