Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Pushkin’s Literary Revolution (Week 9, Day 2)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our second video for Week 9, and our subject is Alexander Pushkin’s Literary Revolution. Our teaching assistant today is Maggie. I have one announcement for you. Looking ahead to next week, please note that for Wee 10, Day 1, you should read chapter 6 in Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform. You should also read one of the philosophical primary sources—either Kireevskii’s essay or Belinskii’s essay. If you have time to read both, that would be fantastic. But if not, you can read just one of those.

Today we’ll be discussing three short works by Alexander Pushkin, who is often called the “Father of Russian Literature.” In Russia, people think about Pushkin in a similar way to how we think about Shakespeare. He wasn’t the first person to write poetry and prose in Russian, but he was one of Russia’s first significant writers, and certainly the one whose works are most commonly still read today. Pushkin is a revolutionary figure in the sense that the way he wrote revolutionized Russian literary language had a profound impact on the development of Russian literature after his death.

Russia, of course, had a written tradition long before Pushkin. There are epics, folk tales, and church chronicles that go back to the early days of Kievan Rus in the ninth century. But Russian literature in the modern sense, new works created by individual authors for a literate public, really got started under Catherine II. As we’ve learned, Catherine greatly expanded education, particularly among the gentry, and encouraged the development of a civil society that debated social issues through the written word. Thanks to her prompting, Alexander Radishchev, whose epistolary novel A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow we read in Unit II, became one of Russia’s first prose writers. And some of Russia’s first poets and playwrights, people like Alexander Sumarokov and Denis Fonvizin, also began their literary careers under Catherine. Poetry and drama were the dominant genres during her reign, and even Catherine herself wrote plays meant to enlighten her subjects.

The first half of the 19th century, the reigns of Paul, Alexander I and Nicholas I, is considered the Golden Age of Russian literature: a period in which Catherine’s efforts to bring Russia’s cultural life up to par with the rest of Europe bore fruit, and a profusion of poets, playwrights, and novelists burst onto the scene. Nikolai Karamzin wrote the first formal history of Russia in the 1810’s under a commission from Alexander I, and he also pioneered the genre of sentimental literature with his short stories. Several important writers soon followed, including poets, playwrights, and satirists. But while Pushkin built on these founding fathers in his own work, none of them had the lasting influence on Russian literary language that Pushkin did. When we read their poems and plays today, they are still beautiful, but they have a stiff, formal quality that makes them feel more like museum pieces. Pushkin’s works, by contrast, still feel warm and alive. As you read for today, I encourage you to try to identify the stylistic characteristics that make Pushkin’s work so vibrant 200 year after he wrote them.

Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799, the son of a very privileged old noble family. On his mother’s side, he was descended from a man called Ibrahim Gannibal, an Ethiopian prince who  as a child had been captured by the Ottoman Sultan, kidnapped from the Ottoman court by a Russian diplomat, and given as a gift to Peter the Great. This is a pretty racist start to Gannibal’s story. Fortunately, in this case, as always, Peter was more interested in talent than origins. Gannibal was smart and ambitious; Peter provided him with a good education and placed him in the officer corps, where he rose through the ranks to noble status and married into the Russian nobility. Pushkin was fascinated by this remarkable ancestor and wrote a novel about him called The Moor of Peter the Great.

As was typical for the Russian nobility in the 19th century, Pushkin’s first language was French. He attended an elite French-language school established by Alexander I for the sons of the nobility and began writing poetry while still a student. Pushkin’s first poems were in French. But Russian nationalism was on the rise in this era, particularly after the Russian Army defeated Napoleon. As Pushkin began to make his career as an official in St. Petersburg, he soon began writing in Russian.

Pushkin himself was a little too young to have fought in the Napoleonic Wars, but he had friends who were veterans. In particular, he became close with several of the Decembrists. Pushkin sympathized with their politics but didn’t take part in the Decembrist Revolt; he was not in St. Petersburg at the time. After the revolt failed and the Decembrists were sentenced to prison, Pushkin wrote several poems honoring them, which helped to ensure they were remembered as heroes by educated society.

Why wasn’t Pushkin in St. Petersburg in 1825? Because he was in exile. Pushkin was a bit of a prankster. He liked to push the boundaries, especially by espousing liberal ideas in his poems. Alexander I was pretty lenient with him, but in 1820, he decided Pushkin had gone too far and sent him to Ukraine, where he would be out of the way. Pushkin still managed to cause trouble from there, though, so Alexander ordered him confined to his mother’s estate near the provincial city of Pskov. During these years of exile, Pushkin did a lot of traveling, including in the Caucasus, where he gathered material for “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which he wrote in 1822, and other works.

Up to this point, Pushkin had been writing poetry, plays, and short stories. In 1825, he began pushing beyond these genres. That year, he began one of his most famous works, Evgeny Onegin, which he called a “novel in verse.” And he also began writing some prose novels, a genre he continued to develop for the next ten years.

In 1826, shortly after taking the throne, Nicholas I allowed Pushkin to return to St. Petersburg, on the condition that Nicholas would act as his personal censor. This was restrictive, but it ended up being a very productive period for Pushkin. In these years, he wrote both “The Bronze Horseman” and “The Queen of Spades.” Unfortunately, his flow of long poems and novels was cut short in 1837. Like many noblemen of this period, Pushkin fought a lot of duels. In 1837, his luck ran out, and he was killed in one. He was 37 years old.

Russian society reacted to Pushkin’s death as a tragedy. His legacy was celebrated right up to 1917. As we’ll discuss in couple weeks, the early Soviet state had no interest in the literature of the “old guard.” But in the 1930s, priorities shifted, and Pushkin was remade as a hero of Soviet literature, as well. He remains a significant writer in Russia today.

Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. I chose these three texts to give you a sense of Pushkin’s style as both a poet and a prose writer. What stylistic elements that stand out to you? In other words, if a friend asked you, “What is Pushkin’s writing like?”, how would you answer? Do you prefer his poetry or his prose, and why? What do you make of his combination of poetry and prose in “Prisoner of the Caucasus”? What characteristics make Pushkin’s writing still enjoyable to read today? Do you think we still read his works because of his merits as a writer, or just because he’s a “classic”?

2. In “The Bronze Horseman,” what sense do we get of St. Petersburg as an imperial city? In the Introduction, what qualities does the narrator praise it for? How does this poem add complexity to the understanding of St. Petersburg we developed in our previous class? How does it help us understand how Russians in the 19th century thought about Peter the Great?

3. Consider the way Pushkin characterizes nature in this poem. How does he characterize the Neva, the river on which the city is built? How does he set up an opposition between nature and human power? What is Pushkin’s message here?

Compare the nature imagery in “The Bronze Horseman” to that in “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” particularly on pp. 136-137. Analyze the similarities and differences? Is this the same “nature” in both pieces or not?

4. The hero of “The Bronze Horseman” is Evgeny, an insignificant but honest person who gets caught in the flood, loses everything, and goes mad. The city returns to normal, but Evgeny doesn’t.  How does Pushkin want us to understand this situation? Is Evgeny just a poor fool, or does he have the moral high ground? How does Pushkin use language to shape our understanding? In Evgeny’s encounter with the statue of the Bronze Horseman (Peter the Great), what is Pushkin’s message about autocracy?

5. Hermann, the hero of “The Queen of Spades,” is also an insignificant person. But his character is more complex than Evgeny’s. What do you make of Hermann? Is he a master, a monster, or something in between? What aspects of his personality does Pushkin highlight, and with what valuation? In your analysis, is Pushkin setting Hermann up as a unique case, or as typical of his generation and class? Why do you think Pushkin prefers humble heroes to grander ones? Why does he have them both go mad? How are these things useful literary devices for a writer who is also a social critic?

6. Consider the social scene Pushkin describes in “The Queen of Spades.” Thinking like historians, what can we learn about society in early 19th century Imperial Russia? What are its values? What are its glories? What are its problems? If Peter I or Catherine II were able to observe it, would they see it as a triumph of their policies or not?

7. The heroine of “The Queen of Spades” is Lizaveta Ivanovna, also called Lizanka. How does Pushkin use her to highlight problems in Russian society? What qualities does he praise her for? How does his description of Lizanka in this story compare to his description of the Circassian girl in “Prisoner of the Caucasus”? What is Pushkin’s vision of a “good” woman? Do you agree or disagree with his views?

8. The other strong female presence in “The Queen of Spades” is Countess N. She is clearly not shy. On p.216, she is very vocal in bullying Lizanka. Yet, when Hermann confronts her on pp. 224-225, and demands her secret, she is completely silent. Compare this to the silence of the Bronze Horseman statue on pp.128-129 of the poem. Unpack Pushkin’s understanding of the nature of power based on these passages?

9. The imagery in the first paragraph of “Prisoner of the Caucasus” sets up the two main themes of this text, which Pushkin explores throughout Part One: lushly cinematic nature imagery and an imperialist vision of “noble savages” who thrive on war. Compare this to Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, which we read a few weeks ago. How does Hadji Murat, which was written 80 years later, help us understand Pushkin’s legacy in Russian literature?

10. “Prisoner of the Caucasus” is an example of “sentimental literature,” a 19th century style that focused on love and tragedy. While Hermann in “The Queen of Spades” is ruled by his greed, the Russian in “Prisoner” is ruled by his emotions (though it’s worth considering that both are motivated by passion!). Can you analyze the love story between the Russian prisoner and the Circassian girl? Is he really not capable of loving again, or is he just too self-absorbed and emo to try? Does she share his understanding of love from the start, or does she learn it from him? If the latter, is he morally responsible for her suicide? Does their love story end in tragedy because they are star-crossed, or because a successful romance between a Russian and a Circassian is unthinkable for Pushkin?

Discussion Questions 3/30/20

As mentioned by Erik, it has been discussed in class how Peter the Great’s era was a time of great social and political change. This unit, the focus of analysis comes to the degree at which Peter also affected the culture of Russia during his reign. Peter as leader realized that the world around him was changing, modernizing so to speak, and because of that the art/architecture/literature reflected that. Peter also added his own influence to the changes that were being made at the time and as historians it is our job to distinguish the two. Not only does this area of focus pertain specifically to Peter and Russian culture, but as well as the essential questions of what makes a cultural revolution in a particular society. Please consider the following questions in relation to this post:

  1. Similar to Erik’s question and the claim made by Cracraft, however my question takes a more fundamental approach. Instead of asking the validity behind the claim of Peter’s cultural revolution being at the “base” of all of his others- I am asking if it is possible for any form of revolution to take place without automatically and simultaneously ensuing all other forms of revolution? To more plainly put, the question becomes could Peter have still separately concluded is societal and political revolutions without naturally ensuing a cultural revolution as well? How does this thought process and question apply to the idea of “revolution” generally?
  2. Peter’s cultural era was known for its way of removing or replacing certain types of iconography or symbolism that had been associated with a previous era or culture. Historically and in terms of ethics, was this practice efficient? Is it the “morally” right thing to do to remove art in order impose one’s own definitions of what art is? Similar to the way historical narrative can be rewritten either by the victor or by some discovery down the road, does the manipulation of art/cultural narrative in real time equate to that of altering a historical event’s narrative as a whole?
  3. It is also very important to note that Peter did not just influence art and literature but also architecture as well. Even before the time of Peter, Russian architecture had its own distinct style. For the case of this unit the question becomes what were the super-imposing features of Petrine Architecture? At first glance, what does this form and style psychologically instill for a viewer? Feelings of intimidation, reverence, or welcoming perhaps? Could parallels between Peter’s style of rule and this style of architecture be made?
  4. Dr. Goldman in her slide show displayed the vast differences between Peter’s “Little House” and The Winter Palace that he would later move into. This momentous shift in size and architecture of his domicile obviously reveals something about his want to change Russian culture in this way. However, what can this transition reveal to us as historians about Peter’s life at this time? Were there any other distinct and large changes in Russian culture at the same time as this? Could it be argued that there was one distinct event/encounter that would lead to the way Peter shaped Russian culture? And for fun, where would you want to live- “Little House” or Winter Palace?

Peter’s Cultural Revolutions: Redefining Russia

As we have learned, Peter the Great’s Revolutions were expansive and grand. His revolutions of Russian culture were no different. Peter made vast changes to the Russian culture, Europeanizing and Secularizing Russian art, architecture, and language. While some changes were practical in the sense of “modernizing” Russia, other changes were made for the likeness and personality of Peter the Great. Overall, Peter redefined the “look” of Russia. According to Hughes, Western images and ideas described Russia with words like “exoticism” and “otherness” (54). Peter sought to change this perception. By changing the way Russia “looked,” with respect to its buildings, language, and art, Peter was revolutionizing Russia. Please consider the following discussion questions. Due to the inconvenience of remote learning, it was easier for John and I to make two separate posts. Please review both of our posts and questions. Thank You!

Discussion Questions

  1. On page 75, Cracraft makes the claim, “A cultural revolution thus underlay and ultimately linked up all of Peter’s revolutionary projects…” (75). Recall the political and social revolutions of Peter the Great. Is Cracraft true in saying that Peter’s cultural revolutions (the architectural, visual, and verbal) are the foundation of his other revolutions? Could Peter’s political and social revolutions survive without a change to culture? Consider one of many cultural revolutions that Cracraft details in Chapter 4. Is there a connection with this change, whether explicit or implicit, to other changes that Peter enacted in Russia?
  2. In Chapter 6, Cracraft details the development of St. Petersburg. He includes Pushkin’s description of St. Petersburg, calling it the “Window on the West” (155). What does this description mean? What does this tell us as to why Peter the Great relocated to St. Petersburg. Cracraft later critiques this descriptor of St. Petersburg as “too passive” (155). Do you agree with his critique? Why or why not?
  3. View the portraits of Tsar Alexei and Peter the Great, as showed in Hughes’ secondary source. Recall that “the only surviving dated image of Aleksei to be signed by an artist appears in the lower left-hand corner of an icon, The Tree of the Muscovite Realm (1668), by the court icon-painter Simon Ushakov” (Hughes 53). Peter’s portrait was an oil painting by Dutch painter, Carel Moore. What do the differences in artists tell us about Peter’s visual revolution? Peter’s lack of Orthodox iconography in his portrait is significant. Do you have to remove certain cultural aspects in order to establish a cultural revolution?
  4. The final question deals with the images and video of the Grand Peterhof Palace. What was your original reaction to the images and video? How does the background music in the video add (subtract) to (from) your reaction? Compare your reaction of the Grand Peterhof Palace to the pictures of slides 3-5 in Dr. Goldman’s slideshow. How do you make sense of the websites’ presentations of the Grand Peterhof Palace with Peter’s development of St. Petersburg?

Vanguard Video! Peter’s Cultural Revolution (Week 9, Day 1)

Please note! In this video, I will refer to a slide show of Petrine architecture and visual art. You can find it under Reading & Viewing Week 9 and here.

Hello, Revolutionaries! Welcome to Week 9. Today our teaching assistant is Maggie. I have a few quick announcements for you.

Congratulations on your Midterm Media Projects! I’m recording this on Friday, March 27. As of today, four groups have posted their videos on the blog, and they have received some great comments. Different groups have chosen different methods for sharing their videos, all of which seem to be working. In order to watch Owen and Max’s video about Tolstoy, you just need to click through and ask permission. As for myself, I think your videos are fantastic! I will send each group comments soon. For the two groups who have not been able to post your videos yet: keep plugging away and get them up as soon as you can. As you know, you don’t have to worry about a late penalty, but it will be good to get this project off your plate.

Similarly, some of you have not yet written anything on the blog. That’s okay; whenever you get your comments posted, you will get full credit. But I recommend that you try to keep up with our regular schedule, so things don’t pile up on you. If you have a particular situation that is making it hard for you to post on the blog, please let me know by email. I also want to clarify that if you decide to respond to my questions, you do not need to answer all of them. You can just pick one question to focus on.

Speaking of projects, we are coming up on the final paper assignment. Keep an eye out for that. I will email it to you and post it on the blog this week. It’s a good idea to start thinking about what you might like to write about. Keep in mind that you will only be using sources on our syllabus. We are not doing a research paper anymore.

Last but not least, it is my pleasure to announce that we are now starting UNIT III: Cultural Revolution! We have already examined political revolution and social revolution, and now we are going to look at the revolutionary waves that swept through Imperial Russian culture and Soviet culture from Peter the Great’s time through the end of the Soviet era. I encourage you to take stock of what we learned in Unit II, just like we did together in class at the end of Unit I. How do you now understand the concept of “social revolution” in Russian and Soviet history? What similarities and differences do you find between political revolution and social revolution? What do you hypothesize that what our study of cultural revolution will bring to the table? I also encourage you to question the boundaries that I’ve set on this syllabus. How do political and social revolutions interact in the material that we’ve studied? How separate or intertwined are they? Do you agree with the way I have classified the events we have studied? If not, how would you do it differently? This is also a good time to get in touch with your Timeline Group and decide who is going to post what to the Revolutions Timeline.

Okay, let’s get started on thinking about Peter’s Cultural Revolution. Since we’ve talked about the Petrine Era before, there isn’t really any need for me to give you more historical context. You basically know the lay of the land. With that in mind, I’ll jump into my discussion questions. I also want to remind you that Erik and John will be posting discussion questions for this material, too. You are welcome to respond to their questions instead of (or in addition to) mine.

A quick note on my questions: Normally, in class, we would discuss these questions while looking at a slide show. We can’t exactly do that in this video. I’ve put the slide show online for you and included slides with some questions. Please spend some time with it on your own and share your thoughts on the blog!

Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In chapter 4, Cracraft first discusses Peter’s architectural revolution. Peter decided to change the dominant architectural style in Russia to match what he saw during his Grand Embassy. Traditional Russian architecture was quite different, and European visitors reacted to it negatively. (See Slides 2-8.) On page 84, Cracraft quotes one European visitor sounding pretty disgusted by Moscow. But why does it matter what these visitors thought? Why did it matter to Peter? Why is it worth still studying their accounts today?

Relatedly, did the European visitors, and Peter himself, see Muscovite architecture as “backwards” and “primitive” because this was actually the case? Is it an inherently inferior, less sophisticated architectural style? How can we explain their view through historical context?

2. Compare John Perry’s description of Moscow on p.84 with the various description of St. Petersburg that Cracraft quotes on pages 147-154. In building St. Petersburg, did Peter succeed in revising how Western Europeans viewed Russia? What were the costs and benefits to Russia of making this drastic stylistic change?

3. In 1703, Peter founded St. Petersburg, a new capital city built on land newly conquered from the Swedish, while the Great Northern War was still going on. Look at Slides 9-11. This is a terrible place to build a major city. It’s cold and dark and marshy, and it floods a lot. What are the pros and cons of building a city in this spot? Why was it worth it to Peter to build a whole new capital city instead of reconstructing Moscow? How does the project of creating St. Petersburg fit into what we know about Peter as a ruler?

4. Now look through Slides 12-21, which show images of St. Petersburg’s layout and most famous buildings from Peter’s time. Consider the questions posed in the slide show.

5. Look at Slides 22-25. Consider these domestic spaces and the questions on Slide 22. Compare Peter’s two houses (the Domik and the first Winter Palace with the vides of the Grand Palace at Peterhof. Analyze Peter’s trajectory as a ruler, as expressed through his housing?

6. Cracraft tells us that Peter also created a revolution in artistic style. Look at Slides 28-37 and consider the questions posed in the slide show. Use Hughes’ essay “From Tsar to Emperor: Portraits of Aleksei and Peter I” to help you think through these issues.

7. The third strand of Peter’s cultural revolution, as identified by Cracraft, was his revolution in language. For each of his endeavors—bureaucratic restructuring, new scientific and technical knowledge, new artistic knowledge, new social practices—Peter sponsored the publication of a huge number of translated textbooks and guides. This introducing a huge number of loan words into Russian. Let’s consider this carefully, because it would have been possible to use Russian roots to construct new words to fit the new concepts Peter was introducing. In your analysis, why did he choose to go with loan words? What does this choice signal about Peter’s priorities?

8. In order to make this huge increase in printing possible, Peter reformed and simplified the Russian alphabet, establishing a new civil alphabet for secular publications while allowing the Church to continue to use the old alphabet for religious publications. Compare the two alphabets, which are images 27 and 28 in Cracraft’s book. What similarities and differences do you notice? What are the implications of having two different alphabets in use for these two types of texts? Why did he make this choice? What are the long term effects?

Rasputin’s Revolutionary Spark by Blake and Casey

When researching and discussing Grigori Rasputin, it quickly becomes clear that his presence in the Russian court took the Russian monarchy down a path for destruction. It is incredibly intriguing that a Siberian peasent was able to hold the ear of Russia’s most powerful family.

However, it is important to note that by the time Nicholas II came to the throne absolute monarchy was not the way it had been before. The monarchy was weak, especially once the Duma was put in place- which is essentially a constitution. Moreover, the question of a male heir was a huge conflict within the Romanov household, as Alexandra, the tsarina, did give birth to a boy but he was ill for his whole life. With the weak foundation of the monarchy, a desperate mother let a suspicious man in to the court in order to save her son.



Tolstoy’s Pacifist Philosophies

Our placement of Leo Tolstoy will rely heavily on a section of his 1884 book, What I Believe, in which Tolstoy outlined his personal interpretation of Christian theology.
Was Leo Tolstoy an absolute pacifist or a contingent pacifist? Without a doubt, Leo Tolstoy was an absolute pacifist. Take this quote from What I Believe, “The whole organization of our lives, the complicated mechanism of our institutions, whose sole object is violence, are but proofs of the degree to which violence is repugnant to human nature. No judge will ever undertake to strangle with his own hands the man whom he has condemned to death… Not a single general, not a single soldier, would kill hundreds of Turks or Germans, and devastate their villages – no, not one of them would consent to wound a single man, were it not in war, and in obedience to discipline and the oath of allegiance.” Within this quote, Leo Tolstoy laid out the insincerity of society’s violence and how society tricks individuals to go against their own nature and conduct destructive acts against others. Tolstoy pointed out that all violence is against human nature, thus placing him into the camp of absolute pacifism.
Would have Leo Tolstoy been a maximal pacifist or a minimal pacifist? Once again Tolstoy would have sided with the extreme form of pacifism, maximal. And again What I Believe offers proof of Tolstoy’s maximal ideals, “Who will deny that it is repugnant and harrowing to a man’s feelings to torture or kill, not only a man, but also even a dog, a hen, or a calf? I have known men, living by agricultural labor, who have ceased entirely to eat meat only because they had to kill their own cattle. And yet our lives are so organized that for one individual to obtain any advantage in life another must suffer, which is against human nature.” Not only did Tolstoy reject all violence onto other humans, he also rejected violence against animals as well. Tolstoy would have supported the maximal approach to pacifism.



The Sixth World Festival (1957) by Liam Sullivan and Chase Weiland

The Iron Curtain developed through 40 years of harsh communist leadership. It blocked the world from viewing what was happening during Stalin’s reign. The 6th world festival for youth and students was an opportunity for eyes around the world to view not only Russia but how a communist nation could function. This short broadcast gives a thorough overview of the festival and its historical significance in Russian and World history. This report is based on primary and secondary sources as well as the information provided by Russian Historian, Natasha Comerford.


British Pathe. “Closing Of The Sixth World Youth Festival (1957)” YouTube video, 3:12. April 13, 2014.

Cash, Tony. “Moscow Summer Nights: Impressions of the 1957 International Youth Festival.” East-West Review: Journal of Great Britain-Russia 14, no 1 (2015): 13-16.

Egorov, Boris. “How the Soviet Union Discovered Jeans and Rock-n-Roll.” Russia Beyond, 28 July 2019, Editors. “Nikita Khrushchev.” A&E Television Networks, November 9, 2009.

Ilic, Melanie, and Jeremy Smith. Soviet State and Society Under Nikita Khrushchev. Routledge, 2009.

Jeffery-Wall, Rowan. “Cracks in the Curtain: The 1957 Moscow Youth Festival.” Explorations in History, 9 May 2018,

Ludolph, Emily. “How Folk Rock Helped Crack the Iron Curtain.” The Week – All You Need to   Know About Everything That Matters, The Week, 4 Nov. 2017,
Our Video:

Soviet Rock and Roll

By Erik Blasic, Lauren Griswold, and Kate Sullivan

Imported from the West and combined with traditional folk and bard music, Soviet Rock and Roll demonstrates the emergence of a new generation that infused foreign with long-established artistry. The Iron Curtain and censorship attempted to keep any form of rock music out of the Soviet Union because Soviet officials feared the ability of rock to unravel communist ideals through its energy and messages embedded in its lyrics. These fears were unfounded in actual practice, but officials were still worried and wanted to protect their carefully produced propaganda machine. Soviet Rock and Roll was started through people listening to western rock and roll from records that were smuggled over or radio stations that were broadcast over the political barrier which illustrates how technology really helped Soviets to listen to rock and roll. To copy these records, people would imprint the recordings on used x-rays and share them around. Small rock and roll communities emerged, and Soviet artists began to experiment for themselves with producing their own music. These artists could not gain as much as a following as their Western counterparts because they had to stay underground, yet their music still carried messages of change. In our project, we wanted to present different bands and the reactions of “judges” to the music, lyrics, and “tusovka.”


Important Announcements for Going Online!

  • Every week, you must respond to two lessons. Check the Plague Syllabus for details! Remember that your posts are due each week by Friday at 5pm.
  • I will post all my videos on this blog with the title, category, and tag “Vanguard Video.”
  • You do not need to respond to all of the questions I ask! You can focus on the one that interests you most.
  • You can rent an eBook version of David Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform for free! Go to . Scroll down and click on “Access Free eBooks.” Then use the search bar to find the book.
  • As you start working on your final papers, remember to read carefully through the HIS 315 Writing Handout and other resources, which you can find here.

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Week 8, Day 2: The Revolutionary Idea of Human Rights

Dear Comrades, here is my first video for you! Please watch it and/or read the transcript below. You can turn on closed captioning with the video, but it is auto-generated and not entirely accurate. Remember to respond with your own posts by Friday at 5pm!

Transcript of the Video
Hello, Revolutionaries! Welcome to the online version of this course. Today’s teaching assistant is Dante. He will not be involved in grading, so don’t worry about how evil he looks.

Let’s start with a few announcements. Fist, remember that your posts are due by Friday at 5pm. This week, you should watch all of you colleagues’ Midterm Media Project videos and post a response to two of them. You should also post a response to this video OR make your own new post.

Second announcement: If you do not have your copy of David Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, you can rent the eBook version for free! Go to . Scroll down and click on “Access Free eBooks.” Then use the search bar to find the book.

In this video, I’m going to give you some context and discussion questions for Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir Thaw Generation.

This memoir gives us insight into the Soviet dissident movement, which began in the late 1950s and ultimately became the Soviet human rights movement. The members of this movement, like Alexeyeva, were born at the very end of the Stalin era and became adults in the context of De-Stalinization and Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” which we read at the end of Unit I. I’d like you to think about how that context shaped their thinking about what they wanted Soviet society to be like.

Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1953-1964. There are some important aspects of the Khrushchev Era that will help us place this memoir in context.

The Soviet economy experienced a major postwar boom in this era. At the same time, economic planners gave more priority to the production of consumer goods and housing. For Soviet citizens, this was a time of plenty. They felt like the Soviet experiment was finally working for everybody.

As part of de-Stalinization, Soviet society also became much more open. The fear and mutual suspicion of the Stalin Era faded, and citizens felt a greater sense of freedom in their personal lives. The postwar generation that reached adulthood in this era turned out to be less interested in politics than their parents. They wanted to hang out, play sports, go dancing, and just generally have fun.

This generation was also very interested in the West. They had a lot more information about the West than the older generation had had at their age, which came from a variety of sources. After the invention of short wave radios, Soviet citizens could tune into Western broadcasts like Radio Free Europe and the BBC World Service. Now that the Soviet Union had regular relations with other counties, some became friends with the children of Western diplomats. Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany regularly brought magazines, records, and clothing from the West, which they sold at informal markets. And of course, many Westerners attended the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow, which you will have learned about from Chase and Liam’s Midterm Project.

The dissident movement developed in this context. As you read in Alexeyeva’s memoir, it started simply with like-minded friends hanging out at each other’s apartments. They were politicized by a series of events that took place in Soviet literature, as writers began to push against the restrictions placed on them in the 1930s.

The first major event came in 1958, when Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but Khrushchev’s government pressured him into turning it down. As Alexeyeva explains, many Soviet writers had been circulating work that they knew the censors would not allow through a method called samizdat, or self-publishing. Pasternak did a version of this. He sent his manuscript to a contact in Italy, who published it there. The government made him turn down the prize because they did not approve this publication. The dissidents thought this was deeply unfair.

A series of trials in the 1960s had an even more radicalizing effect on this community. Between 1964 and 1968, several writers were tried and convicted of “anti-Soviet propaganda” for publishing their work in samizdat or abroad, as Pasternak did. Meanwhile, 1968 was also the year that Czechoslovakia attempted to reform its socialist system along lines different from the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev, who had taken over from Khrushchev in 1964, sent in Warsaw Pact troops to forcibly return Czechoslovakia to the Soviet path. The dissident found this very shocking, as well.

In response to these trials, the dissidents held their first public protest, demanding the state respect its own constitution, which you read about. They were also inspired to begin publishing a samizdat journal, The Chronicle of Current Events, to publicize the government’s abuses of power. Finally, they founded the Initiative Group in Defense of Human right in the USSR to try to put pressure on the government to stop such abuses by bringing them to the attention of the wider world.

International human rights law was essential for the dissidents’ activities. They based their activities on the claim that the Soviet government had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created by the United Nations in 1948. In the 1970s, they got an important boost form the Helsinki Accords, an agreement signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, and other European countries that included a provision allowing citizens of all countries to monitor their government’s compliance with international human rights law. This was the basis of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, of which Alexeyeva was a founding member.

As you read, dissidents like Alexeyeva faced major consequences for their activities. They lost their jobs, some went to prison or were declared insane and put in psychiatric institutions, and eventually many were forced to leave the Soviet Union, as Alexeyeva was in 1977. But Alexeyeva returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and kept fighting for human rights until her death in 2018. In reading her memoir, I encourage you to think about how her experiences shaped her, and why she made the decisions that she did along the way.

Now, I’d like to give you some discussion questions as food for thought. Remember, you can respond to my questions or pose your own comments and questions on the blog.

Discussion Questions
1. The kompaniya: On pp.83-84, Alexeyeva’s describes the kompaniya as being not political. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think they were political, in their own way? Was it possible in the context of the Soviet  Union, for any group of people to be apolitical? Do you think that people who “don’t fit in” will always find each other, in any society?

2. Samizdat: Looking at Alexeyeva’s description of samizdat on pp.97-100, how do you make sense of the types of things that were published this way? How can we categorize them? How does his literature relate to Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, which was also banned?

Samizdat also takes a lot of work to produce. Why do you think it was worth it to them to go to all this trouble? How would it change your relationship to a piece of literature if you type it out yourself, rather than just reading it?

3. The Constitution Day Protest: I’d like you to analyze the first Constitution Day Protest in 1966, which is held in response to the trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel. The protest only lasted five seconds. Do you consider it to be a success or a failure?

In the invitation, which Alexeyeva reproduces on p.120, Alek Esenin-Volpin demands that everyone chant only one slogan and maintain decorum. Why are these things so important for this particular protest? Is he right to try to control it so closely?

4. Petitions: On pp.167-169, Alexeyeva describes how the dissidents turn to petitioning as a way to protest the trial of Ginzburg and Galanskov in 1968. Why is she so nervous the first time she signs a petition? What makes this different from other forms of protest? Can you relate to her feelings, given that we are all asked to sign online petitions these days?

Ultimately, Alexeyeva signs, but many of her friends do not. Can you analyze their reasoning? Who do you support on this question, the signers or the non-signers?

5. The Chronicle of Current Events: The story of the Chronicle of Current Events really starts with Siniavsky and Daniel being sent to prison. Many people in Moscow offer help, and in the prison camps, they learn many prisoners’ stories they want to publicize. Why do you think they choose Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as their epigraph? What does it symbolize?

6. Publicity: The dissidents, who have now become human rights activists, make sure every issue of the Chronicle reaches the foreign press. And once they start the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, they use a similar tactic of publicizing their findings. Why is this so important? What does international publicity help them accomplish that they couldn’t do internally? How does this help them survive as a group?

7. The Moscow Helsinki Watch Group was forced out of existence by the Soviet government in 1982. Analyze their legacy and the legacy the Soviet dissident movement over the 25 or so years of their existence?

That’s all for now! I’m looking forward to your responses and new posts!