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
 |  Average 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
    De-Stalinization
    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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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,...
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