The Soviet Empire: National and Transnational Perspectives

Course Description: 

In 1917 there was no strict division between the foreign and the domestic as the Bolsheviks sought to export revolution to the former lands of the tsarist empire. In any case, nations were only historical stages to be passed through on the march to Communism, according to Marxist logic. As the revolutionary cycle cooled, the Soviets employed the nation as tool and building block to retain this empire, in the form of national republics and as a basic policy assumption, but always with an eye trained abroad. Over time, the Soviet regime became reliant on nationality thinking and applied the category across its borders, into its new conquests in Eastern Europe as well as the Third World. Ultimately, “nationalities logic” became a key plank in Soviet policy until the regime’s demise.

This course studies the development and deployment of “nationality thinking” at home and abroad, paying special attention to how the two were interrelated. It is also a thematic approach to some of the most important recent scholarship on the Soviet Union, namely the Imperial and Transnational Turns. Rather than being a comprehensive survey, the course aims to look at the most innovative scholarship from recent years, especially to analyze the relationship between the foreign and the domestic. As such, certain topics from the Imperial Turn – such as gender in Central Asia, national deportations, etc. – and from the Transnational Turn – like design, consumerism, tourism, etc. – are underrepresented on the syllabus, though students are heartily encouraged to address them in their final papers.

The term “empire” in the course title is not meant as a pejorative, but a value-neutral descriptor. Empire both frustrates and demands definition, but at minimum it implies two qualities: first, it is big and expansive, and does not settle for ethnic boundaries; second, its diversity and size requires it to manage rather than expunge diversity. Empires require hierarchy and are usually led by an ethnically-defined elite, though this is debatably true for the Soviet case. The course examines how the Soviet empire transformed in various historical periods, each time by employing but also modifying its national thinking. 

Learning Outcomes: 
  • The ability to read and prepare for discussion complex readings across disciplines and familiarize oneself with key topics of Soviet history such as revolution, socialist nation-building, Stalinism, the Great Patriotic War, and the Cold War.
  • An understanding of key historiographical debates in transnational and New Imperial Soviet historiography, such as the debates about Soviet empire, national revolution, Stalinist vs. world culture, World War II-era entanglement and national transformation.
  • The ability to think critically about the connection between domestic and foreign policy; about the connection between culture and politics; and to make comparison within eras of Soviet history.
  • To present analyses and arguments clearly and concisely in accordance with the scholarly conventions of historical writing and oral presentations.
  • To read strategically for argument and be able to assess the merits and constructions of various texts. 

Students must write two short reading review essays (2-4pp.) over the course of the semester – either historiographical or by considering a primary source in light of a secondary one. Students are expected to participate vigorously in discussion. Each student will lead the class discussion at least once by briefly introducing the texts and providing the initial guiding questions (“five sentences; three questions.”) At the end of the semester each student will write a historiographical paper (8-10pp.) on a relevant theme of their choosing. Papers should address between 3-5 sources. Students should consult with me before both their oral presentation and the final paper.


Two review essays                                          30%

Class participation (incl. one presentation)     20%

Historiographical essay                                   50%

Class Attendance

Regular attendance is mandatory in all classes. A student who misses more than two units (two 100-minute sessions) in any 2 or 4 credit class without a verified reason beyond the student's control must submit an 8-10 page paper assigned by the professor, which as a rule covers the material in the class missed. The paper is due no later than 3 weeks after the missed class.