Skip to main content

Unit information: Engineers of the Human Soul: Soviet Culture and Politics 1917–1941 in 2022/23

Please note: It is possible that the information shown for future academic years may change due to developments in the relevant academic field. Optional unit availability varies depending on both staffing, student choice and timetabling constraints.

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. Connor Doak
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)

1 x 2000-word essay (50%) (ILOs 1-4)


If this unit has a Resource List, you will normally find a link to it in the Blackboard area for the unit. Sometimes there will be a separate link for each weekly topic.

If you are unable to access a list through Blackboard, you can also find it via the Resource Lists homepage. Search for the list by the unit name or code (e.g. RUSS20060).