Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

map of the Soviet Union

Advanced-level course, Western Civilization gen ed  

Email: Dr. Victoria  Vernon, Empire State College

…”Capitalism makes social errors. Socialism makes capital errors.”

…”Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s the opposite.”

The rise and fall of the centrally planned economies was one of the most important events of the 20th Century.  At its greatest extent the Soviet Union covered one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass. It spanned 11 time zones and contained over 100 distinct nationalities. In the 74 years from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Communism in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, its leaders and its people, had to face a number of challenges: the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy, the establishment of a new state, four years of civil war, a famine, political strife, industrialization, collectivization, political repressions, World War II, post-war reconstruction, economic growth and decline. In this course we examine the origins of Communism, main events and policies in USSR, and the challenges of transition from central planning to a market system.


Choose any History of the USSR book,  or study only from online resources. Suggested books are below.  The goals is to learn history and demonstrate your knowledge via intelligent answers to discussion questions under each module.  Chapter readings below are based on Kenez, other suggested books are similar in content. Books are cheap on www.abe.com, and free in your local library or on ESC e-Library .

History of the USSR :

  • Peter Kenez, A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End
  • Richard Sakwa, Soviet Politics in Perspective, 1998   – e-Library
  • MacKenzie and Curran, Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century
  • Gregory P. & Stuart R. Russian and Soviet Economic Performance and Structure (6th or 7th ed.), 1998 or 2001
  • Spulber, Nicolas. Russia’s Economic Transitions, 2003 – e-Library
  • Busky,Donald. From Utopian Socialism to the Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 2002 –e-Library
  • Sakwa R, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991, 1999 – history viewed through a collection of documents
  • (history after 1970) Kotkin, Stephen. Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000 e-Library
  • White, Stephen, Communism and Its Collapse –  e-Library

Topic, study links, homeworks

1. Origins of communism, Marx, Tsarist Russia (Kenez ch 1-2)
2.  Soviet Union 1917-29:  Revolution, War Communism, New Economic Policy (Kenez ch 2-4)
3. Stalin’s era 1929-1953: Collectivization, Industrialization, the Great Purges, GULAG, WW2

4. Centrally Planned Economy: labor, managerial incentives, prices, money (Kenez ch 5-7)

5.  Superpower 1950s-80s: cold war, slow down, reforms (Kenez Ch.8-9)

6.  USSR in 1980-90s: Perestroika, collapse of the Soviet Empire (Kenez Ch.10-11)

7.  Transition from plan to market

8. Economic systems

Final project: Book report or research article (8-10 pages, choose one)

Book report

Describe the story line or book organization. Mention several new facts you have learned from this book. Quote the book.  Comment on one aspect or element of the Soviet life in the 1930-50s that drew your attention. It could be related to working conditions, social interactions, popular attitudes toward Soviet economic policy, values, or the operation of the economic system. For an excellent grade research a bit more around the subject and add 2-3 more sources to your report (sources may include videos, audio books, newspaper artices, etc).

Suggested books

  • Gregory, Lazarev. 2003. The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag. – online book
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary life in extraordinary times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. – e-Library
  • Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History, 2004   Intro chapter from this book  – e-Library
  • Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism As a Civilization
  • Paul Gregory’s The Political Economy of Stalinism. Preview this book here.
  • Boobbyer, Philip. Stalin Era, 2000collection of documents –  e-Library
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn, GULAG Archipelago – fiction
  • Solzhenitsyn, One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich -fiction
  • Rybakov, Children of the Arbat – fiction
  • any other book or a movie of your choice on Stalin era

Research article 

Come up with your own project idea and have it approved, or use one below.

Country project idea 

Choose a country, research the country’s experience with socialism, and write an article based on your research.  The article should be 10 pages, including graphs, charts and references.  List of countries: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus. Suggested structure for the expert article

  1. Before central planning. Give a brief overview of the country’s economy before it became centrally planned. What were irs leading industries? Was it open to trade? What was the appeal of communism?
  2. Central planning. What policies were implemented under central planning? Which industries developed?  Where appropriate, connect main events, policies and attempts to reform in the country of your choice to the events and policies in Russia. How did the economy perform relative to other countries?  What were the main achievements and drawbacks of the regime?
  3. Transition. How was it implemented?  Mention trends in output, privatization, rule of law, poverty, social safety net, key government policies. Discuss successful policies and failed policies.  Has the country built a market economy?
  4. Economy today.  Where does the country stand relative to the rest of the world?  Discuss current state of the economy, leading industries, trade with other countries, major issues and problems to be solved.    
  5. One current economic issue.  Pick one issue specific to this country (eg: exchange rate, health, education-related, corruption, environment, hi tech sector, immigration).Discuss why it is important and recent developments. Give a few numbers.  If it is a problem, how is it being addressed? Suggest what policies can solve it.  Remember to focus on the ECONOMY and ECONOMIC policies, and less on politics, geography and everything else.

Other research ideas

  • Emergence of capitalism in Tsarist Russia
  • Culture, theater, sports, or science in USSR
  • Income inequality in the Former Soviet Union
  • Brain drain from the former Soviet Union
  • Gender issues in the USSR
  • Forced migration in the USSR
  • Corruption under central planning
  • Black markets under central planning
  • The rule of law and organized crime in today’s Russia.

Here is a sample article written by a student on one of the issues. Below are resources for your research.



GOOD FICTION WORTH READING, full texts in English:

 Ilf and Petrov, The Twelve Chairs
 Free Water  by B.Caplan, funny
 George Orwell, “1984”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *