Instructor: Dr. Erica Fraser

Course Description

Cartoon: In Defence of the USSR (1929)

In Defence of the USSR (1929)

“Citizens! Save the fatherland, the republic, and freedom! Maniacs have raised a revolt against the only governmental power chosen by the people – the Provisional Government.”

Russia and the former Soviet republics have been in the news more in the past few years than any other time since the end of Soviet rule in 1991. Yet many news outlets as well as the general public still misunderstand the complex 20th century history that helped to form key aspects of Russian politics and culture today. Most, in fact, continue to take the view put forth by the Bolsheviks’ opponents in 1917 (above) that the Bolsheviks were “maniacs” who seized power in an illegitimate coup and over the next several decades steered Russia away from its “true” democratic path.

This course will critically examine sources and viewpoints like this as we discuss the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, from the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 through to Putin’s rise to power in the late 1990s. We will examine the popular unrest that led to revolutionary activity at the turn of the 20th century; the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War of 1917-21; the New Economic Policy and methods of building a new socialist society in the 1920s; Stalin-era industrialization and Five-Year Plans in the 1930s; daily life under Stalin; the Great Terror; World War II on the home front and in the Soviet military; postwar recovery and the Cold War; the effects of Gorbachev’s reform efforts in the 1980s; and the revolution that ended Soviet rule in 1991.

Throughout the course, we will discuss social and cultural history as well as political, economic, and military aspects. What was it like to live in the world’s first communist state? In the West, we tend to assume that the entire Soviet population lived in fear, as passive victims of an authoritarian dictatorship for 70+ years, but this course aims to complicate that assumption. Why might many people have in fact believed in the system they were building? In what ways did Soviet workers take pride in modernizing and industrializing their unique state? And when violence, terror, and control did dominate the political sphere, how did people cope? As we investigate these questions, we will focus on the experiences of (and policies toward) four overlapping population groups: peasants, workers, women, and non-Russian minorities.

We will also focus on the question of history-production in the USSR. In each unit, we will ask ourselves how the Soviet authorities saw themselves in history; how they preserved or destroyed documents in an effort to control their place in history; how ordinary citizens attempted to record their experiences; how western historians confront their own Cold War-era biases against Russia; and how we as historians should approach sources written in the peculiar language of communist bureaucracy.

Class Format:
The course will consist of two 80-minute classes per week, which will be a mix of lecture and discussion. Success in this class will depend on your regular attendance and engagement with the readings. 


Each week, students will read a section from a textbook as well as a collection of primary source documents. Learning to read critically is a key goal in this course. By third year, history students will be well versed in studying primary sources, but Soviet sources will provide an extra (and often entertaining!) challenge for you. The Bolshevik revolutionaries produced documents (legislation, newspaper articles, public placards, etc.) that were a wonderful mix of ideology, fantasy, and propaganda. You will quickly see that if you are attempting to discover an objective truth from such documents, you are asking the wrong questions. We will also study non-government sources, such as memoirs, letters, fiction, and visual works as we try to understand how ordinary people lived in the Soviet Union and to piece together “what happened” (and “why does it matter?”) from these historical fragments.


  • Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. (ISBN: 978-0195340556)
  • Scott, John. Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. (ISBN: 978-0253205360)
  • Most of our primary source readings will come from the excellent repository at the “Seventeen Moments in Soviet History” website: <>. You are welcome and encouraged to click around on that site to read documents or historians’ accounts other than those I have assigned.


The exact grading criteria will be available on the course outline at the beginning of the semester. Overall, written assignments will consist of two short essays based on John Scott’s memoir and other sources, a mid-term and final exam, and discussion board posts forming a class-wide conversation on the primary source readings.

Questions about this class? Feel free to email me at