Egypt and Mesopotamia (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.1)

For most of the time we have existed humans have been nomads. Nomads are people who move around from place to place rather than building cities, towns, and farms in one area and settling there permanently. These nomads would follow the animals and search out the plants they used for food. Around 12,000 years ago, however, people began to plant gardens and farms of their own. They probably got the idea by watching nature very closely and trying to imitate the way that wild animals and plants live and grow. About 5000 years ago these groups of people who had settled into one place began to form the first civilizations. Most of these civilizations formed around rivers. Rivers provided a source of drinking water for people as well as the plants and animals they raised. Early civilizations also used the water of these rivers for transportation. Travel over land was very difficult before cars and roads, especially when that land might involve things like deserts and mountains. In China, civilization began along the Yellow River. In India, the members of the earliest civilization built their cities along the Indus River. In Egypt, the first cities were built along the Nile. In Mesopotamia, a place whose name means “land between two rivers,” the people built their cities in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

All of these civilizations started at almost the same time. Egypt and Mesopotamia, though, are the ones that are most important to us. These are the places that Western Civilization began.  Both of these places are located in the region that we now refer to as the Middle East. It was here that some of the basic ideas of Western Civilization first developed. Among the ideas that began in the Middle East nearly 5000 years ago are the ideas of immortality, writing, law, and the city-state. Each of these ideas has been important to the history of Western Civilization and each of them is still important today.

The Egyptians are probably most famous for their pyramids. The pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs, the kings of ancient Egypt. Inside of each of them was placed the mummified body of a pharaoh. Their internal organs had been carefully removed, their bodies wrapped in bandages, and special prayers and spells said over their bodies. The coffins of these kings were often decorated with expensive gold and jewels. The walls of the tomb were painted with scenes of parties, fishing and hunting, and feasts with tables full of foods and drinks. These structures are sometimes very large and have lasted a very long time. While the pyramids themselves are both important and interesting it is the idea they represent that makes them especially important. These giant tombs were built because the Egyptians believed in immortality, the idea that people continue to be alive even after the death of their bodies.

This idea of immortality had a big effect on the way people thought about themselves and other humans. The Egyptians believed that a person’s place in the afterlife, the life you live after you have died, would be determined by how they behaved while they were living this life. After death, the god Osiris, who ruled the world of the dead, judged each person by weighing their heart. If it was heavy with sin and evil, the person would be eaten by a creature that was a combination of a crocodile, a lion, and a hippopotamus, three animals that were especially feared by the Egyptians. If his heart was not weighed down with sin, the person would be allowed to enter into the kingdom of the gods and enjoy all of eternity in paradise. With this judgment after death in mind, Egyptians were encouraged by their beliefs to live moral lives.

We would not know about the Egyptian idea of immortality, however, if they had not developed another very important idea, the idea of writing. The Egyptians were able to write books about their views of life and death because they had developed a writing system. The Egyptian writing system, called hieroglyphics, consisted of a set of small, simple pictures that represented words and sounds. The Egyptian word for “bird,” for example, was represented by a small picture of a bird. The Egyptians developed their own unique and complex writing system, but they were not the first ones to develop the idea of writing. They learned about the idea from the people of Mesopotamia.

The first writing system was developed by the people of Mesopotamia shortly before 3000 BC. The idea probably developed because they needed to remember things that were too difficult for the human mind to remember on its own. The earliest written texts include lists of items a person has sold or bought, myths and other stories, and religious rituals and prayers. These are all things that it would be very important to remember but that it might be difficult for people to remember if they rely only on their mind. A person who sells things, for example, needs to keep track of what he has in stock and how much he wants to charge for it. A priest has to remember the rituals and prayers he is supposed to say in the temple. And the entire community wants to be able to tell the stories of their gods and heroes in their myths.

Another important use for writing was making sure that everyone knew the rules. Even today we use writing on speed limit signs and stop signs to make sure everyone knows the rules for using a road. One Mesopotamian king, Hammurabi, used writing for exactly this purpose. Early on, the Mesopotamians had been divided up into several city-states. Although they shared a common culture, including a similar language, religion, and way of life, they did not have one king over all of them. Instead, each city-state had its own king who ruled over it.

In about 1792 BC, however, Hammurabi became the king of Babylon, one of these Mesopotamian city-states. He then led the warriors of Babylon in a conquest of all of Mesopotamia. When the city-states of Mesopotamia had ruled themselves, each had its own code of laws. Now that Hammurabi was in charge of all of the cities of Mesopotamia, he decided that all of the cities would have the same laws because they were all part of one empire. In 1772 BC, Hammurabi wrote his code of laws, called the Code of Hammurabi, and had it written on large stone tablets he placed throughout the conquered cities. By doing this Hammurabi used writing to make sure that everyone in Mesopotamia knew he was their king and these were the laws they had to follow.

The importance of law is another idea that comes to us from Mesopotamia. For the people of Mesopotamia, laws were very important. They believed that having a set of laws that everyone followed made it possible for society to work well. Imagine trying to play basketball with a group of people who do not know the rules. They would all be double-dribbling, traveling, and fouling while you were trying to play the game; it would be chaos! That is the way Mesopotamians thought about laws. If there are no laws or if people do not follow the laws then society will be chaos and nothing will get done.

All of these ideas that began in Egypt and Mesopotamia 5000 years ago had a big effect on later developments in Western Civilization, as we will see when we move on to later times. All of them are still important to us today as well. The idea of immortality, which began in Egypt, is still the belief of most people in the United States today. The idea of writing is the reason why you are able to read this right now! The ideas of the city-state and of law eventually led to our ideas of government and liberty and had a big effect on the development of our laws today. As we continue, we will see the way that the ideas of Egypt and Mesopotamia acted as the seeds for our civilization.


Review Questions

1. List and define all four of the ideas we get from Egypt and Mesopotamia which are discussed in this chapter.

2. Choose one of those ideas and write a paragraph about some ways it is important to us today.


Vocabulary Words

City-state – a city that rules itself independent of any outside power

Hieroglyphics – a writing system in which words and sounds are represented by small, simple pictures

Immortality – the idea that life continues after the death of the body

Mesopotamia – an ancient Greek word meaning “land between two rivers” that refers to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq

Writing History (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.4)

As has already been mentioned, writing is perhaps the most important aspect of being a historian. It is through writing that historians are able to share their ideas with others. For this reason, the historian must be able to communicate clearly and in a way that makes people want to listen to his story. If a historian does not have both of these abilities, all of the detective work he put into gathering and analyzing the clues will have been for nothing.

To write well one must first have a good grasp of the basics of writing. First and foremost among these are, of course, spelling and grammar. Someone who frequently misspells words, especially words that are very common or that are important to the topic he is writing about, is not someone that people want to read. Similarly, people do not want to listen to someone who cannot speak or write with correct grammar. Both of these are fundamental, which means basic but important, aspects of writing well.

Another of these basic aspects of writing well is having a large and growing vocabulary. Words are the way human beings express their thoughts and desires. Without words we would not be able to do things either great or small, from something as simple as asking for a glass of water to something as big as discussing the meaning of life. The more words you know, then, the more thoughts you can have. The less words you know, the less thoughts you are capable of having. Being able to find the right word for the right situation is an important part of writing well.

Mastering all of these basics of writing, including spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, applies to writing well on any topic, whether that topic is history or science, mathematics, literature, or your favorite sport. In addition to these basics, there are writing skills that apply specifically to history as well.

Because the historian is both a detective and a storyteller, he has to find a balance between these two roles. The historian has to be able to tell a story that is both interesting and informative. The historian has to be able to educate as well as entertain. Nobody wants to read a dry list of dates and names. At the same time, a historian must not be so interested in telling a good story that he forgets the facts and starts to write fiction instead. An example will help us understand the sort of writing we want to avoid. We will then look at an example that strikes a perfect balance between entertainment and education.

First, here is a short sentence describing an event from history:

Charlemagne was crowed Roman emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day of 800.

While this works as an entry on a timeline, a tool a historian uses to keep track of when events happened, this would make a terrible paragraph in a book or an essay. Imagine if learning history was just reading a bunch of paragraphs like this one!

Now, here is the description of the same event given by a historian:

Charlemagne lingered in [Rome] until Christmas Day. He went to morning mass, knelt for prayers, and as he began to get to his feet, [Pope] Leo III came forward and put a gold crown on his head. The crowd, which had been coached, cheered: “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus, the great, peace-loving Emperor, crowned by God!” He had been crowned imperator et augustus, two titles that belonged to the emperor of Rome…1

Notice that instead of just listing the facts Bauer has given us a narrative, or story, of the event. She has also provided us with details about where the crowning took place, which pope crowned Charlemagne, and the reaction of the people present. We get a better idea of what happened from reading this narrative and it keeps our attention. You should also notice that Bauer does not give her own opinion about whether what Pope Leo did was right or wrong. This is called impartiality. Being impartial means not picking sides in a fight. Although we are allowed to have opinions, historians should be as impartial as possible when presenting their stories. We should try to be as fair as we can to the people we are writing about and present the truth to the best of our ability.

Good writing in any subject is writing that includes correct spelling and grammar. Good writing also demonstrates a large vocabulary and the use of thinking skills by the writer. In history, this means doing the research well and presenting our research in a way that is both interesting and informative. It also means keeping an open mind and avoiding being unfair to the people we are writing about. In short, good writing is writing that effectively communicates well thought out ideas. This is the sort of writing we should strive to produce when we write about history.


Review Questions

 1. In a paragraph, identify some of the qualities of good writing. Use your own words.

2. Now, write another paragraph identifying some of the aspects of good writing that are especially important in history. Use your own words.



1 Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 393.

A Historian’s Job (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.2)

As you might have guessed already, a historian has a very big job. You learned in our previous reading that a historian is someone whose job it is to preserve our heritage and help us remember and understand our past. That is what Herodotus, the first historian, did when he wrote his book. It is what historians still do today. You might also recall from our previous reading that remembering our past can help us make good choices about our future. You might be interested to know that many of our presidents were professional historians, including:

• Theodore Roosevelt
• Woodrow Wilson
• Franklin D. Roosevelt
• John F. Kennedy
• Richard Nixon
• George W. Bush
• Dwight D. Eisenhower

Even those presidents who were not historians were very interested in history. They knew that history contained information that would help them make important decisions about our country. Thomas Jefferson, for example, collected a huge library of books – more than 6000 of them! – and many of these books were about history.

A historian’s job is very important and every time you step into your history classroom you become a historian. We want to do this important job well. Future decisions can depend on what we say about the past. So how do we do it?

In order to be a historian, you have to be part-detective and part-storyteller. You have to be able to piece together clues in order to figure out what might have happened. Once you piece these clues together, you then have to be able to present your ideas about what happened in a way that makes sense and that other people will want to listen to. In other words, you have to be able to tell a good story.

The clues that a historian has to work with include things that archaeologists discover, such as pottery and art. Sometimes these archaeological discoveries are easy to understand. If we find a sword, for example, we can usually be pretty sure this was used as a weapon. Other objects we find, however, might be more difficult to understand. Imagine being a historian in the year 3000. In your time people clean their teeth by using a laser they point into their mouths. Now imagine an archaeologist finds a house from 2014 and discovers a set of toothbrushes. It is your job to figure out what these were used for. You have never used a toothbrush before and do not know anyone who knows how to use it. This might be difficult. Some archaeological discoveries are like this.

A historian’s clues also include maps and the things other historians have written about our subject. The most important clues we use are the descriptions of events we read about in some very old books. You might have seen a detective show in which the detective interviews witnesses in order to find out what happened. A historian’s witnesses might be people who lived thousands of years ago, but we can still interview them! We interview them by reading the books they wrote in a very close and careful way. Sometimes witnesses misunderstand what they saw or even lie about it. We have to be able to compare different witnesses and use our thinking abilities to figure out who is telling the truth. When we do this, we are, in our own way, interrogating the witnesses, even if our witnesses are texts written by people who died a very long time ago.

There are three kinds of texts a historian uses and they are classified by how far they are from the original event we are studying. A primary source is a text that is very close to the original event. In order to be considered a primary source, a text has to have been written by either a witness or someone very close to a witness. For example, if you wrote about a Fourth of July parade you watched you would be writing a primary source. A secondary source is a text that is written by a historian about the primary sources. If a group of your friends went to the Fourth of July parade and each wrote about, then you took what your friends wrote and told your own version of what happened during the parade, you would be writing a secondary source. A tertiary source is what someone writes when they write about what the secondary sources say. Most dictionaries and encyclopedias are considered tertiary sources. They are just summaries of what historians say about something from history.

Bringing together all of the clues and the testimony of the witnesses can be quite a job. What do you do, for example, when there are only two witnesses and they disagree with each other about what happened? What if you find some archaeological evidence that shows that neither one of them is telling the truth? These are the sorts of problems historians have to solve. And this is just the first step in the job of a historian.

Once a historian puts the clues together he has to tell the story. In order to do this a historian has to be someone who writes very well. The ability to write well might be the most important quality of a historian. This means a historian has to have the ability to think and communicate clearly using correct spelling and grammar. A historian also has to make sure he is telling the truth and not just repeating gossip or telling tall tales.

As you can see, being a historian is a job that requires some hard work and a great deal of thought. Historians have to be able to play different roles, being a detective and then switching to become a storyteller, and they have to be able to fill both roles very well. This is the challenge we will take up over the course of your history class.

Review Questions

1. Given what you have already learned about history, why do you think learning about history has been so important to leaders such as the presidents named here?

2. In your own words, explain what primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are.

3. In your own words, explain why a historian has to be both a good detective and a good storyteller.

The Character of Bartleby

In his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville presents the reader with a main character, Bartleby, who is simultaneously bizarre and relatable. The character of Bartleby was perhaps designed by Melville to in some ways represent Melville himself and his reception by the literary critics and reading public of his own day. No matter how personal the character may have been to Melville, Bartleby is also a character with a nearly universal appeal. Even while remaining somewhat perplexing throughout the story, Bartleby is a character to whom, in his rejection of the stifling social expectations of the modern world, many modern readers must feel a certain attraction. Though the reader never enters directly into the mind of Bartleby himself, and so Bartleby in one sense remains disconnected from the reader, the reader is nonetheless led by the growing sympathy of the narrator, an employer of Bartleby who becomes nearly obsessed with the man, to develop a close identification with Bartleby as a symbol.

One of the most remarkable features of the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is that Bartleby is, in a sense, a minor character in his own story. Although the story is named after and ostensibly revolves around Bartleby, Bartleby says and does remarkably little in the story. This scarcity of deed and word, of course, is what makes Bartleby important. He stands out precisely because of his destitution of action and language. What makes him noteworthy is that he refuses to interact with others in the usual way, to follow the customs and conventions dictated by mainstream society with its social demands and cultural norms and mores. The phrase Bartleby repeats with the greatest frequency is the simple statement, “I would prefer not to,” his answer to nearly every request or question posed to him (Melville 304). Bartleby, though, makes very little fuss about his preferences. Typically, he informs his interlocutor of what he prefers and exits the scene, refusing to argue the matter even when directly confronted. It is, in fact, the narrator of the story who makes the most ado about the word “prefer,” detailing how others around Bartleby, including the narrator himself, had acquired the unconscious habit of frequently using the word.

This is the way that Bartleby is experienced throughout the story. The narrator leads the reader through his own experiences of Bartleby, bringing the reader to feel the same successive puzzlement, sympathy, irritation, revulsion, and, finally, a kind of identification with Bartleby which the narrator experiences and details. In this way, Bartleby remains a figure of mystery to the reader, a symbol rather than a person. Had Melville chosen to tell his story from the perspective of Bartleby, whether in the first person as Bartleby himself or in the third person as a disembodied voice with omniscient access to the feelings, motives, and thoughts of even Bartleby, Bartleby would have become a person and lost the ability to function as a symbol for the reader. As it is, the reader interacts with Bartleby as another person would interact with Bartleby, allowing Bartleby to maintain his autonomy and independence. Ironically, it is easier to identify with and experience empathy for a distant and mysterious figure than for one whose most intimate and personal feelings and thoughts are made evident.

With this in mind, I think Melville would have done better to end his story with the death of Bartleby rather than continuing, as he does, to conclude with a postscript in which the narrator reports some rumor he had heard which apparently explains Bartleby’s motivations. By adding this postscript, Melville made the character of Bartleby, hitherto a pathetic figure in the sense of that word which indicates a figure that arouses pity or empathy into a pathetic figure in the negative sense of the word. In other words, he is not someone with some special insight into the human condition who has triumphed over the pettiness of the everyday but he seems instead to be a pitiful depressive nihilist who is unable to cope with the facts of life. It is noteworthy here, however, that this seeming insight into the psychology of Bartleby is only, as the narrator explicitly states, “one little item of rumor” and a “vague report” by an unnamed third party (Melville 321). Even at the close of the story and in the moment of greatest revelation about the character of Bartleby, the reader is not given insight into Bartleby the man but instead is led through another’s perspective on Bartleby to further regard Bartleby the symbol.

The saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” is a very old one with which Herman Melville was probably familiar. He certainly applied the wisdom of this aphorism in composing his story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Rather than allowing the reader to get close to Bartleby through a first person narration or some other direct means of contact with the person of Bartleby, the reader is kept close enough to Bartleby to develop some notions about him but distant enough to never gain a comprehensive familiarity with him. In experiencing the words and deeds of Bartleby through the observations of the narrator, and in allowing that narrator to play a great role in digesting and interpreting those words and deeds, Bartleby is a character who becomes a symbol with which the reader identifies rather than person with whom the reader interacts.

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 296-321. Print.


Social Life in an Unsocial Environment

The concentration camps of Nazi Germany were, arguably, societies that were as far from normal, natural social situations as a society can get and still retain the name. Disparate individuals and groups of people were forced together into a situation in which they felt they had to vie with one another for their very survival. As in any human society, a system of complex social arrangements and customs, never clearly discernible or intelligible by outsiders, arose as a means by which communication and cooperation between the society’s members could be facilitated. Because of the extraordinary circumstances of these particular kinds of societies, however, the social system within the concentration camps developed unique features which often appear to be a kind of caricature of a healthy human society. In his essay “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates’ struggle for survival,” Falk Pingel traces some of the features of society within the concentration camps, including both the developments natural and universal to human societies and the degenerative aspects unique to the concentration camps.1His overview of concentration camp society includes a discussion of the hierarchies of power that developed within the camps, the social divisions within concentration camp societies, and unique features of concentration camp language and interaction between prisoners.

Power hierarchies within the concentration camps largely relied upon the reason for which inmates had been interned in the first place and the order in which they had been interned. Communists, for instance, were among the first to be placed into the concentration camps, which, according to Pingel, “probably explains why, in later years, communists were often successful in gaining positions of ‘power’ within the system.”2The Communists also, like other political prisoners who were interned later, were able to create a sub-group for themselves and to draw upon their past to exercise the kind of political resistance they had practiced previous to their time in the concentration camp. In addition, if an inmate from among their particular political faction was chosen for a position of responsibility by the camp authorities, he could use his position to benefit the other members of his group. This created an environment of solidarity among members of their political faction and a means by which to ensure survival of the individual via the group. In this way, social affiliations and obligations which one had developed before the camp continued into the camp and could grant one an advantage in the conditions of the concentration camp.

The political situation outside of the camp also influenced relationships in the camp in other ways. The eugenics agenda of the Nazis, for instance, influenced where certain groups of prisoners were placed within the camp system and how these groups were treated both by the authorities and by fellow prisoners. Jews, for example, “were individually targeted and often segregated from the other inmates.”3Social taboos that had been present on the outside also continued to influence interaction and treatment on the inside. Homosexuals, for instance, who were forced by the camp authorities to identify themselves with a pink badge on their uniform, were treated as social outcasts by their fellow inmates and kept from entering the mainstream of camp society. What might have been mere disapproval and avoidance outside of the concentration camps, however, could spell certain death within.

The position and activities of those who were able to gain some measure of power within the camps is also demonstrative of the simultaneous adoption of natural social relations and institutions coupled with the perversions of these social features that were unique to the concentration camps. Camp functionaries selected by the Nazi authorities for positions in inmate leadership or in administrative positions were able to enjoy special privileges which resulted from their closer proximity to the guards, such as a lower chance of being selected for extermination or transfer to another camp and the ability to secure certain benefits through bribery. They also were able to exercise authority over their fellow inmates, “including through intimidation and violence through their superior position.”4The unnatural and impoverished circumstances of the concentration camp also led to egregious abuses of this power. Some of these functionaries, for instance, “used their position to demand sexual favours from their fellow prisoners.”5Whether through bribery or intimidation, camp functionaries often used their powers to secure a variety of comforts and even indulgences for themselves in the camps.

In addition to the social hierarchies and divisions that developed within the camp, a further notable feature of camp social life as outlined by Pingel is the unique linguistic pattern that emerged among inmates. Concentration camp language was characterized by a certain terseness and forcefulness, limited largely to “short, sharp commands and responses.”6Pingel describes this use of language in the concentration camp as “primitive.”7Much as the social hierarchies in the camp devolved to the point of merely attaining personal privilege through dominance rather than the affective use of power to achieve social cohesion, the use of language also reflects a degraded form of social relations. Pingel, in fact, identifies the two institutions and their mutual devolution to a primal stage, claiming that “camp language reflects the hierarchy of power and social life within the camp itself.”8

As the language of the Nazi camp authorities was German, German necessarily became the lingua franca of the concentration camp system. For the many prisoners of other nationalities, this posed a particular challenge as they found themselves excluded from the positions of authority through which they could benefit themselves and their fellow countrymen. The Babel-like nature of the concentration camps also led in a large degree to the terseness of the German spoken in them. All that was required and often all that was possible was learning to comply with and respond to basic orders and commands. This limited use of language fostered a limited purview of concern. The prisoners were prevented by their linguistic differences from developing social relationships more complex than what was required for mere survival. In this way, the language of the concentration camps served to reinforce the rigid hierarchies and social divisions as well as the corrupted use of power which marked camp life.

The inmates of the concentration camps were almost entirely ordinary people forced into extremely extraordinary circumstances. The breakdown of normal social relations among these inmates provides insight into the nature of human societies in general. The prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps were forced into a situation in which they saw themselves as competing against other prisoners, many of whom they would not have associated with outside of the camps, for any comfort or convenience they desired and often even for their own survival. In addition, the Nazi ideology of eugenics and extermination suffused the atmosphere of the camps. Any acquisition of any measure of power was seen as an opportunity to secure personal safety and succor for one’s compatriots, a group that never consisted of all of one’s fellow inmates in general but only of those with whom one might have had an relationship previous to or outside of the camp system. Normal social cohesion was further impeded by the multiplicity of languages within the camps and the terseness of language that camp life necessitated. As a result, a spirit of corruption, suspicion, despondency, and division permeated the fabricated society of the concentration camp. Reduced to a fight for survival, the prisoners’ personal outlooks and social interactions degraded remarkably quickly to a remarkably primitive level.

1 Falk Pingel, “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates’ struggle for survival,” in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, ed. Jane Caplan and Nikolaus Wachsmann (New York, NY: Routledge), 58-81.
2 Ibid., 60.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 61.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 70.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

Soviet Society and Culture 1953-1985

A major aspect of the Bolshevik plan for Russia was to reshape Russian society and culture in the Marxist image. To this end, the Soviet government set about attempting to impose its ideals on the population via the influence of artists, writers, filmmakers, and others. In one sense, they were successful in creating a Communist artistic vision and imposing this upon the intelligentsia and, through the media, upon the rest of the Soviet population. In other more fundamental senses, however, they ultimately failed in their plan. “Indeed,” as historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “it is precisely in social and cultural life that we begin to see signs of the disintegration of the Communist order that would contribute to its collapse.”1

Immediately following the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in late 1917, the Bolsheviks, in accordance with their liberal and progressive ideals, attempted “to nurture a spirit of collectivism and egalitarianism;” to this end, “iconoclasm and imagination were encouraged in the arts and literature.”2 Soviet leaders implemented social policies that contributed to a radical restructuring of Russian society away from agriculture and family life and toward liberation of the individual and even “free love.” The previous period of Russian history under the czars was seen as a period that had stifled intellectual, social, and artistic growth, and had to be overcome. This initial period of relative openness did not last long, however.

As a new generation of Soviet leaders, especially Josef Stalin, began to assume power and the previous generation of radical intellectuals receded into the past, a marked conservatism took hold over Soviet culture. Laws were implemented that restricted the rights of individuals, much of the earlier utopian talk of liberation and equality was repudiated, and greater censorship of the arts was enacted.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, later Soviet leaders attempted to walk the thin line between the oppressive social policies of the Stalin era and an absolute artistic freedom that would lead to open criticism of the government and its policies. In literature, for example, the post-Stalin era saw a remarkable tolerance for controversial themes and even subjects that might reflect badly on the the Soviet Union itself. Even “forbidden themes such as Stalin’s purges and labor camps were briefly allowed,” though eventually banned once again.3

Great limitations were nonetheless kept in place throughout the history of the Soviet Union, even during periods of relative openness. One example is the Soviet reaction to the 1958 novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. While it was received throughout the world as a great work of literature, its publication in the Soviet Union was banned because the book, whose contents span the end of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union, did not reflect a proper Marxist view of history. When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his novel, the Soviet government prevented him from traveling abroad to receive the prize and he was widely criticized in the government-controlled Soviet press.

Another example of the Soviet back-and-forth between openness and repression in literature is the treatment of the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written about the forced labor camps under Stalin, was published with the explicit and personal permission of Nikita Kruschev himself. Kruschev even openly praised Solzhenitsyn and his work, including leading a standing ovation for him at an official state dinner party, in which he happily announced to those gathered, “comrades, Solzhenitsyn is among us.”4 Only three years later, in 1965, however, Solzhenitsyn was banned from ever publishing anything within the Soviet Union again. He continued to write, however, and have his books published abroad, and was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union altogether in 1973.

This kind of vacillating and contradictory approach also marked the Soviet treatment of other aspects of culture. In figurative art, for instance, whereas the Soviet government had once encouraged innovation and expression and officially continued to do so, suppression of the arts was heavy. “In 1962,” for instance, “when Kruschev visited an exhibit of modern art in Moscow,” he proceeded to openly “mock it with crude humor.”5 Later, in 1974, in an even more extreme case of government suppression of the arts, “bulldozers were sent to destroy an informal exhibit in a park outside Moscow.”6

Because of this atmosphere of repression and especially because the Soviet government forbade a wide variety of emotions and thoughts from being expressed, such as any melancholy, pessimism, religious belief, doubt, or irony, the quality of the arts overall in the Soviet Union was very low. Artists, writers, and others believed that the arts in the Soviet Union had been “subordinated to revolutionary purpose and much of the complexity of life deliberately drained out of” them.7 As a result, many Soviet artists and intellectuals began to retreat from the public sphere and create small social circles and cliques “where new poetry or prose was read, art displayed, and ideas discussed.”8 Even among the wider population and especially the youth, counter-cultures began to form that focused on Western trends like rock music, new clothing styles, and sports. Public discourse in the Soviet Union had become so heavily regulated and any dissent or apparent deviation so heavily suppressed that people began turning to new ways to shape and express personal identity apart from the official Soviet doctrine.

It was in these pockets of culture that “dissident movement developed from the late 1960s into the 1980s.”9 Ultimately, this was the backfire of Soviet policy that would contribute significantly to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. The Soviet attempts to suppress freedom of speech, individual identity, and self-expression were, like so many attempts to suppress the human spirit throughout history, doomed to failure from their very inception. In driving differing ideas out of the public sphere, the Soviet government had driven them into the place where they were most dangerous to the continuation of the Soviet Union: into hearts, homes, and other private places where they could no longer be monitored and controlled. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, assumed power in 1985, a significant segment of the Soviet “population had become alienated from the established order in their values, judgments, tastes, and beliefs.”10 This alienation would, in a short time, prove an unstoppable force and would put an end to the Soviet Union and its Marxist experiment.

1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 589.

2 Ibid., 595.

3 Ibid., 609.

4 Niels C. Nielsen, Jr., Solzhenitsyn’s Religion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 9.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 613.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 608.

8 Ibid., 596.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 597.
Nielsen, Jr., Niels C. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.