Mon. & Wed. 12:30-1:45pm
(OR fulfills Non-West major requirement)
By its own definition, the Soviet Union was neither nation-state nor empire, neither capitalist nor communist, neither east nor west. What was the Soviet Union? What was Soviet socialism? Who made it? What was the role of the Communist Party in creating and maintaining Soviet rule? What is a personal dictatorship, and how did the Soviet Union become one? How did the Soviet regime maintain its rule over one-sixth the world’s landmass? Did it enjoy legitimacy among the population, and if so, why? What was the role of violence or coercion in the maintenance of Soviet power? Did people “believe” in the Soviet Union, and if so, in what exactly? How did the Soviet regime use institutions, social class, information networks, consumer desires, ethnic minorities, expert knowledge, cultural production, and understandings of the non-Soviet outside world to advance its ambitions? How and why did it succeed or fail?
In the wake of recent challenges to liberal institutions across the Western world, the history of the Soviet Union offers its students critical insight into the characteristics and functioning of illiberal politics and an unfree society. It also illuminates the experience of people who made and lived through the world’s greatest experiment in organizing a non-capitalist society. This course will examine the project of building socialism—as a culture, economy, and polity—in the Soviet Union and its satellites from inception to collapse. Though focused on the investigation of Soviet institutions, practices, and ideologies, the course aims to situate the Soviet project in an explicitly global frame. As a class, we will assess the claim that Soviet socialism (though not necessarily the Soviet Union) was a project with a shelf life, conditioned by global politics and its own capacities for self-reproduction. Through extensive use of memoir, we will examine individual processes of “illusionment” and disillusionment with the Soviet project. We analyze the life cycles of peasants, workers, bureaucrats, artists, writers, reformers and other members of the Soviet establishment over time. We carry the Soviet engagement with the outside world, and the search for modernity that inspired it, from the First World War, through the creation of a socialist society, the huge geographical expansion of the socialist project and its subsequent implosion, into the new programs of liberalization, marketization, and modernization that succeeded it in the 1990s and 2000s. We trace Soviet dominion, real and attempted, from Berlin to Baku, Vladimir to Vladivostok.