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 48.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Painful I had high hopes for this course because it dedicated a good amount of time (12 plus hours) to a short period of historical time (20th Century). This laser-focus attention usually signifies a great opportunity to learn a lot of new things about the subject at hand and not just review the major events we are already familiar with during the condensed time period. Unfortunately, at course's end I can't say I can really recall learning anything new that isn't present in the various other courses from TGC centering around Russia and the time period in general. In fact there were events that inexplicably weren't even touched on at all such as the Berlin airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War barely had a few moments time dedicated to it. My childhood coincided with the tail end of the Cold War and I remember how large of a shadow it cast on the lives of every person in everyday life. How can a course on the USSR not cover the Cold War in more depth? When you have 12 hours to discuss a short period of historical time why would you leave out some of the most defining events of the Cold War? I was excited to understand the Cold War from the Russian point of view but instead we got none of that. While I wasn't a big fan of the "A History of Russia - From Peter the Great to Gorbachev" course, you will learn more there in my opinion. And of course there are numerous other courses that cover Russia during the time period surveyed that I would highly recommend: 1- War, Peace, and Power: Diplomatic History of Europe, 1500-2000 2- Foundations of Western Civilization II: A History of the Modern Western World 3- Europe and Western Civilization in the Modern Age 4- World War I: The "Great War" 5- World War II: A Military and Social History 6- World War II: Battlefield Europe The professor's talking style made it difficult to get fully engrossed in the course. He speaks slow, sounds somewhat sleepy, and his statements/conclusions aren't exactly earth-shattering or at least thought-provoking. I hate to hold one's talking style against them because we all have our idiosyncrasies but the reality is I just couldn't get engaged. Another turn off was his constant sighing or laughing. The former gave the impression he was either tired or dreading how to take up the task of tackling the next subject and the latter (while meant as a way to reinforce how obviously terrible the communist state conducted themselves) was not appropriate for the topics he was discussing. The first time I can understand his frame of mind but the continuous habit was so out of place. Even if he wasn't trying to be dismissive of the topics at hand, the gravity of the atrocities didn't warrant such a constant reaction. If you are interested in Russian history and are debating which course to select from TGC catalog, I would recommend going with one of the other courses I referenced above.
Date published: 2020-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So intriguing I am so glad I took this course. The professor was clear, concise and easy to follow. The professor's voice and affect are a little dull, but his wealth of information, his choices of what to cover and his teaching style compensated for that. The material was so fascinating, I told my friends and family tidbits I had learned from the course all the time. Despite listening to hours and hours of this comprehensive course, it made me want to learn even more! I think that's the sign of a good teacher.
Date published: 2020-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bears Repeated Listening I love this course and have listened to it every couple of years since I bought it. What I really love the most I think is the instructor's human perspective: he doesn't focus so much on ideology as on the experience of living within the civilization of Soviet Russia. To that end we learn about what people had to eat, the conditions under which they had to work and - I think this was my favorite part -- the jokes they told. That's important in a country with an unfree press where records were regularly falsified and doctored and where a heterodox comment could get you sent to the gulag: a joke reflects people's understanding of what was really going on, even if it's artful and oblique. The audio was a little difficult at some points. I think it's one of the earlier courses developed by TGC/TTC.
Date published: 2019-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Seventy-Four Years That Shook the World In this course, now available only as audio download, Professor Gary Hamburg tells a good, sad story about twentieth-century Russia and the Soviet Union. All the big depressing events are here: the failed Revolution of 1905, defeat in World War I, the brief opening of liberal possibility in the February Revolution of 1917 and the turn toward dictatorship in the Bolshevik coup of October (by the old Orthodox calendar), the Civil War and its famines, collectivization and its famines, the great purges and show trials from 1934 to 1938, the early disasters of World War II, the limits of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, the maintenance of party orthodoxy under Brezhnev, the fumbling reforms of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s complete collapse in 1991, and the uncertainty of the early post-Soviet era. Despite being now twenty years old and therefore rather dated, the course is well-worth buying and listening to. His description of Russian political parties from 1906 to 1917 in Lecture 2 is particularly good. Now there are some problems. Hamburg should have compressed his discussion of pre-Soviet Russia somewhat to make room for more material on the USSR itself; he does not even reach the Russian Revolution until Lecture 5, and this is with lectures lasting 45 minutes each. I would have liked more discussion of the Soviet planned economy, its organization and its successes as well as the more obvious and fatal failures. Furthermore, the USSR was not entirely a tale of woe, and Hamburg should have covered the positive aspects. The period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s were the “good years” when hunger disappeared and people at last enjoyed rising standards of living, with some access to consumer products and opportunities for leisure. At the same time the USSR enjoyed an imperial domination over Eastern Europe, inspired Third World regimes and revolutionary movements, commanded fear in the capitalist West, and beat the US into outer space. It’s no wonder the USSR looked good in hindsight to Russians suffering from crime, corruption, poverty and national humiliation under Yeltsin. Finally, for those who mind such things, the professor occasionally pounds the podium for emphasis and for some reason you can hear some guy laughing in the background at Hamburg’s occasional funny anecdotes or wry quips. Hamburg mostly avoids making any overall historiographical arguments about the USSR, though he clearly disapproves of the regime. To what extent was the Soviet Union a completely “new” society and to what extent a continuation of Tsarist Russia? To what extent was the Great Terror a matter of Stalin’s personal choice and to what extent the result of forces and stresses he unleashed in the 5-Year Plans? How did popular support for the regime vary over time and place? Was the USSR’s failure in 1991 foreordained or could better policy choices in the 1970s and 80s have prolonged its life indefinitely? To cover these and other issues in greater depth, and to take advantage of scholarship that has emerged since 1998, I strongly encourage the Teaching Company to prepare a second edition of this course.
Date published: 2018-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course. Full of useful information. Only wish it had been longer so the professor could have given more detail.
Date published: 2018-12-13
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
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