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
    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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Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th-Century Russia is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 43.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Bit Dated This is an overall very good history of the Soviet Union from start to finish. The professor explains why and how the Soviet system took control of Russia. The course does not spend much time on the Cold War and barely mentions the Space Race. The course does better with WWII, though the professor repeats many times that he is not a military historian so he glosses over much of the military side of the conflict in favor or covering the experience on the home front. The professor does a good job explaining how the Soviet Union ended. Unfortunately, the last lecture focuses mostly on the "current situation," but the course was recorded in 1998 so the "current situation" is twenty years old and speculation on what Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev will do next is clearly out of date. This course would benefit from being refreshed, but it is still very informative.
Date published: 2018-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What have these people gone through! Communism has been an external threat for the richest countries and an internal threat for the less prosperous: for some countries communism has been an unfortunate experience. So I bought this course with some enthusiasm. Hamburger is certainly a good teacher, clear and structured in his approach. I've learnt a good deal but there were some ingredients which I missed. That’s why I have not given full marks for Professor presentation. I missed a fuller description of the Czarist regime. Why the masses were so furious and rabid about it? I think the theme should have been developed that there was widespread infiltration, i.e., in the midst of the Czarist repression, socialists had been busy brainwashing the population so that in 1917 Lenin’s ideology (not simply his decision to withdraw from WW-1) enjoyed solid popular support. We can generalize, I think, and say that Professor Hamburger avoids providing a narrative where everything is linked to everything else (via some form of causality, i.e., through mechanisms of a sociological nature). For example, I have watched a lecture by an authority arguing that the emergence of Stalin was a natural response to the highly threatening difficulties (including mounting popular dissatisfaction) which the October 1917 revolution encountered during the twenties. We only get the faintest trace of such arguments in Hamburger’s account. Now I understand that historians might mistrust such an approach on methodological grounds. Still, I take the view that such an approach would appear very satisfying to the layman (because it would “explain”) and would provide an aide memoir as opposed to enumerating disjointed facts. But even a catalogue of disjointed facts could have been made far more tantalizing than Hamburger’s narrative. Indeed, another element I missed is a more thorough and sensational description of the nightmare called communism. Admittedly we do get some brief glimpses here and there but having read Anne Applebaum’s book about the crushing of Eastern Europe I would have enjoyed much more picturesque detail—how did it feel to live in a communist regime? Granted, we have some such allusions to how it felt in relation to the WW-II experience and in relation to factory building in Magnetograd. Perhaps a larger number of lectures was required and certainly the course would have gained enormously if it were in video form—we would have maps, socialist realist pictures from workers’ housing, etc., etc.
Date published: 2018-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A lot of relevant history USSR RIP 1922 - 1991 Those dates surprise me. I grew up in the midst of cold war mania. The USSR and communism were frequently in the news, in our conversations, and in our minds. I always had this sense that the USSR was such a powerful force that it had always been and would always be. Now I know how little I knew about the social and political forces that generated those dates, which is what this course covers exceptionally well. I especially like Professor Hamburg's treatment of the early period: the collapse of the empire under Tsar Nicholas II, the build-up of communist sentiments over an extended period, and the ultimate triumph of Leninism. The treatment of the differences between Marxism and Leninism were particularly interesting to me. Marxism was born out of a desire for social justice and economic equality, the same desire that drives the resurgence in socialistic sentiments in our own political system today. Lenin's revolution seems to have missed that point, or did he? Was Lenin a brutal despot or a revolutionary leader trying to lead his countrymen away a brutal existence? This is a lesson of history that deserves thought still today. Stalin's story is, of course, compellingly interesting. For the most of the course I think Professor Hamburg's presentation is detached and objective. However, when he talks of Stalin I sense a tone of compassion, perhaps sadness, for the Soviet people. He seemed more likely to express his personal views. His coverage of Stalin is filled with details that, despite legitimate accomplishments such as leading the USSR victoriously through WWII, force the conclusion that this was an evil regime. Could it have been different? Marx saw history as science, driven by cause and effect, like a chemical reaction progresses very, very slowly. This history of Soviet Communism shows history as driven by forceful leaders and seemingly not inevitable at all. What if someone other than Stalin had risen to power following Lenin's death? Can we learn from these lessons of history? Post Stalin, Professor Hamburg presents a chronicle of de-Stalinization and experiments with capitalism that culminate in the collapse of the Soviet Union. In some ways this seems less compelling than the Lenin and Stalin periods. Yet, our own country experiments with mixes of socialism and capitalism, even more today than ever. This course presents a lot to think about.
Date published: 2017-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It Hit the Highlights The only negative was that 44 mins is too long-but it is an old course. The course book was limited. Otherwise it gave a very good overview.
Date published: 2017-01-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Comprehensive survey of the Soviet system I found listening to “History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev” prior to this course valuable. This course presents a comprehensive survey of the Soviet system which has given me tools to better understand Russian thinking both in my interactions with the country as well as when following current events. As the Professor mentions a few times in the course, “truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction”. I listened to the audio version and enjoyed the Professor’s style which was clear and easily understandable. Similar to Professor Steinberg, one can feel the deep affection to the subject matter. However it did feel like many of the horrors were minimized (though granted any course is too short to encompass the immensity of the horrors produced by the Soviet system)
Date published: 2016-11-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Rigorously toes the party line We all know the standard US theory of Soviet Communism --- worst thing in history, created by monsters, doomed to fail, blah blah. When I started this course I hoped for substantially more than that, for genuine insight into how the system could persist for so long and achieve so much (eg industrialization of Russia, defeat of the Nazis, H-bombs and satellites) if it were so hated and so incompetent. Sadly this course adds no such insight; all we get is the standard US ideology regurgitated. To give one example, we are told all about the evils and failures of collective farming (which, obviously did happen) but we are not given any sort of useful explanation as to why this occurred, and how it might be placed in the context of industrialization as a whole (including the industrialization of agriculture). If you want your prejudices stoked and refueled, this is a fine course. But if you want actual UNDERSTANDING, you're far better off reading something like On Stalin's Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick, or Red Plenty by Francis Spufford.
Date published: 2016-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehesive survey of Soviet Political history Obviously, Russia has played a huge role in the 20th century political arena, with Russia emerging as one of two superpowers after WWII, for the first time in its history playing such a central role. Other than this course there is no other course within the TGC that focuses exclusively on this important and really quite fascinating historical phenomenon. “History of Russia…”, given by Professor Steinberg does allocate approximately one third of the lectures to this subject, and I found the lectures to be well structured and interesting. The central topic of the course, however, is earlier Russian history, with more emphasis on social aspects. This course is dedicated strictly to political Soviet history. The course plots in the first four lectures the state of Russia on the eve of the Soviet takeover, in which it is ruled by a despotic, Tzarist regime, and has an economy overwhelmingly agricultural and backward in relation to Europe in many ways. It was still a significant territorial empire however, though it had suffered a few rather embarrassing military defeats in the decades before. From that point on, Professor Hamburg provides an interesting and comprehensive account of how it came about that the Marxist socialist theory found its first and most important manifestation in Russia (the place it was almost least expected to take roots), and how it ruled once it did gain power. Professor Hamburg stresses that although the inspiration for the Bolshevik revolution was Marxist in its origins, it quite quickly developed into something well outside of what Marx had described. In fact, Marx was in many focused pragmatically on how to get the Proletarian masses to “unite and lose their chains”, and gave much less thought to how they would govern once they did gain control. Lectures five and six are focused on the Soviet uprising, and Lenin’s eventual total rule of power. The heart of the course (lectures eight to twelve) is given over to describing Stalinist Russia, the phase in which the Totalitarian regime reaches its most monstrous and tragic proportions, with the rest of the lectures describing Soviet WWII, the break of the Cold War, and the gradual but steady waning of the Soviet totalitarian power until break of the Soviet Union during the Yeltzin presidency. The narrative account of the development of unique, universally horrifying modes of rule that developed in Soviet Russia are really the heart, and I found them to be particularly well structured and interesting. I enjoyed Professor Hamburg’s sober lecturing style and found the lectures easily understandable and quite comprehensive. My one criticism of the presentation has to so with the professor’s obvious revulsion in describing some of the more horrific aspects of the Soviet Totalitarian government. Obviously, the material inevitably creates strong emotions, but I felt that the Professor’s strong explicit bias was well beyond serving the purpose. Other than that , I enjoyed the course and the Professor’s presentation very much.
Date published: 2016-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tremendous insight into communism's rise and fall This is perhaps the best Teaching Company course I've listened to out of 30 or so. The professor imparts his personal passion for the subject and I liked that he was generous in citing books and authors for additional info. His humor really comes out after a few lectures. The most important things I learned were that the majority of the Russian population was heavily predisposed to a socialist/commune like philosophy based on the village structure long before there was communism (predating Marx), and that the soviets could never break away from the ingrained czarist era bureaucratic slothful attitudes, which ended up even frustrating Stalin. Another plus: these lectures are 45 minutes. A minus: they stop at Yeltsin.
Date published: 2016-08-19
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