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Unit information: Engineers of the Human Soul: Soviet Culture and Politics 1917–1941 in 2019/20

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Unit name Engineers of the Human Soul: Soviet Culture and Politics 1917–1941
Unit code RUSS20060
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Knight
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Russian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Sweeping to power in the revolution of October 1917, the Soviets aimed to transform not only politics and society, but also culture, including literature, film, visual art, and music. For Soviet leaders, culture was not merely a form of entertainment, but rather a tool to forge the New Soviet Man and Woman. Writers were expected to become, in a popular phrase of the day, ‘engineers of the human soul’. We begin by considering competing ideas about the function of culture in a socialist state after the Revolution. The 1920s saw a lively debate about what type of artistic expression would be appropriate for the Soviet Union, as well as a wave of experimentation in all of the arts. However, by the early 1930s, Socialist Realism had become established as the only acceptable art form in the Soviet Union, and those who did not comply were repressed.

This unit aims to familiarize students with the relationship between culture and politics in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1941. Students will become familiar with the key figures in Soviet cultural policy in the period (Lenin, Lunacharskii, Trotskii, Stalin, Zhdanov). We will also look at a variety of cultural expressions and trends in the period, which may include: (i) avant-garde writers, such as Maiakovskii; (ii) socialist realist writers, such as Ostrovskii; (iii) satire, such as the works of Bulgakov and Zoshchenko; (iv) visual culture, such as Rodchenko and Malevich; (v) films by avant-garde filmmakers (Vertov and Eisenstein) as well as socialist realist film genres including musical comedies and adventures (vi) composers such as Shostakovich; (vii) life-writing including diaries and memories, including those written ‘for the drawer’ (such as Chukovskaia). Not all of these will be covered every year; the course material will depend on the member/s of staff teaching the course and their research interests. However, in all years we will pay attention both to canonical Soviet figures and dissidents who used culture to challenge the regime. Students will evaluate the competing ideas about art (in the broadest sense) in a socialist society, as well as looking in detail at key works from the time.

Intended learning outcomes

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

1) identify key figures in Soviet culture and cultural politics in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s, and explain the key differences between their ideologies and approach to their craft;

2) analyze primary texts from the period, including imaginative literature, film, manifestos and political writings, particularly with an eye to their ideological context;

3) evaluate the function of art in early Soviet Russia, as well as how the mutual relationship between culture and politics played out in that society;

4) demonstrate skills of group working, presentation and research skills at a standard appropriate to level I.

Teaching details

1 weekly lecture

1 weekly seminar

Assessment Details

  • A collaborative research project (3-4 students) which includes a presentation and individual portfolios containing initial plan, co-authored introduction, individual talk, reflection (total 2500 words) (50%) (ILOs 1-4)
  • A 2000-word essay (50%) (ILOs 1-4)

Reading and References

Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalin (London: Verso Books, 2011)

Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, 3rd ed (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2000)

Katerina Clark and Evgeny Dobrenko, Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 1917–1953 (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007)

Peter Kenez, Cinema & Soviet Society: from the Revolution to the death of Stalin (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000)

Robert A. Maguire, Red Virgin Soil: Soviet Literature in the 1920s (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968)

Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989)