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Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th-Century Russia

Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th-Century Russia

Professor Gary Hamburg, Ph.D.
Claremont McKenna College

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Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th-Century Russia

Course No. 827
Professor Gary Hamburg, Ph.D.
Claremont McKenna College
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Course No. 827
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Course Overview

From the Oval Office to the streets of Moscow, world leaders and ordinary citizens alike share concerns about Russia. Can democracy survive there? What does the future hold for the once expansive, still powerful, Russian nation? Is Soviet Communism truly dead? Top diplomats struggle daily with questions like these. With this course, you can begin investigating them for yourself.

Professor Gary Hamburg of the University of Notre Dame leads you on a probing historical journey that sheds light on the recent history and near future of a key world power.

Gain New Insights, No Matter What Your Chief Interest May Be

Whether your chief interest is Russian or world history, political theory, or international relations, you take away a wealth of knowledge and insight from these scholarly and comprehensive lectures as Professor Hamburg examines:

  • The improbable origins of Communist rule in Russia
  • The ascent of the Red Star to its zenith
  • Its decline and apparent end in the wake of 1989's epoch-making events.

Beginning with the failures of the czarist regime and the horrors of the First World War, then moving through the bloody era of Josef Stalin's purges and beyond to Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, Professor Hamburg familiarizes you with the story of 20th-century Russia.

Peek into Newly Opened Archives

Using new material from previously sealed Soviet archives and covering recent controversial findings by both Russian and Western scholars, Professor Hamburg offers you an analysis of the Soviet experiment.

His method is to draw a sharp focus on the major turning point of each of Soviet history's three key periods:

The first period centers on the breakdown of the czarist regime, the events culminating in the Menshevik and Bolshevik revolutions of 1917, the outbreak of Russian civil war, the triumph of the Bolsheviks, and the birth of the Communist party-state system.

Czarist Russia's disastrous involvement in World War I sets the stage for the fall of the czar and the rise of Lenin, who masterminded the Bolshevik coup that has gone down in history as the October Revolution.

Along with Lenin's role in the suppression of "bourgeois" democracy and the creation of the Soviet state, Professor Hamburg explores his decisive theoretical influence on the form that Marxism took in Russia.

You learn that Marx himself would not have thought Russia—a largely agrarian society at the time—"ripe" for revolution.

The second period begins with Lenin's announcement of the New Economic Policy and continues with the debates, power struggles, and eventual consolidation of his power in the late 1920s, the social terror of agricultural collectivization and the political terror of the party purges in the 1930s, the bloody horrors of World War II and its aftermath, and the death of Stalin in 1953.

In teaching this second period, Professor Hamburg devotes extensive time to an explanation and analysis of Stalinism. You examine the cruel dictatorship of Stalin, who used forced starvation, murderous purges by secret police, and brutal labor camps—the infamous "gulag archipelago"—to consolidate his grip on power.

Next you examine the Nazi invasion and the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941–45, which nearly toppled Stalin and killed millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians.

If you've ever wondered about the parallels between Stalin and Adolf Hitler, you will find much food for thought in Professor Hamburg's careful comparison of the two.

The third and most recent period begins with Khrushchev's first efforts at de-Stalinization, continues with the Brezhnev reaction, and reaches its climax with Gorbachev's startling initiatives of perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s. This leads to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ascendancy of Boris Yeltsin, and the current era of post-Soviet disarray.

You learn how Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and Gorbachev all tried to curb the abuses of power and tendency toward the "cult of personality" associated with Stalinism. Yet they tried to do so while preserving the power structure Stalin had created, along with the principles of Communism itself.

Professor Hamburg turns his lens on the policies of perestroika and glasnost to convey most fully the impact of these final years of the Soviet regime.

Two Major Schools of Thought

On the theoretical side, Professor Hamburg also considers the two ways to interpret 20th-century Russian history:

  • The mainstream view, which generally holds that the only real discontinuities in 20th-century Russian history are the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the USSR. In this view, the entire Soviet period is essentially undifferentiated from Lenin to Stalin to Gorbachev.
  • The revisionist view, which sees major continuities in Russia's history prior to the Bolshevik Revolution and following Gorbachev, but major discontinuities within the Soviet period.

Although his own views tend toward the mainstream, Professor Hamburg is careful to give due account to the revisionists' arguments.

"Neither interpretation has gained full acceptance for the simple reason that we are still too close in time to most of these events.

"Moreover, we must all appreciate from the outset the duration, complexity, and uniqueness of recorded Russian history, of which the 20th century is but a very small part."

Intrigue, Befuddlement, and Fright

"Russia, in its vastness and diversity, has always intrigued, befuddled, and frightened 'the West.' You shouldn't be surprised that there are no easy answers to the questions raised in these lectures."

In his closing lecture, Professor Hamburg discusses Communism's prospects in Russia and assesses the possibility that the Soviet Union will re-emerge in some form.

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16 lectures
 |  46 minutes each
  • 1
    Nicholas II and the Russian Empire
    This opening lecture includes discussion of the problems facing Russian peasants and workers in the early 1900s. The Bolshevik seizure of power could have succeeded only in a country with a discredited government, ethnic resentments, and social antagonisms. x
  • 2
    The Failure of Constitutional Government
    Russia's failed constitutional experiment raises the fundamental question of whether such a government can ever succeed in a large, multinational empire. x
  • 3
    Russia and the First World War
    This lecture discusses Russia's entrance into the Great War, the military-political crisis of 1915, failure of the Brusilov offensive in 1916, and isolation of the tsar. The lecture also sketches the atmosphere in the imperial capital, Petrograd, just before Nicholas II was overthrown. x
  • 4
    Lenin and the Origins of Bolshevism
    An overview of Lenin's life and revolutionary strategies provides context for a detailed discussion of his contributions to Marxism and the "three roads" to Communism imagined by Russian Marxists. x
  • 5
    Lenin Comes to Power
    This lecture describes the two revolutions of 1917, the installation of a provisional government, and Lenin's successful efforts to undermine it. x
  • 6
    Lenin and the Making of a Bolshevik State
    The lecture focuses on significant Bolshevik policies between 1917 and 1921: imposition of partocracy, suppression of "bourgeois democracy," attempts to destroy the market system, and resolution of the nationalities problem. x
  • 7
    The Twenties
    The emergence of Stalin and his eventual victory in power struggles of the 1920s bring an end to Lenin's New Economic Policy and the start of ill-fated attempts to collective agriculture. x
  • 8
    Stalin and the "Second October Revolution"
    The first Five-Year Plan and the chaos it wrought in the industrial sector serve as the focus of this fast-paced lecture. Stalin's imposition of an artificial famine that cost millions of lives is also discussed. x
  • 9
    Stalin and the "Great Terror"
    Party purges and "show trials" from 1934 to 1938 are examined as key evidence of state terror during the Stalinist period. x
  • 10
    Stalin, Hitler, and the Road to War
    This lecture treats the diplomatic origins of World War II including Stalin's controversial German policy, Hitler's attitude toward the East and toward Bolshevism, and the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. x
  • 11
    The USSR at War
    The war against Germany was a decisive test of Stalin's statesmanship—and he nearly failed. x
  • 12
    Stalin's Last Years
    This lecture analyzes the Soviet Union's painful reconstruction after World War II and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering occasioned by Stalin's death. x
  • 13
    In the three decades after Stalin's death, Communist party leadership hesitantly distances itself from elements of the Stalinist system without ever abandoning the entire edifice that he had built. x
  • 14
    Gorbachev and Perestroika
    This lecture concentrates on the limits and internal contradictions of Gorbachev's plans for perestroika. It also discusses the appearance of party opposition to perestroika and how that opposition was overcome. x
  • 15
    The Disintegration of the USSR
    Re-emerging national independence movements in major Soviet republics, previously hidden social antagonisms, and gradual exposure of the truth about Stalinism doom Gorbachev's plans to failure. x
  • 16
    Rebirth of Russia or the Rebirth of the USSR?
    Russia's prospects remain uncertain for prosperity, democracy, and the rule of law. But reasons for cautious optimism spur additional thought and analysis. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Gary Hamburg

About Your Professor

Gary Hamburg, Ph.D.
Claremont McKenna College
Dr. Gary Hamburg is Otto M. Behr Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College. He earned his A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University. Dr. Hamburg received Fulbright grants for advanced research at Leningrad State University (now St. Petersburg University) and at Moscow University. He is the author of Politics of the Russian Nobility 1881-1905 and Boris Chicherin and Early Russian Liberalism,...
Learn More About This Professor


Rated 4 out of 5 by 28 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Pedantic, Unfocused, and Incomplete In the introduction to this lecture series, Professor Gary Hamburg sets forth the goal of focusing on major "turning points" in the dramatic story of the rise and fall of Soviet Communism in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the lectures get bogged down in the speaker's tangents and sidebars. As a result, the turning points are lost in the rambling narrative of the three major periods of modern Russia. In the first period, which entails the collapse of the czarist regime and the ascension of Bolshevism, the obvious turning point is the arrival of Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, after a decade of exile. In one of the great ironies of history, the Germans had authorized the transportation of Lenin back to Russia in a sealed railway car for the purpose of fomenting insurrection and destabilizing Russia during World War I. But it was never anticipated that Lenin would become the leader of a new political system in a nation state and that communist rule would last for nearly seventy-five years. The seminal moment of Lenin's return to Russia is lost in the lecturer's ponderous discourse on provisional governments and ideology. The second period spans the rise to power of Joseph Stalin and the horrors of World War II. Professor Hamburg mentions only in passing the battle of Stalingrad, which is arguably the turning point of the European theater of World War II. He also does not acknowledge the staggering loss of life among the Russian people through protracted civil war, the Stalinist purges, and World War II. In his American University address of June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy underscored the great sacrifices of the Russian people during this critical period in world history. This reality is lost in Professor Hamburg's recounting of the widespread use of tanks, artillery engagements, and other details of Stalin's monomaniacal rule. The third period of the Cold War is the most disappointing portion of the course. Out of the blue, the professor suggests that the origins of the Cold War were apparent in the conflicting ideologies of Stalin and American President Woodrow Wilson. A more convincing pair of world leaders would have been Stalin and Winston Churchill, who was adamantly opposed to Bolshevism from the outset and later coined the expression "Iron Curtain." Incredibly, the lecturer glosses over the turning point of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It was the nuclear arms race that was the heart of the Cold War conflict as much as rival political ideologies, and the race began in the moments following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The professor is so intent on discussing "De-Stalinization" that there is no mention of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which is arguably the high water mark of the tensions of the Cold War. He also spends excessive time in the minutiae of the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev as prime minister and Party First Secretary, to the degree that we never learn that the main cause for Khrushchev's fall from grace was his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was never made clear that Khrushchev was reaching for a vision of world peace, anticipating that of Gorbachev in the 1980s. And it seemed beyond the professor's grasp to acknowledge the missed opportunity that occurred with the death of President Kennedy and the removal of Khrushchev--two turning points that senselessly protracted the Cold War. In the 1980s, the efforts of Gorbachev to limit nuclear arms were stalled even longer, due to Reagan's unwillingness to negotiate. The professor even fails to mention Reagan's fantastic Star Wars plan, which sought to intensify the arms race even as the Soviet Union was collapsing from within. It was disappointing that these lectures were so pedantic and so unfocused that the stated goals of examining the historical turning points were never achieved. As a survey, the sixteen presentations provide some of the details of the important story of the rise and fall of communism. But the overall effect of the presentations is uneven and not even very informative. Course Grade: D June 26, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by clear & thoughtful presentation It starts slow in first lecture because the prof has a dry wit, not immediately apparent, and a low key speaking style. I came to value his lecture style very highly as we progressed into the course. Each lecture is crisp, concise and well organized. I am not new to Soviet history and appreciate how difficult it must be to summarize this long and complicated regime. He suceeded entirely in presenting a straightforward but nuanced account. In terms of the latter, his description of Stalin's final hours is unforgettable. November 26, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Good content The material in the course was good and very well researched. The professor does not have an engrossing delivery style but that shouldn't be held against him. Sometimes I felt things almost got bogged down in minutia. I have bought 40 courses from The Teaching Company and they have all been worthwhile, including this one. If someone is interested in the subject of Soviet or Russian history, this would be a good course to get. However, it is not one that I would listen to a second time as I have with some of the courses by other professors. I would rate this lecture series fair. I give the professor high marks for knowing his subject very well. His scholarship is impressive. November 13, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very thorough overview This course tells the story very clearly, and gives a good road-map through the sometimes hellishly convoluted politics of the subject. He avoids any cheap moralising or tub-thumping, and by the end of the course we have the story and "lessons learned" firmly in place. Strongly recommended. I would recommend to a friend, and I would recommend that the friend who has borrowed my course and not yet returned it does so immediately. September 27, 2014
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