Third Year Option: ‘The Soviet Union and Stalin, 1917-1953’

<image src="" height="248px" alt="Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin, 1919" width="720px">

One popular option among students studying modern European history at Glamorgan is Norry LaPorte’s third year module on ‘The Russian Revolutions and the Soviet Union, 1917-1953’. A typical class deals with the rise of Stalin to absolute power during the 1920s.

Many leading personalities in history have been more than historical actors. By writing memoirs and other accounts of the events they were involved in, they aim to frame the subsequent historical debate. Trotsky was famously one such figure. His eloquent writings on the power struggle to succeed Lenin, after his death in 1924, were influential in prompting generations of scholars to dismiss Stalin as a power-hungry thug with no understanding of Marxism. One man, not the new Soviet system, could be blamed for the degeneration of the evolution, from bright new dawn of the ‘red October’ to the dungeons of the secret police’s torture chambers. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the way to new research which used newly available documentary sources to question seeming certainties. Historians became familiar with previously unknown aspects of Stalin, the Georgian poet and intellectual whose appeal to ‘workers from the bench’ with radical polices were as important as his manipulation of the party machine in becoming Soviet Russia’s bloody, undisputed leader. Trotsky – the writer of history – was shown to have been as politically incompetent as he was intellectually gifted.

Students studying this topic engage with contemporary accounts of how Stalin came to power, questioning them in the light of the new findings and interpretations of new literature – such as Dimitri Volkoganov’s monumental biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. There is only one problem with studying the fall of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union – how do you put the books down or walk out of the seminar room?