By Gina M. Peirce Assistant Director, Center for Russian and East European Studies

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Understanding 20th Century Russian History Through Literature: A Workshop for High School Teachers

  • By Gina M. Peirce

  • Assistant Director, Center for Russian and East European Studies

  • University of Pittsburgh

  • Workshop given on October 9, 2006 at

  • Gateway Senior High School, Monroeville, PA,

  • in cooperation with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit


  • Name, School, Subject and Grade Level Taught

  • Why are you interested in 20th century Russian history and literature? How much background do you have in these subjects?

  • What do you hope to learn from this workshop?

Historical Timeline

  • February and October Revolutions, 1917

  • Civil War and war communism, 1918-21

  • New Economic Policy proclaimed under Vladimir Lenin in 1921, officially ended under Josef Stalin in 1929

  • Soviet Union established, 1922

  • Great Terror under Stalin, 1934-38

  • Pact signed with Nazi Germany in 1939; USSR invades and annexes territories on its western border

  • Germany attacks USSR and “Great Patriotic War” begins, 1941

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)

  • Grew up in Moscow, studied philosophy, then began writing poetry in 1914

  • Initially supported Bolshevik Revolution, published several poetry collections and autobiographical stories in 1920s and 30s

  • Disillusioned with Communist ideals after Stalinist terror and purges, feared publishing own work and began publishing translations instead (most famously Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

  • Wrote his masterpiece novel, Doctor Zhivago, in 1946-55

  • Soviet authorities would not allow novel’s publication – first published in Italy in 1957

Boris Pasternak, continued

  • Doctor Zhivago then translated into many languages, but never published in USSR until 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev

  • Pasternak awarded Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, but was threatened with deportation and refused the prize under pressure from Soviet authorities

  • Died shortly after, in 1960

  • 1965 film version of Doctor Zhivago (much simplified from the novel) became blockbuster around the world, but also not shown in USSR until shortly before breakup of Soviet Union

Themes of Doctor Zhivago

  • Story of life of fictional doctor and poet, Yuri Zhivago

  • He and wife Tonia are from affluent families, must struggle for survival (along with most Russians) after 1917 Revolution

  • Accounts of First World War and Russian Civil War through Zhivago’s eyes (serves as doctor in each, though unwillingly in latter case after captured by partisans)

  • Conditions of life in Moscow contrasted with provinces (town of Yuriatin and its environs in Ural Mountain region of Russia)

  • Love affair with Lara Antipova, woman from modest background whose husband leaves her to become a partisan commander in the Civil War

Themes of Doctor Zhivago, continued

  • Much of novel consists of Zhivago’s musings on love, art, history, etc., but also contains many realistic details of Russian life during this turbulent period

  • In Doctor Zhivago, “Everyone is reduced to a primitive, prehistoric level of bare subsistence […] even as they participate in one of the defining historical moments of the twentieth century […] The raw facts of history in Doctor Zhivago are about death and ruin and, indeed, physical and metaphysical homelessness.” (Edith W. Clowes, Doctor Zhivago: A Critical Companion, Northwestern University Press, pgs. 38-39)

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago

  • Chapter 6: Zhivago’s return to his home and family in Moscow in summer 1917 (between the two Russian revolutions), after serving as a doctor for Russian troops in First World War

  • Descriptions of chaotic conditions in Moscow and references to housing crisis/redistribution of space, economic hardships experienced by population as basic goods became scarce (pgs. 166-171)

  • Dinner party for Zhivago’s homecoming, featuring a duck given to him by an eccentric he met on the train returning from the war front:

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued

  • “The large duck was an unheard-of luxury in those already hungry days, but there was no bread with it, and because of this its splendor was somehow pointless – it even got on one’s nerves. The alcohol (a favorite black-market currency) had been brought […] in a medicine bottle with a glass stopper […] But the saddest thing of all was that their party was a kind of betrayal. You could not imagine anyone in the houses across the street eating or drinking in the same way at the same time. Beyond the windows lay silent, dark, hungry Moscow. Its shops were empty, and as for game and vodka, people had even forgotten to think about such things.” (p. 175)

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued

  • Account of Bolshevik Revolution, pgs. 190-195

  • Unusually cold winters characterized by famine, 1917-19, as private enterprise was driven underground and no effective state-controlled distribution system yet established (pgs. 195-199)

  • Civil War and war communism period, barter and black market trade widespread as people tried to survive

  • Zhivago’s family decides to move temporarily from Moscow to his wife’s family’s former estate in the Urals to survive by growing their own food – description of Yaroslavsky train station (p. 210) shows further evidence of social disorder and breakdown of country’s transportation system

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued

  • At end of novel, Zhivago returns to Moscow during NEP period (1922), having been separated from his family and Lara due to civil war and threats of political persecution

  • Description of effects of removing ban on private enterprise (p. 473) and social classes in theoretically classless society

  • Zhivago and his unofficial “third wife” Marina “chopped wood for a good many of the tenants on the different floors. Some of them, particularly speculators who had made fortunes at the beginning of the NEP and artists and scholars who were close to the government, were setting up house on a comfortable scale.” (p. 479)

Excerpts from Doctor Zhivago, continued

  • One more example of housing crisis:

  • “Gordon’s room was part of a curious structure, which had once been the premises of a fashionable tailor […] The premises were now divided into three. By means of floor boards an extra room had been fitted into the space between the lower and the upper levels. It had what was, for a living room, a curious window, about three feet high, starting at floor level and with part of the gold letters remaining.” (p. 480)

  • Many more examples of this type in Zoshchenko’s stories

Mikhail M. Zoshchenko (1894-1958)

  • Grew up in St. Petersburg, studied law

  • Served in First World War

  • Served in Red Army during Russian Civil War

  • Attempted various jobs including postmaster and cobbler (repairing shoes), 1919-22

  • Published first stories in 1922; published in Soviet satirical press starting in 1923 until most satirical publications were shut down around 1930

  • Fell out of favor with Soviet authorities and was subjected to Communist Party harassment from 1946 until his death

Background Information: NEP

  • “New Economic Policy” introduced by Vladimir Lenin in 1921 to recover from economic devastation of Civil War period

  • Permitted some private agriculture, private traders and craftspeople

  • Businesspeople known as “NEPmen” gained reputation for greed and lack of cultural sophistication (somewhat like new moneyed class or “New Russians” in 1990s)

  • NEP accompanied by tolerance of literature by “fellow travelers,” or writers whose works were not openly anti-Soviet but not necessarily favorable toward Soviet system

  • NEP ended in late 1920s after Stalin consolidated power; private enterprise then eliminated

Soviet Cultural Policy During NEP

  • Central Directorate for Matters of Literature and Publishing (“Glavlit”) created 1922, had to approve publication of any printed material

  • Relatively permissive at first, but laid foundation for later, much stricter censorship under Stalin

  • Debate among literary critics throughout 1920s on whether “since the Soviet state had set up the proper legal procedures for uncovering and eradicating social ills, satirical literature was no longer necessary” (Jeremy Hicks, trans., The Galosh and Other Stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko, Angel, pg. 9)

  • Satire remained enormously popular with the public

Zoshchenko and Soviet Satire

  • In 1922-28, seven satirical magazines in Moscow and Petrograd/ Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) had combined print run of over half a million copies

  • Approximately equal to daily circulation of official Communist Party newspaper, Pravda

  • Zoshchenko estimated to have sold 100 million copies of his stories

  • Huge popularity attributed to his simple writing style, use of colloquial language/slang, timely subject matter to which many people could relate

Zoshchenko’s Audience

  • Stories appealed to many Soviet citizens who had just completed basic literacy courses through Bolsheviks’ literacy campaign --illiteracy was widespread in society composed mainly of peasants before Revolution

  • Many people migrated from countryside to major cities after Revolution in search of work, then faced problems similar to those of Zoshchenko’s characters

Themes of Zoshchenko’s Stories

  • Confusion of ordinary Russians over new Marxist political vocabulary – characters often try to use this vocabulary and make humorous mistakes

  • Overcrowding and housing shortage in cities due to rapid influx of people

  • Shortages and poor quality of consumer goods as emphasis was placed on developing heavy industry

  • Widespread theft, bribery and corruption, conflicting with declared ideals of socialist society

  • Bureaucratization of Soviet life

A Favorite Topic: The Communal Apartment

  • To deal with housing shortage, Communist government converted many large apartments into “communal” apartments

  • Several families shared a kitchen and bathroom, with each family having only one room of their own

  • Separate rooms often created by adding thin plywood walls, causing lack of privacy

  • Many conflicts among strangers forced to share such close quarters – a favorite target of satirical literature

Reading and Discussion of Zoshchenko’s Short Stories – Small Groups

  • Group 1: “Crisis” and “Guests”

  • Group 2: “Nervous People” and “Hard Labour”

  • Group 3: “Red Tape” and “Of Lamp-shades”

  • Read and discuss the selected two stories in your small group.

  • Give a brief synopsis of the two stories to the entire group.

  • Comment on what the stories illustrate about Soviet life in the 1920s under NEP.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-)

  • Studied physics and mathematics at Rostov University and completed correspondence course in literature, 1936-41.

  • Served as officer in Soviet military during Great Patriotic War against Germany, 1942-45. Arrested at the front for making critical comments about Stalin in personal correspondence. Sentenced to eight years of hard labor.

  • Confined in prison camps, 1945-53, including a camp in Kazakhstan for political prisoners only in 1950-53. Conditions in this camp would be reflected in his famous story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (continued)

  • Spent three years of exile in Kazakhstan before being permitted to return to European Russia in 1956.

  • After Stalin’s death in 1953, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev begins “de-Stalinization” campaign in 1956 and denounces Stalinist terror. In the context of this cultural “thaw,” Solzhenitsyn is permitted to publish Ivan Denisovich in the Soviet literary journal Novy Mir in 1962 (but it is later banned).

  • After Khrushchev is ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, Solzhenitsyn is prevented from publishing most of his work in the Soviet Union and can publish only abroad.

  • Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature, 1970.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, continued

  • Deported to West Germany, 1974.

  • Moved to Vermont, USA, 1976.

  • Upon collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the 1974 charge of treason against Solzhenitsyn was annulled.

  • Moved back to Russia in 1994.

Background Information: The Soviet Gulag System (from

  • Penal system of forced labor camps operated by the NKVD (secret police)

  • Held political prisoners as well as common criminals

  • Most located in remote areas of Siberia or Central Asia

  • Some camp facilities set up as early as 1918 as extension of labor camps operated in tsarist Russia

  • GULAG (Russian acronym) officially established as a department of the secret police in 1930

  • Major growth of prison camp population through 1930s as prison labor was used for industrialization efforts

The Soviet Gulag System, continued

  • Mass arrests during Great Terror in 1937-38 led to hundreds of thousands being sentenced to long prison terms for “counterrevolutionary activities,” mostly arbitrarily

  • Over 1.5 million people in Gulag system by 1939

  • Gulag population declined during Second World War, as hundreds of thousands of inmates were conscripted into military service

  • Increased again after war, to 2.5 million in early 1950s, including hundreds of thousands of former soldiers accused of treason for such “offenses” as being having been captured by Germans, liberated from concentration camps by Americans, etc.

The Soviet Gulag System, continued

  • Gulag system declined after Stalin’s death in 1953, most camps closed down by end of 1950s

  • GULAG officially dissolved in 1960

  • 18-20 million people were held in Gulag at some point during Stalinist period, with over 1.6 million documented deaths

  • Deaths resulted from disease, malnutrition, overwork and exposure (due to inadequate food, clothing and medical care), and brutal treatment by guards and fellow prisoners

  • Once released, former prisoners were often prohibited from living in major Russian cities or holding a wide range of jobs, so they could not return to former homes and occupations

Background Information on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

  • Solzhenitsyn sought to portray a typical day in the life of an ordinary camp inmate, the peasant Ivan Denisovich Shukhov

  • Wrote in Russian 19th century realist tradition: “The great Russian prose writers of the last century took pride in the way their works addressed and reflected the actual historical, social, or moral conditions of their homeland. Literary achievement was not seen in the ability of a powerful imagination to create a vivid fictional world […] but rather in the writer’s skill in selecting, shaping and ordering the data of reality.” – Alexis Klimoff, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Critical Companion, p. 6

Background Info on One Day…, continued

  • Story takes place in January 1951 at a “Special Camp” for political prisoners in Central Asia

  • Special Camps allowed prisoners to write only two letters home per year, and denied them even token payment for hard labor performed

  • Ivan Denisovich is imprisoned for “treason” after having been briefly captured by Germans during the war (he escaped); many fellow prisoners for similar reasons

  • Story is told from Ivan’s viewpoint as a simple, honest man without strong political beliefs who is mainly concerned about day-to-day survival

Excerpts from One Day…

  • First 12 pages: morning routine, reveille, illness, cold (p. 10: prisoners not made to work outdoors if temperature was under – 41 degrees C, = – 41.8 degrees F! Length of workday mentioned later in book: 11 hours.)

  • “There is no worse moment than when you turn out for work parade in the morning. In the dark, in the freezing cold, with a hungry belly, and the whole day ahead of you. You lose the power of speech. You haven’t the slightest desire to talk to each other.” (p. 28)

Excerpts from One Day… continued

  • “Since he’d been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village – whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and […] great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting. But he knew better now that he’d been inside. He’d learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread […] Dry black bread it was, but like that nothing could be tastier. How much had he eaten in the last eight or nine years? Nothing. And how hard had he worked? Don’t ask.” (p. 50)

Excerpts from One Day… continued

  • “Shukhov […] no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. To begin with, he’d wanted it very much, and counted up every evening how many days he still had to serve. Then he’d got fed up with it. And still later it had gradually dawned on him that people like himself were not allowed to go home but were packed off into exile. And there was no knowing where the living was easier – here or there.” (p. 178)

  • Last line of story: “Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.” (p. 182)


  • Various challenges and opportunities with using these texts as a teaching tool

  • Historical details in Doctor Zhivago are embedded in a very long and complex narrative – assigning entire book could be appropriate for an advanced literature class, but less so for history/social studies

  • Using film version might be helpful to provide students with outline of story, while using excerpts from novel such as those we read to point out realistic historical details that were not emphasized in film

Conclusions, continued

  • Zoshchenko stories are short and easily digestible, but will require some background information to be presented by teacher or through other, factual reading assignments

  • Students could be asked to respond by writing their own humorous short stories about, for example, what they think it would be like to live in a communal apartment

  • Satire “humanizes” Soviet history that is usually presented very seriously; may help students to see beyond ideological conflicts and view Russians as ordinary people with problems they could imagine having

Conclusions, continued

  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a short text (<200 pages) that could easily be assigned in its entirety, with some background information provided by teacher

  • Could be used to provoke broader discussion on authoritarian vs. democratic political systems and justice systems (arbitrary punishment of ordinary people for offenses such as “treason”); can any similar contemporary examples be found?

  • Could also stimulate creative writing assignments focusing on life in prison camps (e.g., imagine that you are spending a day in the Gulag and describe your experiences)

Conclusions, continued

  • Other ideas for how you might use any of these materials in your classroom? Discuss.

  • What kind of follow-up would you like to see from this workshop? For example, a website maintained at Pitt where you could submit ideas or lesson plans you developed on this topic; links to other information resources related to this topic; other?

  • Resources currently offered by Pitt/REES for K-12 educators: resource lending library, school visits program, outreach newsletter, other professional development workshops for all world areas through UCIS

  • Outreach World,


  • Clowes, Edith W., ed. Doctor Zhivago: A Critical Companion. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press/AATSEEL, 1995.

  • Klimoff, Alexis, ed. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Critical Companion. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press/AATSEEL, 1997.

  • Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari. New York: Pantheon, 1958.

  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Trans. H.T. Willetts. New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991.

  • Zoshchenko, Mikhail. The Galosh and Other Stories. Trans. Jeremy Hicks. London: Angel, 2000.

Contact Information

  • Gina Peirce

  • 412-648-2290



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