Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

Module code: HS2348

Module co-ordinator: Dr Zoe Knox

Module Outline

The Soviet experiment was one of the boldest and most ambitious political projects of the twentieth century. V.I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were dedicated to the transformation of all aspects of society, and sought to destroy all vestiges of the Imperial regime. This module examines the creation of the world’s first socialist state and the changing features of Soviet politics, culture and society over the seven decades of communist rule. Students examine a wide range of sources to study both the rulers and the ruled. This module also encourages students to consider the legacy of the Soviet past on Russia today.

Topics covered

This module examines urban and rural unrest in late Imperial Russia; the rise of Bolshevism and the new revolutionary culture; the consolidation of Soviet power; the brutality of J.V. Stalin’s rule and everyday life in the 1930s; the ‘Great Patriotic War’; the communist takeovers of Eastern Europe; de-Stalinisation and the cultural thaw under N.S. Khrushchev; and the ‘era of stagnation’ under L.I. Brezhnev. It concludes with an examination of M.S. Gorbachev’s reforms, which led to the sudden end of the Soviet experiment.


Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union is taught through twenty lectures, each an hour long, which run alongside ten seminars, also an hour long. The lectures introduce students to central themes and concepts in Soviet history as well as key historiographical debates. The seminars examine narrower themes and are heavily based on student discussion. At the heart of the discussion are a wide array of primary source materials, ranging from the documentary films of Dziga Vertov, which capture so well the Bolshevik preoccupation with technology and progress; the reminiscences of Soviet baby boomers, who often recall happy childhoods and reveal a nostalgia for the Brezhnev era; and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a gripping account of a prisoner’s everyday life in the Gulag system.


Assessment 100% coursework, which is one essay of 5,000 words. Students choose one from a wide range of essay questions, allowing them to concentrate on those aspects of Soviet history that they find most compelling.


E. Acton & T. Stableford, The Soviet Union: A Documentary History, Volume 1, 1917-1940 (Exeter, 2005) and Volume 2, 1939-1991 (Exeter, 2007).
R. G. Suny (ed.), The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents (Oxford, 2003).