In this discussion-based seminar, we will examine the early post-Stalin Soviet Union and pose the question, how do societies overcome the problems of their past, and to what extent do they in fact succeed in doing so? While we will focus our attention on the early post-Stalin years (1953 to the late 1960s), we will keep in mind the relevance of our central question to other contexts. These include not only contemporary Russia, where Vladimir Putin has served as president for nearly as long as Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, but also an imminent post-Covid-19 world, in which countries will be compelled to reimagine approaches to public health, the welfare state, international relations, and much more. While the course will not presuppose an answer to our question, it will challenge students to consider the many ways in which the problems of the past endure and thus, for the sake of meaningful change, may demand fundamental reevaluation of the structures that shape human beings and their societies.
The USSR, after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, faced no small number of structural challenges. These included low productivity of agriculture and industry, stagnation in the arts and sciences, displeasure among non-Russian nationalities, and a citizenry brutalized by repeated campaigns of state terror. These problems demanded solutions for the Soviet Union to deliver on its promise of creating a Communist utopia and defeating the capitalist West in the Cold War. In exploring how Stalin’s successors approached these challenges, we will train our sights on as wide a picture of post-Stalin life as possible. To do so, we will examine a diverse set of primary and secondary sources. The former include speeches, novellas, paintings, songs, photographs, and diaries, among other materials. The latter stem from a number of different disciplines—including history, political science, anthropology, sociology, and literature—the insights of which will enrich our approach to the primary sources. Students with little background in Soviet history will be advised to read selections from a textbook in addition to each week’s assigned readings.
The course will begin with an introductory lecture that places the central question of the course—to what extent is societal change possible?—in the context of Russian history as a whole as well as contemporary concerns, in Russia and around the world. Session 2 will be devoted to an overview of the Stalin era, covering politics, ideology, society, and culture. Session 3 will be dedicated to a microhistory of the societal reaction in several Soviet republics to Stalin’s death, on March 5, 1953, which will serve to underline the themes of session 2, and point the way forward to themes emphasized in the remainder of the course. In sessions 4-7, we will spend one class on each of the following: post-Stalin politics, international relations, society, and culture. The first half of each session will emphasize change, while the section half will emphasize continuity. At the same time, we will explore the ways in which continuity and change not only are often interwoven, but also depend on the question posed by the scholar. In session 8, I will deliver a concluding lecture that summarizes the material covered in the context of the course’s larger question, and draw out the connections to the present.
Academic hours: 15
Credits: 5 ECTS
With the exception of the introductory and concluding sessions (which will be lectures), class time will be devoted to discussing the primary and secondary sources. At the beginning of each session, I will speak for roughly ten minutes to create a frame for the discussion and connect that frame to the previous session. In the final ten minutes of each session, I will summarize the ground covered by the discussion and point the way forward to the next meeting. For each session, students will read and discuss one or more primary sources as well as one secondary source (an article or book chapter). (Student preparation time for each session would be roughly three hours.) As an instructor (especially of graduate students), I see my role not so much as providing answers to the questions posed, but rather as modeling the kinds of questions that students should learn to ask themselves as they engage with the material. This modeling is done during discussion; if successful, the students then take control of the discussion and pose questions—similarly productive—to one another. The overall objective of this approach is for students to hone an ability to independently and productively evaluate both data and interpretations thereof—a skill required in various disciplines and professions.
Expected Learning Outcomes
The course aims to be of value to two sets of students: those who seek to pursue academic careers, and those who seek to pursue non-academic careers (e.g., to work in government, for cultural institutions, non-governmental organizations, etc.). Students who wish to become academics in the Russian/Eurasian field will be introduced to central questions scholars ask of key periods in twentieth-century Russian/Eurasian history, and of classic primary sources. Students who seek to pursue careers in policy, culture, and so on, will be trained in habits of mind useful for all professionals, including how to interrogate complex arguments, make sense of data that tells a variety of stories, professionally work through difficult questions with colleagues, and clearly and concisely express one’s arguments in writing. (On assigned written work, see Assessment Methods directly below.)
You will be evaluated based on the following:
- Attendance: 10%
- Participation in discussion: 40%
- Final essay, 4-6 double-spaced pages: 50%. Students will be asked to evaluate the extent of continuity and/or change in one or more areas of post-Stalin Soviet life (e.g., politics, ideology, industry, agriculture, literature, or film). Essays should be based on primary and secondary sources, both assigned in the course and read independently.