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SL12: Socialist Russia 1917-1991

This paper is suspended for the academic year 2023-24.

The spectre of the Soviet Union has, in recent years, returned to haunt Western perceptions of Russia in sources as diverse as the news media—with the perennial comparisons between Putin and Stalin—to Hollywood blockbusters, where Russian master-criminals sport hammer and sickle prison tattoos. The implicit claim is that the Soviet legacy, more than that of any other period, has shaped Russia as we know it today. This paper will explore the first part of this claim by leading you through the Soviet period, from the October Revolution in 1917 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. We will examine both the history and the historiography of the period, tracing how historians have interpreted and debated topics such as the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Stalin, the push to construct socialism, the Terror, the (inescapable?) legacy of Stalin, the Cold War, perestroika and glasnost', and the collapse of the USSR.

We will examine the ‘Soviet experiment’ to reshape political structures, economic relations, society and human nature itself. We will assess the achievements and costs of this epic undertaking from a variety of perspectives: from the central leadership who achieved a position of authority rivaling that of history’s most powerful dictators, to the ‘enemies of the people’ who paid with their freedom and lives for Soviet Great Power status; from the Stalin-era peasants who were educated and promoted through the ranks of the nomenklatura, to the Brezhnev-era apparatchiki who got on with life thanks to access to black markets and deals on the side. By the end of the paper, students will be equipped to engage critically with the so-called new Cold War discourse that posits the Russia of today as simply the Soviet Union in disguise.

To download the course handbook please click here

  • Revolutionary Period
  • Socialist Construction, 1928-32
  • Power in Stalin’s Russia, 1924-39
  • Society & War, 1928-45
  • Late Stalinism & the Cold War, 1945-91
  • Destalinization & Stagnation, 1953-82
  • Reform & Collapse, 1985-91
  • Primary sources:
  1. Заседание ЦК РСДРП(б) января и февраля 1918 г.
  2. И. В. Сталин, Головокружение от успехов. К вопросам колхозного движения.
  3. Н. С. Хрущев, Доклад на закрытом заседании XX съезда КПСС.
  4. М. С. Горбачев, Речь на тринадцатом заседании XXVIII съезда КПСС.
Preparatory reading: 

1       You should familiarize yourself thoroughly with the course handbook.

2       Familiarise yourself also with the general progression of Soviet history by reading through one or more of the following:

  • Applebaum, Anne, Red Famine. Stalin's War on Ukraine (2017)
  • Figes, Orlando, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 (2014)
  • Kenez, Peter, A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End (2006)
  • Lovell, Stephen, The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (2009)
  • Suny, Ronald Grigor,The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (2010)

3       There will be a briefing meeting at the beginning of Michaelmas term that everyone must attend.

4       Visit the SL12 Moodle page for readings and other resources.

Teaching and learning: 

The course comprises four elements: lectures, seminars, supervisions and reading.

Lectures: there are sixteen lectures, eight in Michaelmas and eight in Lent.

Seminars: there are four seminars in Easter term.

Supervisions: there are ten supervisions: four in Michaelmas, four in Lent and two in Easter.

See course handbook for full details.

For the SL.12 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


Three-hour unseen paper divided into three sections. All candidates answer three questions: two on historical topics, one on a primary source.

See course handbook for full details.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Daria Mattingly

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