Alexander Rodchenko, Poster, 1924

Soviet Life: Communism, Transformation, and Reflection

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
The Workmen’s Circle
247 West 37th St, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018

2017 marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution and the origin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. What can we learn today from the twentieth century’s great experiment in “Actually Existing Socialism”? And how does the Soviet experience speak to current questions of social and political theory generated by its supposed conquerors, the twenty-first century United States and the European Union?

As the end of the 20th century approached, the Soviet Union and the experiences of its people seemed to recede as a kind of side story in the triumphant march of liberal democracy toward the “End of History.” However, as the instability of the post-Cold War era comes into ever greater relief, questions about the events, experiences, ideas, organizations, and forces that once propelled Soviet Communism are more relevant than ever. In this class, students will read a selection of literary, historical, ethnographic, and critical theoretical reflections on the Soviet Union. We will focus on four key “images,” –  slices of Soviet history and life that elucidate crucial questions for the present moment: the Revolutionary period through the New Economic Program, Stalinist terror and the Second World War, the Khrushchev thaw and attempt to fulfill the communist economic vision, and the eventual decline and collapse of the Soviet Union. While the class will cover key historical events, economic questions, and political decisions that came to define the Soviet Union, readings will focus on the experience of Soviet life and on forgotten or submerged ideas that are often lost in the mass of Soviet history.

We will ask both historical and philosophical questions, as well as explore technical discussions about Soviet organization, economy, and technology. How did the world’s first proletarian revolution come about? How did ordinary Soviet citizens transform over the course of Soviet history? What challenges did the Soviets face? What does the Soviet experience tell us about everything from ecological disaster to “essential” human nature, economics, and art? Readings will include excerpts from Ten Days that Shook the World by Jack Reed, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution by Stephen Cohen, The Russian Experiment in Art by Camilla Gray, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, Magnetic Mountain by Stephen Kotkin, Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, Dreamworld and Catastrophe by Susan Buck-Morss, Molecular Red by McKenzie Wark, and works of by Andrei Platonov, among others. We will also watch Soviet cartoons, films, television advertisements, alongside considerations of Soviet arts, music, and design.  

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm
April 03 — May 01, 2017
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet on April 10, 2017.

All students receive a complimentary copy of Jack Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World courtesy of Penguin Classics.


Registration Open