The Right Coast

August 13, 2004
To Russia with the Teaching Company
By Mike Rappaport

I recently finished a course from the Teaching Company entitled "The History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev." A few years ago, I also listened to another course "The Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of the 20th Century Russia," which mainly involved Soviet History.

The History of Russia course was OK. I would give it a B-. The strength of the course from my perspective was its coverage of Russian history from Peter the Great until the 1917 revolutions. Athough Mark Steinberg, who taught the course, is not an inspiring lecturer, he is clear and he covered what appeared to be the main points. One striking fact is just how socialist and leftist the Russian intellectuals were throughout the 19th century.

The weakness of the course was its coverage of the Communists and Stalin – in particular, Steinberg's lack of moral condemnation of Stalin. First, Steinberg omits several important events, such as the Volga Famine of 1920-1921, which Richard Pipes has called "the greatest human disaster in European history until then, other than those caused by war, since the Black Death." Second, he seems to be both insensitive about and to have a tin ear as to the moral aspects of Soviet Communism. He says things like, while Stalin was conducting the terror, still there was optimism among some of the people for the future. What is it about intellectuals that they treat Stalin in this way. If someone said that, although Hitler was causing a World War and murdering millions, nonetheless there was great excitement among the SS, he would be severely attacked and discredited. Steinberg says pretty much the same about Stalin, and few intellectuals think twice about it.

Nonetheless, other parts of the lectures are interesting. I especially liked the treatment of Gorbachav, who is displayed as someone who pursued his reforms because he was a true believer in Soviet Communism.

It has been a few years since I listened to Gary Hamburg's Course on the Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism, but I don't remember having these problems with it. Overall, I remember it being pretty good.