Soviet history, like few others, has a beginning and an end. Born in a surge of optimism on October 25, 1917, and dissolving in chaos on December 8, 1991, the Soviet experiment gave the world vivid examples of collective endeavor and civic self-destruction. The Bolsheviks seized power in a crumbling empire, split by deep class divisions and ruined by years of war. They empowered the lower classes to govern, integrated ethnic minorities into state power, gave women rights unknown in other countries, and offered universal education and opportunities for self-improvement. These same Bolsheviks and their successors were also responsible for some of the bloodiest state crimes the world has known. They imprisoned political opponents and dissident thinkers, instigated purges and a terror in which millions perished, and exiled entire ethnic groups. Ultimately, the economic machine created by the Bolsheviks, which had allowed the country to grow rapidly into an industrial giant, led to the impoverishment of the Soviet people.
Debates have raged for years over whether the Soviet legacy was best characterized by its successes or its crimes. Was Lenin’s revolution one of history’s great events, later perverted by Stalin; or was the October Revolution, which rejected God, dispossessed large segments of the population, and made the entire people subject to the state, flawed from the moment of inception? Rather than answering the question, we hope with this web site to help students and readers understand the more complicated truth, that at all moments of its history, the Soviet Union offered experiences of great good and great evil. Soviet citizens were forced to understand them as a whole. The object of this web site is to give users a sense of what this total experience was like, using the original words of the participants. We have selected from Soviet history seventeen moments – following the title of a beloved spy series of the seventies – almost at random but not entirely. Some of these events were judged subsequently by history to be important, some less so.
Select a year of interest from the top chronological row, and see what event first presents itself. The pop-up menu will present other events great and insignificant that took place in the same year. Some of these events seem to fit together, some will seem incongruous peers. For each there will be a short essay introducing the subject, and a selection of newsreel clips, songs and audio clips, images and translated texts to give a sense of how contemporaries understood the events. Documents will be available to any user who registers free of charge with a user name and password. The images might be old and smudged, the voices muted and scratchy (earphones should help make these voices legible). Ideally, they will help transport users back to a world that no longer exists, but which still has a tremendous influence on the shape of our world.”